Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Australia's patchwork spiritual economy: the rest of the West**

I want to continue my series on the state of the Church in Australia's dioceses with a look at the rest of the West today.

The 'patchwork economy' is the current Federal Labor Government's preferred description of Australia's current economic situation, a term coined in order to avoid saying 'two-speed economy', viz the booming West vs the depressed rest. 

I'd have to say the term patchwork economy doesn't seem to me to quite cut it when it comes to economics, but in terms of describing the spiritual economy of Australia, it does have something going for it.

Categorizing our dioceses

On the one hand, we have those dioceses that have either at least more or less maintained the number and proportion of priests, and/or are making serious inroads in turning things around. 

In this group you could put Perth, Canberra, Sydney, Wagga Wagga, Lismore and Armidale and maybe one or two others. 

At the other extreme are the ones where things are seriously bad and the church in any recognisable form is all but in danger of disappearing altogether (but for the prospect of new bishops and other changes) - Queensland, Wilcannia-Forbes and Sandhurst (highest priest to people ratio in the country at 1:2641) immediately come to mind.

And in the middle sit a number of more or less average dioceses, where the slide towards secularist oblivion is taking place on a somewhat slower path, barring an upsurge in recruitment.

The two WA dioceses, Bunbury and Geraldton, that I want to look at today, seem, on the face of it, to fit into this latter category.  Do tell me if you think I'm calling it wrong, but these seem like very, well, very average Australian dioceses...that is, not exactly on the path to re-evangelizing Australia!

Is change possible?

The issue everywhere in Australia is this: how do we turn things around, how do we re-energize things?

The upcoming Australian Year of Grace points to one important prerequisite for this to happen, viz prayer on our part!  I'd also suggest encouraging our bishops to promote contemplative religious life in their dioceses, particularly where there is no current monastery, might be an important dimension of this.

But other important issues include receptivity to what God is saying to us, and willingness to take chances and seize opportunities in that light.

Let's not kid ourselves: making big changes is hard and will antagonize people.  Many people have much invested in the status quo and will not easily let it go.

To make changes we have to start by acknowledging the real situation, and understand its real causes (which, as anyone who has studied behavioural research will tell you, will not generally be elicted simply by asking people why they do or don't do something!). 

But we also have to understand the tools that can help us make change, and be willing to use them.

The tools for change

In this series I've been highlighting some of the things I think are important potential tools for engagement in mission/evangelization: the liturgy; the support of contemplative religious; episcopal and priestly leadership; transparency and accountability; and effective (and appropriate) lay engagement for example.

But the most important one, I think, is actually genuine commitment to renewal and mission.

Take for example, the problem that is Catholic schools.  Many of us think that one of the key tests of their success is that they actually turn out practising catholics.  Many of us are upset that in reality they both actively subvert the achievement of this objective through inadequate catechesis and appallingly awful "school masses', and passively subvert it through missed opportunities to engage parents and children in their parishes and to promote a (genuine) catholic culture more generally.

Yet the school system's defenders  - such as Bishop Holohan of Bunbury - continue to defend poor outcomes by pointing to parents and parishes as having prime responsibility for the faith of the young. 

Well yes, but it is the schools who parents have deliberately entrusted the education of their children to! 

And schools can have a major impact on just how children and their parents interact with their parishes (for example with attendance requirements, school masses on a Sunday, and much more).

If we want change to occur, we have, in my view, to abandon the excuses for inaction, abandon the excuses for mediocrity, and look for how we can use every opportunity for evangelization.

In that light, let's look at the rest of the West...


The spectacular Geraldton Cathedral
Of these two dioceses, Geraldton seems in better shape - the last available stats on the Catholic Hierarchy site show it has a priest to people ratio of 1:1428, for example, compared to Bunbury's 1:1730 (and Perth's 1:1324).

The diocese of Geraldton, which takes in much of WA's mid-West, like Broome which I looked at yesterday, is extremely large in terms of territory (1,318, 310 sq kms, making it Australia's second largest in terms of geographic size), but extremely small in terms of population, with a total of 27, 135 catholics out of a total population of 114, 662 (making it Australia's second smallest diocese) in 2006.

Source: ACBC website
There are no contemplative religious orders here, though the diocesan webpage on religious orders in the diocese is well worth a look if only for the novelty value in seeing certain modern religious orders being given a traditional gloss through pictures of their founders wearing actual habits and headgear!  If only their current members saw the need to bear public witness to their profession through their habits, lifestyle and dress!

On the face of it, Geraldton is a fairly typical Australian diocese - below average mass attendance (it has 0.4% of Australia's catholics, but only 0.3% of mass attenders), and relatively few vocations (there was one seminarian in 2010).

Leadership: Bishop Justin Bianchini was appointed in 1992, and is aged 70.92.  You can find a nice profile of him at The Swag website.

For much of his tenure, the number of priests fell steadily, from 27 in total in 1990 (15 diocesan), to 19 in 2006 (11 of them diocesan). 

The diocesan website (which has a good 'about us' page), however, suggests there has been an upsurge in recruitment over the last few years (including one ordination in December), so that there are 18 diocesan priests, four religious, with a further four residing elsewhere in Australia.  I assume that this comes mostly from overseas recruitment, as the last ordination before December's was in 2001 according to the Official Directory of the Catholic Church (which is admittedly incomplete as a record).

Liturgy/role of the laity: The diocese makes heavy use of communion services, and parish (lay) "sacramental teams".  There is no Latin mass.

Mission:  The diocese does seem to have adopted very strong policies on the necessity of preparation for the sacraments, presumably in the face of the prevalence of cultural catholicism.

Transparency and accountability: The diocesan website has good parish based information (including online bulletins), but very little general news or broader activity information.


Source: ACBC website
Bunbury diocese takes in 184,000 sq kms, covering the south-west and southern regions of the State, and has a nominal catholic population of 50,190.  Mass attendance is below the national average, with 1% of catholics, but only 0.7% of mass attenders.

The cathedral was destroyed by a tornado in 2005, and its very modern replacement was consecrated last year.

Leadership: Bishop Gerald Holohan, appointed in 2001, is 64.  He comes from a background in education.

In 2006 the diocese had 29 priests and, unusually for Australia, 11 permanent deacons.  The diocese had three seminarians in 2010, and two priests were ordained last year.

He gets considerable brownie points for attracting the ire of the aCatholicas for an article in the diocesan magazine, a few years back, on why women cannot be ordained as priests. 

The website also contains a statement from him on why same sex marriage should be opposed, but it seems to advocate civil union type language as an alternative, and points to other legal protections for homosexuals, rather than actually stating the Church's position as such.

**Transparency and accountability/religious life:  Religious orders based in Bunbury diocese don't get a guernsey on the diocesan website, but a number of commenters have drawn my attention to the very devout Carmelites based in this diocese.

The website does not give very much by way of detailed accountability information.

Liturgy: Bunbury has a once a month Latin Mass (said by Fr Rowe of Perth).

Mission: The diocese has an Office of Evangelization, which always seems like a good start at least!  The bishop's own articulation of what evangelization is about is about, though, seems to focus very much on the Gaudium et Spes-esq vision of the transformation of this world, rather than salvation as such.

Have I got it wrong?

Please, do send in your comments, corrections and additions, both on this piece (and on the previous ones in the series), as well as any points you think should be raised in relation to the rest of Australia's dioceses...


Joshua said...

The Carmelite nuns near Bunbury are a sterling model of devout contemplatives - and very interesting in that they were founded from Thailand, and still have mainly Thai sisters, plus some locals. A friend of mine from Bunbury found his own Carmelite vocation through attending Mass there - when the nuns noticed him making a daily holy hour before early Mass, they encouraged him to pursue a contemplative vocation: he joined the Carmelit Monks in Wyoming some years ago; please pray for him.

Joshua said...

And don't forget that the unstoppable Fr Rowe visits Bunbury once a month to say a Sunday evening Low Mass. There is a small nut zealous traddy group there, who have already produced one vocation.

JBB said...

Joshua - small nut zealous traddy group? Surely there is an error here, but it could be correct!

A Canberra Observer said...

On the education thing - I agree - the school will be formative UNLESS the parents and the parish take very great steps to have a hand in religious education.

It all points to the travesty that the 'Catholic' education edifice in Australia has become.

Joshua said...

How embarrassing - typing on my iPhone has its pitfalls! Of course, I meant to say above "Carmelite" (not "Carmelit") and "but" (not "nut")!

I have happy memories of driving Fr Rowe down to Bunbury several times, attending his Sunday evening Mass (and the Monday morning Mass held before heading back north to Perth), visiting the smal but zealous Latin Mass community, staying with friends of his, and one trip making a detour to visit those good Carmelite nuns. Fr often took Communion to a shut-in en route, which entailed praying nonstop in honour of our Passenger.

Anonymous said...

Joshua is ahead of me in pointing out that there is a signficnant Carmel in the Diocese of Bunbury. Lots of people are aware of this because it is signposted from the Bunbury by-pass, which is the main route to Perth's favourite weekending destination.

This highlights, of course, the limitations of relying on diocesan websites too heavily in making assessments such as the ones you are making, Kate. I mean no criticism - what you write is interesting and useful and certainly increases the sum of human wisdom - but we need to be aware that our perceptions that dioceses are doing well or badly in this or that area might actually tell us more about the diocese's commitment to, and investment in, its website than it does about anything more substantial.

Kate said...

I think I'm hearing that in fact I should reverse my relative assessment of the two dioceses?

The dangers of relying on diocesan websites and media reports are only too obvious anon (please, please do give youself an identifier!), which is why I keep asking for locals or those in the know to provide input!

That said, in a country like Australia with high internal and external migrations rates and very geographically spread out dioceses, I do think diocesan websites are important, and what's on them often not a bad indicator of where dioceses are coming from and their priorities.

More important than that though is some of the objective statistics, such as ordinations, seminarians, mass attendance and priest numbers as a reality check.

All the same, I very much welcome input and contributions to this series...

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Kate, that was me, Peregrinus, with the comment about the websites.

and I agree with you about the importance of websites. I'd be very glad to see more dioceses (and parishes) devote more time and resources to make the most effective use of their websites.

My point is just that, until that happy day arrives, we need to be aware of the inevitable limitations than come from using the website to get a picture of the diocese. The website is a filter which can distort sigfnificantly.


R J said...

During his old age, B. A. Santamaria expressed (both in writing and in conversation) bitter regret that he had been so zealous an advocate - over decades - of State Aid for Catholic schools. It did not take him long to detect that State Aid in practice (whatever merits might have belonged to it in theory) ensured the turning of Catholic schools into intellectual and moral disaster areas. Moreover, this was inevitable. By the nature of State Aid, there is no benefit to be derived from upholding orthodox Catholicism, since the heretical Catholic is assured of just as much money from the taxpayer as the orthodox Catholic obtains. (There is also the uncomfortable fact that every consideration argued in favour of subsidising Catholic schools can be, and is, invoked in favour of subsidising madrassas; but that's a separate issue.)

One of BAS's own top-ranking lieutenants finished up sending his own children, I understand, to Protestant schools because there they had at least some vague chance of learning a bit about Christian doctrine. At those schools in this lieutenant's native city which purported to be Catholic, no such guarantee of even the most elementary Christian education was possible.