Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The social justice model: is it enough? The case of Broome diocese...


Source: Diocesan website

Today in my series of State by State/diocese by diocese profiles a look at the Western Australian Australian diocese of Broome.

Broome is particularly interesting because it is Australia's smallest in terms of population but very large in terms of geographical area, and faces particular challenges due to its high Indigenous population.

Its bishop, Bishop Christopher Saunders, is Chair of the Australian Catholic Justice Commission, so its not surprising that the diocese has adopted a strong social justice focus.  But can the social justice model actually work in energizing a diocese?

Broome diocese

Taking in much of Western Australia's North West, geographically it is the fourth largest of the Australian dioceses (after Darwin, Geraldton and Port Pirie) at 770,000 square kilometres.  And it is a long way from anywhere else in the country - a two and a half hour flight from Perth, and 1.5 hours by air from Darwin.

Broome is the smallest, though, of Australia's dioceses in terms of population, with a total population of around 35,000 (2006). 

Of that a very high proportion is indigenous - in the town of Broome itself, the figure is 20%, in the outlying areas the Indigenous population is much higher.  And most of that Indigenous population is very young - in WA the average age is 21 years, much younger then the average age of the population as a whole.  The Indigenous community there suffers from the problems prevalent in much of remote Australia associated with the loss of culture, collapse of job opportunities and resulting problems of assorted forms of abuse.

In addition, 11% of residents of Broome were born outside Australia, and 10% of mass goers attend in languages other than English.

The area also has a high transient population due to mining and tourism.  The town of Broome is one of the fastest growing in Australia, goes from around 14,400 year to 45,000 during the tourist season. 

It also has the highest proportion of Catholics of any Australian diocese, at 38.3%, giving some 13, 749 catholics to tend to.

As far as I can work out there are no contemplative religious orders in the diocese.

Leadership

Bishop Christopher Saunders is aged 61, and he was appointed back in 1995.  Originally from Melbourne, he offered himself as a priest for the diocese after spending three years with the Columbans.   You can get a flavour of the bishop's preoccupations by the very existence of the diocesan "Office of Justice, Ecology and Peace". 

The bishop is a pilot, and frequently uses the Diocese's twin-engine six-seater Cessna 210 to get around. The strong sense of his enthusiasm and commitment (and interesting background) comes out in this article on the Sydney Archdiocese website.

Over his time in office, the number of priests (13 in total in 2006) has remained more or less steady state, and thus failed to keep pace with population growth.  It is not exactly blessed when it comes to vocations - it has had one ordination in recent years.  The bishop has, however, recruited a number of overseas priests to help fill vacancies.

Liturgy

The liturgical focus of the diocese appears to be, shall we say, innovative (I wish I could reproduce the picture from the diocesan magazine of some "liturgical dancing" by a group of young aboriginals lead by an (African) Wollongong seminarian...)!  There is no regularly celebrated Traditional Latin Mass.

Transparency and accountability

The bi-monthly diocesan magazine, Kimberly Connections (available online in PDF form) seems excellent, with a good mix of report backs from schools and parishes, doctrinal material/news of the wider church, the saints and more.

At the same time, it certainly reflects the diocesan focus on social justice both locally and in the context of supporting overseas missions as well.  As far as I can see, it looks solidly orthodox, with some nice promotion of traditional devotions such as the rosary (and note the new icon for the Cathedral pictured above)...

Mission, social justice and the role of the laity

The whole diocese is effectively a mission, and it runs an active volunteering program whereby people from across Australia can do twelve month placements helping out in the diocese in practical ways.

Social justice commitments on the part of many dioceses often, in my view at least, looks forced and artificial, driven by and reflecting political correctness rather than genuine practical engagement on the ground.  Not so here. 

The material available online makes the focus look real and attractive in terms of advancing the Church's mission. And it is not done in isolation from the faith, but seems to be genuinely linked to it.

That said, the diocese has a below average rate of mass attendance (although surprisingly perhaps, unlike many other places, hasn't gone the 'Sunday assembly without a priest route' in a big way - in 2006 there were an average of 2.8 such assemblies a week, involving 33 people) and few vocations.

11 comments:

Joshua said...

Suggested caption for the first photo: Our Lady, Patroness of Deformed Clergy.

What a terrible image - he looks like Quasimodo.

Joshua said...

When you say that about 10% of Mass-goers attend in languages other than in English, do you mean the Mass is said in some other language, or that they don't speak English? I suspect you may need to reword that phrase.

I also recall what a good young orthodox priest told me - he'd volunteered in that part of Australia when a seminarian or before, and found that (1) the priests and religious, though hard-working and well-meaning, were mad with social justice and, unfortunately, the dubious orthodoxy and strange liturgy that often goes with it, while (2) the local Catholic Aborigines were very orthodox in their faith, having been well-catechised by the sterling missionaries of old, and would have gladly had the Latin Mass back!

A Canberra Observer said...

Really Joshua.
That is not what I thought at all.

Kate said...

Joshua - I mean attend mass in a language othe than English.

Anonymous said...

The number of priests in the diocese is actually as high as it has ever been, and the proportion of those priests who are incardinated in the diocese, as opposed to being members of religious institutes, is also at an all-time high. (But this has to be seen in the context of a total of 13 priests - 6 diocesan and 7 religious.)

The low mass attendance rate, I think, is not the result of a shortage of priests - there are as many priests as there ever were - but of the other factors; the huge geographical size of the diocese, and the social problems that Kate points to. A large proportion of the population is transient - mining workers, tourism workers - and they are mostly young and single. They don’t put down roots and they are not good at forming community. They live in Broome or Kunnunurra (or wherever) but they don’t think of it as “home”; it’s where they work, but they expect to move on before they settle down.

I think that’s why you don’t find the Sunday assembly without a priest very much. The problem is not so much lack of a priest as lack of an assembly. Outside the major towns (and the towns are not [i]very[/i] major) there simply isn’t the critical mass of people who are sufficiently engaged to build a viable community which could assemble for worship.

As Kate says, there are no contemplative religious orders in the diocese. It’s worth noting, though, that traditionally there has been a strong Benedictine influence. There was a Benedictine mission at Kalumburu (an outreach of New Norcia Abbey) and until comparatively recently a significant number of the priests serving the diocese would have been Benedictines from New Norcia.

Kate is right in noting that the entire diocese is effectively a mission. As such, its needs have always been for religious engaged in active apostolates, rather than for contemplatives, and it is these that successive bishops have always sought to attract. The Benedictines have been replaced by the Spiritans, the Heralds of Good News (an Indian congregation) and the Christian Brothers.

The concern about social issues is I think entirely appropriate. In a diocese facing the social challenges that Broome is facing, if the local church does not devote a large part of its efforts and energies to framing a gospel response to those challenges, then the church might as well stop pretending to have anything to say about society.

Peregrinus

Kate said...

Peregrinus - I have to say I think you are absolutely wrong about the need for actives rather than contemplatives. If you want to convert people, you need prayer powerhouses underpining the active effort.

And their monasteries can also be necessary oases for priests and others to recuperate at and around which communities automatically form, a necessity in such a transient environment. In fact that's how mcuh of Europe was converted in the first place!

I've also seen effective communities form in places with high transient populations; the key is having the basic structures in place, and working actively to reach out to invite newcomers in. If you don't have enough priests and/or religious to do this of course, it becomes much more difficult...

Anonymous said...

"I have to say I think you are absolutely wrong about the need for actives rather than contemplatives. If you want to convert people, you need prayer powerhouses underpining the active effort."

And yet this is not the model of mission that we've had in the church for the last few centuries, is it? Africa was evangelised - with considerable success - through a missionary endeavour which very much focussed on orders dedicated to active apostolates - schools, hospitals, parish ministry, etc. The "contemplative missionary route" was, arguably, attempted in Australia when Sydney was effectively put in the care of the Benedictines; the experiment was not judged a success, and was abandoned.

You could argue that it wasn't tried properly, and could be tried again, and I'd be sympathetic to the argument. But we'd both be on the fringes; the approach taken in Broome is squarely in the mainstream of Catholic evangelism for the last several centuries.

Peregrinus

Anonymous said...

What is the objection to Social Justice - it is part of the teachings of the Church.

Considering the huge area, small population and many, many problems, perhaps it is an appropriate focus. Consider the levels of disadvantage: dysfunctional communities (thank you government bureaucrats!), lack of work, lack of educational opportunities &c. And also the problem of the demon drink.

Having spent time in Central Australia, all these are very real and very big problems. And Social Justice is lacking.

To be quibbling about liturgical forms when there is so much else wrong seems to be a bit to bourgeois.

As for Europe being converted, there were no contemplative monasteries when Ireland was converted in the 5th century (i.e. pre-Benedict). The distinction between "active" and "contemplative" life is very much a medieval Western distinction. So no, Europe was not converted by the existence of contemplative communities.

In the East, for example Armenia and Syria were not converted before religious life had become particularly formalised. Yes, the hermits in Egypt came after the conversions of these places.

As a final question, where is the evidence that indigenous communities want the Latin Mass back? A single remark in an interview by Paul Collins about 20 years ago?? Any more that that??

Annie Mouse

Kate said...

Actually Peregrinus, contemplatives have been important in Africa and to Africa for a very long time (there is a reason for example that St Therese of Lisieux is patroness of missions)! And more than a few contemplative monasteries have been established there in response to calls from several popes even in relatively recent times in order to support the mission effort.

Let's not get into the reasons for the failure of the "Benedictine experiment" in Sydney, while complex, as I'm sure you are aware, had much to do with some difficult personalities!

Similarly AnnieMouse, while I agree that the split between actives and contemplatives is a medieval construct, those Irish monks and nuns had a very strong contemplative focus (as did the Benedictine missionaries who re-evangelized seventh century Europe). In terms of the amount of time they devoted to the divine office and prayer for example, they would probably out do almost any modern contemplative monastery except perhaps the Carthusians!

The reality is that religious life in various forms, whether formalized or not, from St John the Baptist through the orders of virgins and widows in the early church, through hermits and anchorites, and cenobites, has always been part of an effective church. Whenever and wherever religious life has been destroyed, the church at best struggles; wherever it has been reestablished and reinvigorated, so too has the church.

As for the desirability of the Latin Mass for Aboriginal communities - I didn't make the original comment, but I think it is right. The Latin Mass has a more mystical style and appeal which fits quite well with Aboriginal spirituality, far more so than the banal celebrations of ourselves that characterise all too many modern liturgies.

Anonymous said...

Pontifex Minimus

Joshua, suggested by yourself caption for the first photo is almost spot on. I would modify it slightly, so it reads as follow: Our Lady, Patroness of Deformed Bishops. His priests 'love' him. It would be interesting to know what is a clergy turnover rate in his diocese and how many priest left in a bad grace. I recommend Fr. Noel McMaster book "From Coburg to the Kimberley". One of our Sydney prelates described him as a giant of social justice, famous for notoriously - I will try to be gentel here by saying -looking for new clergy oversea. And yes, I like your reference to Quasimodo. A quasi-bishop promoting quasi social justice... will do in Kimberley.

Anonymous said...

Pontifex Minimus

Joshua, suggested by yourself caption for the first photo is almost spot on. I would modify it slightly, so it reads as follow: Our Lady, Patroness of Deformed Bishops. His priests 'love' him. It would be interesting to know what is a clergy turnover rate in his diocese and how many priest left in a bad grace. I recommend Fr. Noel McMaster book "From Coburg to the Kimberley". One of our Sydney prelates described him as a giant of social justice, famous for notoriously - I will try to be gentel here by saying -looking for new clergy oversea. And yes, I like your reference to Quasimodo. A quasi-bishop promoting quasi social justice... will do in Kimberley.