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Revitalising a 'hollowed-out' Church


Australian Catholic Bishops websiteMost Australian Catholic Bishops are in Rome this week for their five yearly joint visit to the Vatican. Most popular reflection on the visit has focused on issues internal to the Catholic Church, such as the dismissal of Bishop Bill Morris, the handling of sexual abuse and the introduction of the new translation of the Mass.

But the conversations involved in the visit will certainly also cover the broader situation of the Catholic Church in Australia and pastoral strategies appropriate to it. The papal emphasis on New Evangelisation, with its emphasis on winning back non-practising Catholics and on commending the Gospel in a secular society may focus this discussion.

It is helpful to set reflection on Catholic pastoral strategy in a larger context. The situation in Australia, as indeed more generally in the West, is not specific to the Australian Catholic Church. It is shared with other mainstream churches. It also characterises other voluntary groups in society, such as political parties and service groups.

Most churches are ageing and diminishing in numbers. They struggle to communicate an understanding of church beliefs to their children or to win them to church allegiance. As a result those with a strong understanding of faith are elderly. Ministers within churches are also fewer and ageing. 

The diminishing number of clergy and of well-grounded church members puts pressure on outreach to needy groups and on the churches'voice in society. The call on resources means that there are fewer ministers available for full time grass roots involvement in hospitals, prisons, schools and so on.

In church organisations involved in these fields, too, it is harder to find young administrators who are both professionally qualified and have hands on experience through the churches. 

This double hollowing out tends to limit churches' engagement with governments on public policy. Church leaders are more likely to see themselves as uninformed. They also face greater demands in caring for the good order and maintenance of their churches. The public voice of the churches becomes muted. 

The goals that the pastoral strategy of any church needs to set itself are to nurture the faith of those who are committed, to pass on faith to the next generation, to attract to the church those who are on its margins and outside, and to commend Christian values in public life.

In reaching these goals, the Catholic Church does face specific challenges. The allegiance of many committed and well-instructed Catholics has been tried by the response to sexual abuse, to the marginalisation of women and to what is seen as high-handed Vatican exercise of authority.

The Catholic Church also gives a high place to priests in leadership of local communities. But at a time when there are few candidates for priesthood, the limitation of future priests to unmarried men makes it difficult to supply that leadership. 

The Australian Catholic Church also has some distinctive resources. It includes a high proportion of migrants whose teenage children often attend church more regularly than those of the Catholic population as a whole. It also has a strong institutional presence in health, social outreach and education with much stored wisdom. 

In similar situations dramatic solutions are always seductive. Savanarola's Florence and Calvin's Geneva represent the attraction of a return to fervent antiquity. So did Mao's Cultural Revolution, with its attempt to rejuvenate the spirit of the Long March by demonising and harrying older Chinese for their laxity, and co-opting the enthusiastic young so they could lead the nation back to the simplicities of the early revolution. Their children, of course, inherited the spoils of their later turn to acquisitiveness. 

More effective strategies will build on the strengths of the Catholic Church. They will include valuing the wisdom and familiarity with the full Catholic tradition of older Catholics, and encouraging them to share their wisdom.

They will also look to nurture leadership within the laity, from whom must come the energy for church renewal and responsibility for commending the Gospel to society. The Catholic educational, spiritual, health and outreach organisations are the natural resource for developing lay leadership. Priests, of course, have a central place in animating lay leadership.

Any strategy will also need to focus on young Catholics, offering them opportunities to grow in their understanding of faith and in spiritual depth. It will also be vital for them to have opportunities to work with marginalised groups, so that future Catholic engagement with society is based in companionship with the poor.

Whatever pastoral strategy is followed, however, it is unlikely to produce quick or dramatic results. The cultural and economic factors that have contributed to their diminishment are not conducive to rapid growth. But they do open a new space for open and committed churches. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Australian Bishops, Rome, Bill Morris, Women priests



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Existing comments

Our Lord, Jesus Christ, founded the Catholic Church for the salvation of souls.

The true Catholic Faith needs to be taught to the young. They must realise they have an immortal soul and that they are destined for Heaven. They need to be taught and know all the Truths and to distinguish between sin, mortal and venial, and to be told the truth of Hell where Our Lord, says many souls go.

Social justice is a by-product of Faith as we need Divine Faith and good works to bring us to Heaven.

Let the young attend a true Traditional Mass and feel the sense of the Sacred and soon, like some young people of today, and they will feel and know the beauty and transcendence and sublimity of a true and vibrant Faith that will lead their immortal souls to Heaven.

Trent | 13 October 2011  

The range of domains listed in this article is quite inclusive and well noted. Yet, one domain missing from this list is that of the family. When I mention this tiny group there emerges the image and action of relationships.

In family we have the sacred space to pass on two great understandings.

First is the human thirst for reconciliation. Second is to share the great wisdom and understanding of the source of this thirst.

As a church we have not been doing this well of late. We have educated our young to think critically and scientifically. Among other processes we have taught well are such capacities as hypothesizing, predicting and comprehending, but when it comes to reconciling, many still wag the finger.

The masses have voted, indicated, proclaimed with their feet. As a faith community, we seem to be divorced from our ritual/liturgy of forgiveness and reconciliation. We are poor teachers of the reparation of harm.
Talk about the last rites, what I think we have done is to hold to a ritual that has issued its last gasp.

When our children are lead through lived example to understand the world shattering power of reconciling, then we can see our species begin to rise like steam from the humus.

Vic O'Callaghan | 13 October 2011  

Another wise comment.An acknowledgement that transmission of Faith is best done in the family context could be a btreakthrough.Could a fraction of resources going to intellectual focus in schools be diverted to young very needy and well intentioned parents? Lip service to 'family' could be replaced with a national system of promotion of outstanding parenting skills.We learn the lesson of love in homes not schools.Where love is, God is.

Margaret Moore | 13 October 2011  

Thanks Andrew. Good reading with clear direction. Somehow I think we are still a Church on the back foot and whipping some parts of a dead horse. The Spirit will always be with God's people but maybe we have blinkered eyes with regard to all the wonder of what is emerging and obvious around us. There is no way the many young, non-church-going people I am in contact with, are not practising. Its about how we still exist in an old wine skin and judge from that angle. We need to ask ourselves what people are practising and note how advanced so much of what they are practising is so advanced, inclusive and values-based compared with what we, at their age were even aware of.

There are wonderful people out there doing wonderful things for God's world. Should we be looking for fresh new/additional sacraments so that they can celebrate the Spirit in their lives without feeling/being told what they are not doing?

Judy Brown | 13 October 2011  

In discourse with young people I would be wary about proceeding upon the basis that "they must realise" anything, Trent. Truth is there to be discovered by those inclined to search but, like horses, young people cannot be made to drink. While I agree with your sentiments about the Mass, it is a bit like good whisky, an acquired taste. The danger is that the uninitiated are put off by their first encounter. I, for one, am not persuaded that a first swimming lesson should start by the learner jumping in unaided at the deep end.

Kim Chen | 13 October 2011  

Jesus did not create the Catholic Church, and certainly not the Roman Catholic one.

He was a Jew, and others created the Christian business empire for their own political, economic and social ends after his demise.

Like many articles here, this is just another stream of consciousness that highlights failures and failings but fails to offer any solutions.

It also makes the church sound more like a social community system, such as the Greens might create to promote their policies, or as the Communists used to here, to promote their political objectives.

Or as remains in the National Party, with far more success.

Perhaps that is all the Roman Catholic church really is, and it is failing because there are too many similar organisations to join to get the same results, or better results if you object to the dogma attached to Catholicism that prevents any recognition of the changing moods in society?

If Cardinal Pell represents all that is 'good' in Christianity and Catholicism here in Australia, then that might be a good starting point for reflecting on the failures of the Church today.

Harry Wilson | 13 October 2011  

It's becoming ever clearer to me that one feature of evangelisation today must be a bigger and broader effort at adult faith education. This needs to be done with the remarkable media available, and in the context of today's scientific world views which are challenging to such traditional doctrines as original sin, understood traditionally as an actual historical sin. both transmitted and inherited.

Brian Gleeson | 13 October 2011  

An interesting perspective highlighting the situation unfolding in Poland, generally regarded as something of a Catholic theocratic state:

Harry Wilson | 13 October 2011  

It is incredible that there are such positions out there as illustrated by Trent's solution to the problems we Christians face. This is the core issue. Without change there is death. John XXIII's Vatican II Pastoral (not, unlike the Council of Trent, Dogmatic) Council has been hijacked by Curial officials since Paul VI's time and accelerated by John Paul II and now Benedict XVI. An organisisation which silences so many of its thinkers, especially those with whom it does not agree, is an organisation on the path to nowhere. That is why the Australian bishops' sojourn in Rome will be no more than these visits always are - a dusting off the deck chairs on the proverbial ship and lots of pious "spin". I am a Catholic, but not a Roman Catholic, and hold that the papacies of JPII and Benedict are in schism. That is why I put my trust in the laity and religious men and women - i.e. the People of the God - NOT the hierarchy who have clearly but regretably betrayed their mission. Instant global communication has now revealed what before was easily hidden - and the Vatican is confounded that its tactics have been so thoroughly laid bare. That said, we will survive, as Christ promised that we will - because we are loved, unconditionally.

Richard Flynn | 13 October 2011  

just a quick note to Trent... faith is all that is needed to bring us to heaven. Good works are a results of faith, and as paul said 'faith without works is dead'... but faith is all that is needed

luke | 13 October 2011  

Here are some comments from Perth Archbishop Hickey reported in The West Australian earlier this month: "the archdiocese will stop conducting legal marriages if it is forced to carry out same-sex unions ..... the ban on sodomy is still there .. we can't bless a relationship with a built in defect in it". "The head of the Catholic Church in Perth also went further, saying he was not certain the Church could bury Catholics who had entered into same-sex marriages" I think those views will be seen by most people as deceitful, hateful and, if anything, opposite to the teachings of Christ. Until that's understood, the Catholic hierarchy will never know why their Church is in decline.

Russell | 13 October 2011  

I understand our life as Catholics, Christians is to attain a mystical union with our God. Such a process comes through an abandonment or letting go process where our dynamics changes from prescriptive rituals to a transforming mysticism where we are conscious of God living in us and we living in God. How can the Church assist this?

Bill | 13 October 2011  

Hollowed-out churches, yes. But not a hollowed-out Church. I see a Church that has overflowed its boundaries and is active wherever people are doing what God wants, often not even aware of it. "When, Lord, did I feed you, clothe you?"

Rose Marie Crowe | 13 October 2011  

Hollowed-out churches, yes. But not a hollowed-out Church. I see a Church that has overflowed its boundaries and is active wherever people are doing what God wants, often not even aware of it. "When, Lord, did I feed you, clothe you?"

Rose Marie Crowe | 13 October 2011  

More on the failing structures, and yet another reason for it, of 'the church', and not just the RC one this time:

As for the WA comments from Hickey it sounds like wilful stupidity rather than thoughtful commentary.

I've never heard any suggestion that 'the state' would require 'the church' to marry gay people but if there were one, then that is yet another reason why religionists should stop opposing the separation of church and state, and start evangelising for it here in Australia.

And this works both ways, there is no reason for 'the church' to inhibit 'the state' from allowing civil gay marriages, and the separation of church and state would prevent that from happening too.

Harry Wilson | 13 October 2011  

My own experience is a return to the christian church prior to 300 A.D has returned me to the Christianity of the apostolic church . When the gentile church cut itself loose from its Jewish roots it cut itself loose from the Christian life blood . We've taken a wrong path and need to retrace our steps.

MICHAEL | 13 October 2011  

Andrew, as ever a great article offering some sensible insight into a extremely difficult situation for the Church. I expect that the inevitable debates on solutions will increase tensions between the Church and its congregation. We need to remember that these tensions are nothing new having their origins in the early church and can often be very productive it determining what changes we may need to make. I strongly believe that Roman Catholic Church has so much to offer the individual in today's society that with the guidance of the Holy Spirit it will survive and prosper.

Its important for us to realize that any changes are not a knee jerk reaction but in keeping with the great traditions and teachings of the Church which I believe are and will be a beacon to an ever changing society. The Church is indeed lucky to have clergy of the quality of yourself to raise these issues in the public domain for us all to reflect on.

Andrew Teece | 13 October 2011  

Vic and Margaret, thanks for drawing attention to an inadvertent, although perhaps also revealing, gap in my short strategy outline for the Catholic Church. Families should indeed be mentioned. Their animation will require lay leadership, and families will also be the source of lay leaders.

I am sure, too, that educational and spiritual institutions will be important in providing spiritual and faith development addressed to families.

Andy Hamilton | 13 October 2011  

An article that says really nothing I'm afraid. Full of the usual theological platitudes and glib phrases we continue to hear sadly from armchair critics and those who look at the 'Church' like a piece of fruit in a supermarket. Andrew Hamilton like many others speaks of communities and the 'strenths' of the Church, but not once does he ask the real questions that need answers. These are: the failure of the leadership of the Australian bishops. Name one or two oustanding leaders and you have to scratch your head. Yes, maybe Pell and certainly Mark Coleridge. But beyond those two, not one. There is a real problem in the Australian hierarchy and with about 6 vacancies now and coming up, goodness knows where the new ones will come from. Two, the complete failure to address the issue of 'what is the relevance of parishes' today. Parishes as we knew them in the past, are a total social absurdity. People are mobile, they drive, run, speed and go by bike anywhere they like. They are not confined to 'parish boundaries'. If they like a liturgy or a dynamic priest in another part of their city or town, they will go there. Priests are now living solitary, almost hermetic lives in their lonely presbyteries and goodness knows how good that is for their health. They have become lone rangers and only the media celebs get air time. This is a major problem for attracting 'new recruits' that the bishops just dont face up to. Priests do not visit much anymore. People are out working. The whole fabric of a parish and its boundaries have changed. Be realistic and have priests live in groups of 4-5, support one another and be realistic or just fade away. I'm not sure what AH means by 'hollowing out'. he doesn't say what it means. But here's is a guess. There is a huge hole being dug into which the Church is falling and may not recover its ground work, that is, the preaching of the Gospel. The fact is we need a holy Church, a holy priesthood built on the Gospel and prayer. Perhaps a little more time in prayer and reading the Scriptures will be a far better remedy for stopping the hollowing out of the Church. But will anyone listen, and especially the bishops who don't seem to know or realise what is happening and the people are crying out for real spiritual leadership.

Adam | 13 October 2011  

The basic tenets stated by Trent are correct.One just has to study and read the Catechism Of The Catholic Church to realize that.Many Catholics do not delve beyond the Social Justice aspects of the Faith.

John Tobin. | 14 October 2011  

After much consideration,I suggest the most likely path towards a more robust or vibrant church is the formation of a system of lay councils having equal voice with the hierarchy at all levels.The exclusion of laity from decision making processes is a major cause of our current decline.

John Casey | 16 October 2011  

To John Tobin, I would say, that most Catholics don't even scratch the surface of what the implications of social justice are if the catechism is to be lived out in a practical way. You can't separate the catechism from the so-called social justice aspect - they are one and the same thing.
And by the way - nowhere in the catechism does it claim to be the 'Truth'. The catechism is the teachings of the church and it changes and develops with our increase in wisdom and knowledge, just as school curriculums no longer teach the earth is flat, and biological evolution is not contary to religious faith.

AURELIUS | 17 October 2011  

John Casey's suggestion that giving the laity equality in decisions supposedly with bishops is just plain loopy, with all respect to him. If we are talking about a 'robust and vibrant Church' then we must have a Church of faithful who are there to preach and live out the Gospel. It is not a social charter for action. It is not the Christian marxist manifesto, though some would believe the Church ought just be another social organisation that spreads tea and cakes to the poor and clothes the undernourished. When I was in Calcutta many times, I was aware that the great Blessed M Teresa and her nuns would rise early and spend hours in prayer before going on to the streets.At night they prayed as well and lived/ live lives of great poverty and simplicity. Their prayer and action is not dependent on equality with all, bishops an laity. Far from it. No, the problem today is that we have let go to prayer and basically going down on our knees. The muslims do it, they go down on their knees and pray. They bow their heads before God on the pavement and floor. We have lost that sense of bowing down before God. We want too much comfort, too many seminars and discussions. Could you imagine St Paul going to a seminar? the apostles attending workshops and conferences? No !! Because they are not necessary. Prayer and preaching is powerful witness. Look at Billy Graham and Blessed John Paul II. Oh and perhaps St John Fisher and St Thomas More, two men who gave their heads for the Lord. Equality my foot !!! Bishops are the theological teachers. have we forgotten that basic Catholic tenet? Perhaps so.

Adam | 20 October 2011  


If bishops are the theological teachers what are they teaching? Your piety is interesting but Jesus was a man of action calling us to be like him and to confront the religious traditionalists; those who rejected the marginalised etc. Prayer is wonderful but, without action, it is futile. After all, not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" will enter the Kingdom but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven".

Francis | 21 October 2011  

'Your piety is interesting'. Thank you for the very condescending comment especially as you don't know me at all. And also your comment that 'prayer is interesting'. Well, tell that to all the monks down the ages, especially the hermits and those who are part of a great heritage. Is it any wonder that just 10 days ago Pope Benedict made a special trip to the Carthusians in Italy. Now, the action of monks usually focuses on their own garden plots, vegetables and in some cases, making liquers and other things for sale to support them. They are not out in the streets like M Teresa and her nuns and loads of others. But their disciplined prayer is essential. Also, look at John Paul II and his prayer life. Hours of it daily. This was the central focus of his life. It was the powerhouse of his whole ministry, so don't just say and condescend on 'prayer as interesting'. This is the problem today with the Church - priests who do not pray enough. Ask your priests how often they pray, meditate and take 'time out'. You may be surprised to find out.
This is fudnamental if the Church is to renew. Prayer is the core of the growth in evangelical churches in S America and Africa and Asia. The evidence is overwhelming while the Australian Church is in decline.

Adam | 02 November 2011  

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