Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Ballarat: on building wells!

Today, continuing my series on the state of the Australian church diocese by diocese I want to look at the last of the regional Victorian dioceses in my survey, namely Ballarat. 

Ballarat is also the last of the (known) upcoming vacancies since Bishop Peter Connors turns 75 in March.

Again on this I particularly want to thank those who sent me input, which I've drawn on heavily here.  Related to this, I have received a comment to the effect that things sent to my email address were bouncing for some reason - has anyone else had this problem?  If so, please leave a comment on this post marked not for publication so I can see whether its just a one-off or not!

Source: ACBC

Lay-led Communion services and parishes

I want to take the opportunity here to focus particularly on the problem of lay-led Communion services.

There are lot of issues I could focus on in relation to Ballarat, similar to those in a number of other dioceses - an education system that seems to have been captured by liberals, at least if some of the contents of its resource centre are any guide; promotion of new age spiritualities (though that seems to be common to virtually every diocese in Australia!); and so forth.

But Ballarat has long been the Australian 'leader' in the use of lay led Communion services: according to the ACBC report on on the 2006 National Church Life Survey, Ballarat had far and away the greatest number of Sunday services without a priest, averaging 18.3 such assemblies a week back in 2006.

But first some general background about the diocese.

Diocese of Ballarat

In 2006, Ballarat diocese had a catholic population of around 98,922, making it Australia's twelfth largest diocese.  In terms of geographic size, it covers around 58,000 sq kms, putting it well down the list in those terms.

It takes in a number of important regional towns including Ballarat itself, and Warnambool.

The diocesan website (which is admirably easy to navigate, and contains much useful accountability information), notes that:

"The Diocese has a number of provincial centres and large rural areas. There is a wide range and mix of primary and secondary industry and tourism and many places of natural beauty - the Great Ocean Road, the Grampians, the towns of the Murray River, the Little Desert and the goldfields."


Like Sandhurst, many traditionalists will be familiar with Ballarat from the annual Christus Rex pilgrimage.  But it is not promoted within the diocese at all.

I'm told there is a regular Latin Mass in Ballarat, but I can't find any recent reference to it on the web (or in lists of Christmas masses etc).

Source: Diocesan website
Ballarat's current bishop, Bishop Peter Connors, celebrated his golden jubilee of ordination last year.  He was originally from Melbourne where he was Vicar General under Archbishop Little and subsequently an Auxiliary.  He was translated to Ballarat in 1997.

During his tenure, the number of priests has fallen sharply: from 80 in 1999, to 65 in 2006, with a consequent increase in the priest to catholic ratio to one of the higher ones in the country, of 1:1,506.

Indeed, the diocesan website states that:

"There are 52 parishes in the Diocese comprising of approximately 135 Mass communities. 20 of these parishes do not have a resident priest. There are 64 priests in the Diocese, of whom 41 are in active ministry. There are 3 religious women who are parish leaders and a number of religious orders present in the Diocese."

The diocese had one (albeit a particularly notable one, in the form of blogger A Country Priest ) ordination last year. But it was only the third that I can discover for the decade. And the diocese has only one remaining seminarian.

On the positive side, the diocese did have an above average 'mass' attendance rate (I assume the figures include lay-led Communion services) - 1.9% of Australia's Catholics live in the diocese, but 2% of those Australian Catholics who actually turn up on a Sunday.

It is worth noting that this is also a diocese where the sex abuse scandal ran deep, with a higher than average number of offending priests, including the notorious Fr Risdale. On the positive side, I'm told that those who have been affected by this have some positive things to say about Bishop Connor's handling of the issue.  If so, he has evidently learnt from accusations of involvement in several cover ups in Melbourne during his time as Vicar-General and Auxiliary chronicled by Broken Rites and elsewhere, including this case (which was settled out of court).

What works, what doesn't

As I flagged earlier in this series, part of the purpose of these diocesan briefs is to highlight what seems to work and what doesn't, and look at what still needs to be done to position the Australian Church to fulfill its mission of converting Australia, helping all in this country to find salvation.

Many dioceses (including my own) seem to be considering expanding the use of lay led Communion services (aka Sunday Assemblies of Word aka Communion in the Absence of a Priest, aka...).  Yet in my view, all the evidence suggests that far from solving the problems the church faces, makes them worse. 
These kinds of services are a legacy of Blessed Pope John Paul II.

Like altar girls and Communion in the hand, an entirely illicit and untraditional practice was legitimised and even encouraged to spread, in this case by the Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1988.

There are actually three options for Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest, viz:

• Liturgy of the Hours;
• Liturgy of the Word; and
• a standalone Communion service, or Communion with either of the above.

Yet the default seems to be Communion services.

Some of the things that happen in some other dioceses may be a lot more problematic than those that occur in Ballarat.  Brisbane's official guidelines for such services for example explicitly state that:

"In Catholic parishes in remote areas, lay leadership of Sunday worship or funeral rites may be supported or even supplied by the resident pastor of the local Anglican, Uniting or Lutheran Churches."

Pretty breathtaking really!

The problems with lay-led communion (and other) services in my view, are three-fold, namely theological, pastoral and practical.  And then of course there are the outright abuses.

First, the theological problems.

The problem with communion services: the theological issues

The key theological objections, in my view, to lay led communion services is that they tend to undermine our understanding of the theology of the Eucharist, of the priesthood, and of the hierarchical constitution of the Church.

When Vatican II and many other documents talk about the Eucharist as the source and summit of our lives, it is not just talking about the laity's reception of the sacrament, but rather of the whole of the Mass, and most especially of the sacrifice of the Mass - a sacrifice that does not take place in a communion service!  As the Compendium of the Catechism puts it:

"The Eucharist is the very sacrifice of the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus which he instituted to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until his return in glory..." (No 271).

Communion services make it far too easy to forget this vital dimension of the Churches life.

Secondly, by putting a layperson in the lead, it is all too easy for such services to promote congregationalism, the belief that the ministerial priesthood is altogether unnecessary.  Indeed, Fr Kevin Murphy of Ballarat as an articles featured over at (a)Catholica Forum with more than a whiff of these errors implied in them.

Pastoral issues

The second perhaps even bigger problem with lay led Communion services is the danger that, in the absence of the availability of the sacrament of reconciliation, they may be bringing death rather than life to these communities.

Reception of Holy Communion can of course be a wonderful source of grace: provided we have the correct dispositions and provided we are in a state of grace (free from mortal sin at least).

St Paul's warnings on this subject (1 Corinthians 11:27-32) remain pertinent!

On building wells!

The third issue is a practical one: stopgap solutions such as lay-led communion services do not promote vocations!

This Christmas the charities have been urging us to give a goat or a duck to help feed a family, or help pay to build a well so a village has a source of clean water: to fund the 'infrastructure' needed to help people out of poverty, in other words.  The issue is that even well-intentioned programs that provide ongoing food aid actually tend to entrench poverty rather than solve it, sapping self-reliance and morale, and creating a culture of dependence.

I want to suggest that a similar principle needs to be applied to spiritual poverty: for too long, some dioceses have been promoting what amounts to a hand out mentality, by actively promoting 'lay led assemblies' rather than working to recruit existing priests from overseas and/or encourage their own young men to try their vocation, and thus build spiritual wells for parishes in the form of priests.

Ballarat seems the classic case in point, with twenty empty churches, and but one remaining seminarian.

Then there are the outright abuses...

All those points aside, even if you do think that Communion Services are a necessary option, there is considerable evidence that they are being used in a way that was never intended, and even outright abused in Ballarat.

First, the clear intention of the Guidelines is that such services only be used where it is not reasonably possible to get to a mass.  Yet in Ballarat, that doesn't seem to be a requirement!

Consider for example the case of Cororooke, an entirely lay led parish with an occasional 'visiting priest'.  Yet it is a mere 9.9 kms (11 minutes) from Colac, which has a Saturday night vigil and two Sunday Masses, hardly a great distance to travel.  Indeed, even many city people drive that at least that far to get to mass!

In fact, as I highlighted not long ago, instead of busing people to a church with a Mass, one Ballarat parish bused potential Mass goers to a communion service instead!

One person from the diocese even told me a story of a lay leader inviting a priest to attend their lay-led service as a congregation member! Well, perhaps it was a call for some much needed corrective supervision and catechesis!

The second type of abuse relates to sermons.  Canon law explicitly prohibit anyone who is not a cleric from giving a homily. The Vatican Guidelines reflect this, suggesting that:

"In order that the participants may retain the word of God, there should be an explanation of the readings or a period of silence for reflection on what has been heard. Since only a pastor or a deacon may give a homily, it is desirable that the pastor prepare a homily and give it to the leader of the assembly to read."

Unfortunately it goes on to give Bishops Conferences the right to set their own norms, And the 2004 ACBC Guidelines explicitly encourage what amount to lay homilies:

"Preaching, or giving a reflection on the scripture, is integral to the community's hearing of God's Word, to the sanctification of Sunday, and to their baptismal call to evangelisation and mission. Liturgical preaching or giving a reflection on the scriptures is carried out by women and men formed and delegated for this ministry by their bishop."

In Ballarat, one priest (Fr Murphy mentioned above) actually does provide some assistance for those giving reflections through a dedicated website. Unfortunately, it is pretty colourful stuff - for this coming week the essential theme apparently is the difference between authority and authoritarianism!


I've focused a lot on lay led Communion services here, but I'm sure there are many good things happening in this diocese, and you can certainly read about some of them over at A Country Priest's blog. All the same, this is clearly a diocese with a big task ahead for the next bishop.


Anthony Bidgood said...

Dear AI,

After his Ordination Fr Corrigan drew the congregation's attention to Bishop Connors's strong role in abuse cases, so welldone there.
The lack of priests goes beyond the low number of seminarians for the diocese. A priest, not from the diocese, recently told me that Bishop Connors (and he is not alone) refuses to have priests from outside of Australia.

Anthony Bidgood

A Canberra Observer said...

This Australian refusal to have clergy from abroad is a puzzling phenomenon. On the one hand the bishops bleat and bleat about being open to foreigners. While on the other they resist the possibility of 'foreign' priests. I wonder if this reads subliminally as 'non-English as a first language, caucasian priests'.
It was related to me some time ago that Bp Morris and his clergy did not want to import priests because they would not be 'inculturated'. Whether this inculturation relates to Australian customs/communication in general, or more to ecclesial and liturgical peculiarities is never clear to me (and many of the o/s clergy I have encountered tend to be ORTHODOX).
Of course the ability to communicate adequately has to be a consideration, but not an insuperable one.

From my perspective, I think there is a lot of lipservice on the racial side but the brainstem is still hard wired to 'white anglo'.

Kate said...

Yes I have to admit I struggle to see how the rejection of missionary priests can reflect anything other than hypocritical and unpleasant racism.

But perhaps it also reflects the incipient protestantism of the Morris et al crowd - letting in overseas priests would acknolwedge that a diocese is part of the universal church, not just a personal fiefdom over the 'we are church' mob present therein. And as you suggest, it would strengthen the forces for orthodoxy...

Father Kim said...

It seems to me that those clergy that are against clergy from abroad would be at home in political parties like One Nation or the like; no-one in the secular world seems to object to doctors, dentists and other professionals from overseas. My own doctor is from Egypt and he is a wonderful GP.

BTW attendance at substitutes for Sunday Mass is not obligatory: we are obliged to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation [what's left of them!] So you are not obliged to attend a lay-led Communion service.

Anonymous said...

2 observations re your post:

1. Please try to give a broader picture rather that making your words fit your own view point as for example in the following quote from your post:
"Ballarat seems the classic case in point, with twenty empty churches, and but one remaining seminarian."
The many Catholics in the rural areas of the Diocese who gather each Sunday, either for Mass or for a Sunday Assembly would not regard their Churches as 'empty' but rather the central place for sustaining their faith and gathering as the Catholic community of the area.
There may not be a priest resident for many kilometres, but the clergy in those areas work hard to sustain the sacramental life of the Catholics in their care. It is just not always possible on a regular weekly basis.

2. Perhaps you and Anthony Bidgood could check your facts with better sources than you seem to have access to - Bishop Connors does not refuse to have priests from outside Australia in the Diocese. Among the Priests in the Diocese are one from Sri Lanka, two from India and two from Poland. Communication can be a problem but both the priests and the people work hard to overcome this as time passes.