Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Canberra-Goulburn: nice words but where is the follow-through? The state of the Church in Australia**

I suggested there might be some value in a review of the state of the Australian Church by diocese, and it seems only fair to start with my own, namely the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn.

Of course, that means my own diocese is going to cop some comments that apply just as much to many other dioceses, so do bear this mind and be charitable in your assessments! 

But I do think we need to be frank and honest about where we are and what needs to be done.

We need radical reform, genuine renewal

No one can pretend that the Church in Australia is in a happy and healthy state at the moment. 

What is needed is nothing short of a revolution in the way we think and do things - a genuine renewal, not a rerun of the failed one of the last fifty odd years.

But even at the best of times, the radical conversion that God constantly demands of us is never easy - if it were, we would all be saints right now!  And these are very far from being the best of times.

Thus, my starting point for this series is the conversion of Australia: the 'new evangelization' if you will.  It is meant to promote reflection on what graces we need in this coming Year of Grace to achieve internal reconciliation and promote the Church's mission of getting people to heaven.

Just as for individuals, the task for us collectively as members of the Church community, is to turn away from evil and do good.

Turning away from evil in this context, means, I think, rejecting heresy and dissent; cleaning out the Augean stables of homosexual and other infiltration of the clergy by those who reject the Church's moral and other teachings in theory and/or in practice. 

Doing good means doing the things needed to make the Australian Church a spiritual powerhouse that produces saints, attracting new members by its beautiful and engaging liturgy, its clear teaching, and its effective use of its members in their proper roles.

So where are we at here in Canberra?

The diocese

Canberra-Goulburn is something of an oddity as a diocese, including Australia's capital city (Canberra), one of its larger inland towns (Goulburn) and a large swath of rural New South Wales.  The diocese nominally includes some 159, 670 catholics out of a total population of 569,000 (2006 figures from Catholic Hierarchy website). 

It suffered the same pattern of declining numbers of priestly vocations as most Australian dioceses, with the number of priests in the diocese dropping from a peak of 176 in 1966 to 120 in 2006, when the current Archbishop took office. 

Episcopal leadership

The current incumbent, Archbishop Mark Coleridge (who took office in 2006) is regarded as something of a 'moderate' in Australian episcopal terms, which means not aligned with the conservative crowd led by Cardinal Pell, but not an outright liberal either.

It had been rumoured that the Archbishop would be moved to Brisbane, but that seems unlikely now with the appointment of Bishop Jarrett as Apostolic Administrator - though of course there are other vacancies in the offing. Another more plausible rumour is that he has the numbers to be the next President of the Australian Bishops Conference when Archbishop Wilson's term expires in the not very distant future.

In the archdiocese he has worked hard to increase priestly vocations, resulting in the diocese starting last year with ten seminarians.   He also deserves plaudits for having ordained a number of missionary oriented overseas recruits as priests and deacons (three this year).  Unfortunately though, ordinations do not yet seem to be making up for priestly deaths...

Last year was on the whole a good year for the Archbishop - the new Roman Missal  (he was chair of the ICEL Committee) was finally implemented; his ongoing battle against the Australian Capital Territory's determinedly secularist Government in its attempt to squeeze the Catholic hospital out of the public health system was finally won; and the coming Year of Grace seems to have been something he developed. 

Mind you, his battle with the Territory Government is far from over - he still has a fight on his hands with the over plans to tear down a classic example of canberra tat (so classic apparently, that the local heritage commission wants to preserve this monstrosity of liturgical wreckovation!) in the form of St Patrick's Braddon and replace it with an office block (including a chapel) in the interests of improving the diocese's dire financial situation.  While I'm not usually in favour of removing visible church structures and replacing them with hidden chapels in the interests of the pursuit of mammon, I have to say I'm struggling to see any heritage value here!

And the year ended for him on a positive note, with Archbishop's appointment only late last week as a member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

Nonetheless, the Archbishop continues to gets very mixed reviews in the archdiocese for a variety of reasons, including some rather flatfooted public statements. 

The diocese's millstone in terms of episcopal leadership though is Canberra's vocal Auxiliary, Bishop Patrick Power. 

Infamous (or famous depending on your point of view) for an article in the Canberra Times a few years back in support of the ordination of women, and more recently for his support of Bishop Morris of Toowoomba, Bishop Power is one of Australia's leading liberal dissenters.  

He has apparently asked to be allowed to resign early, and the local rag suggests July this year as likely timing.  Can't come soon enough as far as I am concerned - all the commitment in the world to good causes can't make up for the propagation of error on the part of our shepherds.

Religious life

While priestly vocations have been strongly promoted of late in this archdiocese, religious life rather less so.  The diocese had 153 religious women in 2006, mostly ageing 'active' sisters.  By way of contemplatives, the diocese does have a small (calced, ?dying) Carmel.

The main source of hope so far as religious life goes in the diocese though is the homegrown (not quite yet a religious order) Missionaries of God's Love.  Young, enthusiastic and committed, though charismatic, they make Eucharistic Adoration a central part of their charism. 

MGLs with AB Coleridge, Convocation 2011
Source: Diocesan website
And they've made St Benedict's Narrabundah Canberra's star parish, with Adoration most weekdays and nights, a strong charity focus, regular doorknocking campaigns, regular spiritual events, and much more.  Their liturgical and spiritual style is, shall we say, not exactly my cup of tea, but commitment counts.

The traditional Mass....

Canberra's Traditional Mass 'Community' is run by the FSSP.   

It offers a daily Mass. 

There are two Sunday Masses, one on each side of town (though the diocesan website needs to be updated on locations).

But there are no advertised confession times (the bulletin gives that old hoary 'after Mass on Saturdays' spiel that one expects to see at novus ordo churches rather than in traditionalist ones). 

No regular catechesis or social events. 

And there are no other regularly scheduled EF Masses in the archdiocese that I'm aware of (the once a month in Goulburn seems to have disappeared from the listings), though a few other priests do offer them from time to time.

Now the Mass itself is of course a great gift.  But. 

This sorry state of affairs reflects in part the FSSP's interesting personnel policies, including three successive experiences of the 'six months apprenticeship then sink or swim, and do it your own way' approach to placement of new-made priests.  Mostly they do manage to swim, sort of.  But having to reinvent the wheel on what a traditionalist community should look like and do is not a sensible way to proceed in my view and tends to promote idiosyncratic approaches and responses!

But that is not the only issue here.

Liturgy in Canberra

And while we are on the weaknesses of the diocese, let's consider the liturgy more generally!
Early in his time in Canberra Archbishop Coleridge put out a strong pastoral letter on the liturgy.  You will be hard pressed to find much evidence of its impact in the diocese on the ground however.

Even the Cathedral, which has a competent choir, is still addicted to the 'four hymn sandwich' approach, and last time I visited at the Sunday evening mass featured a selection of those appalling 70s numbers.

The sign of peace is still a regular feature of most weekday masses around this town; silence after communion is the exception not the rule; unnecessary extraordinary eucharistic ministers abound in most parishes; and to hear chant outside the TLM is a rarity.

There are a few places one can find the 'Benedictine altar arrangement' and suitable reverence.  But there is, as far as I know, nothing even vaguely resembling a 'reform of the reform' parish in this archdiocese (with things like mass ad orientem and in both forms; sung propers and ordinary in chant; communion received kneeling; and no altar girls!) despite the fact that there are a few priests who would be capable of running such a thing.

Catechesis, orthodoxy and orthopraxis

One of the reasons the Toowoomba affair got so out of hand, I suspect, was the sense in that diocese that they were autonomous, and that Rome and even the rest of Australia was irrelevant to them.  It is the (in the Toowoomba case liberal) ghetto mentality writ large.

Perhaps one of the reasons this mentality develops is the kind of diocesan website and diocesan newspaper that Canberra-Goulburn has: excellent when it comes to local news, but pays little attention to the wider world unless it directly impacts on it.

The diocese has a great email news service for example - but the stories it features are invariably local ones, and there is little or no promotion of what the Holy Father, or even the ACBC, is saying for example unless the Archbishop is directly involved.

The archdiocese does run a reasonably active program of adult catechesis - from what I've seen of some of the materials and heard of some of the regular speakers, quite whether the content stands up to proper tests is another question altogether. A good example of the nature of the problem is the book reviews regularly featured in the diocesan newspaper The Voice.  Even where they aren't outright erroneous, they are often badly slanted - in the December edition, for example a book on why to stay a catholic promoting the liberal palaver that the laity 'need to become adults' was lauded at length, while another book pointing to the importance of liturgical renewal was rejected as someone pushing his own barrel...

But there are good things happening - on New Year's Eve for example, a group organised Adoration starting with Solemn Vespers.

And the Archbishop has signalled a push on confession for this year.

The biggest problem, though, as everywhere, is finding orthodox sermons on a Sunday - outside the traddies (which tend to be somewhat eccentric in delivery and content even if orthodox), I can think of only a few places that are reliably safe (and the cathedral is not one of them - last time I went there I got a paean in praise of (SS) Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln.  It surpassed my previous favourite from there on that well known catholic saint, Lord Krishna).  

But there are a few relative oases - personally I'm rapidly becoming a fan of the solid and insightful sermons of diocesan Chancellor Fr Julian Wellspring over at his small but friendly parish of St Thomas More (where the FSSP also say a Sunday low mass). 


There are, as I've noted above, some initiatives that hopefully draw lapsed and non-Catholics in, such as the talks of the St Thomas More Forum, and other efforts of individual parishes.

But it is all small scale without looking particularly co-ordinated.

Go the archdiocesan website (an obvious starting point for someone interested), for example, and you won't find anything obviously directed at possible inquirers.

Transparency and accountability

Canberra archdiocese does win brownie points on the transparency front though.

First, the diocesan website has reasonably comprehensive information about mass times, diocesan agencies, and key contacts (save for the strange omission of the name of its Chancellor!).

Secondly, it does put out an Annual Report on its pastoral activities, including a financial summary. 

Though I have to say, much of the report is essentially fluff - there is nothing much by way of hard data on things like the number (and more importantly proportion) of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, mass attendance and other actual hard 'performance indicators' of mission.  We need this stuff if we are going to get serious...

The role of the laity/promotion of Catholic culture

Here I have to point to a good news story in the form of the St Thomas More Forum - a case of a small but committed parish (see above) taking its patron saint seriously, and doing appropriate work in a city whose major business is Government! 

That said, in a city whose primary industry is Government, there is precious little around directed at the more general initial formation and ongoing support of potential and new bureaucrats, ministerial advisers, lobbyists and politicians.

The result is all too much appeasement, and self-serving justifications thereof, of the kind recently set forth in December edition of the Voice by the Diocesan Social Justice Commission on why we should go for 'realistic' political options in relation to pro-life matters.

The recent Archdiocesan Assembly, on the other hand, was, I think, a useful model for lay engagement - more could have been done perhaps to use it as a catechetical opportunity, but it was organised in a way that made it easy for anyone who wanted to be involved.  That's no small thing in a church whose diocesan and parish structures often seem pretty impenetrable to me at least!  And the day itself was pretty engaging.  Whether its engagement effects carry through, and provides the Archbishop with any useful ideas to consider remains to be seen.

In sum...

Canberra-Goulburn strikes me as a fairly typical Australian diocese - some very bad parishes, some reasonable ones, but on the whole pretty dead average.

It has the same problems that most Australian dioceses have, viz the legacy of the spirit of Vatican II: the collapse of orthodoxy and orthopraxis; leading to the collapse from the 70s onwards of vocations to the priesthood and religious life; leading in turn to the decline of practice on the part of the laity.

Of course it has its own particular challenges as well: demographic shifts in rural areas in particular.

There are a few positive signs. 

And there are lots of good words said, such as the Archbishop's Christmas Message acknowledgement of the problems of secularism (for some reasons the website doesn't allow the video to be placed on other websites) said.

But all in all it falls far short of what is needed if we are to get serious about reclaiming Australia for Christianity.

In particular, it lacks even one parish that models what I think the Holy Father seems to envisage a new evangelization parish looking like...bring on the New Evangelization!

**Parish closures

And serving as an interesting addendum to this report, The Canberra Times on January 4 carries a story of parish closures, with several parishes being converted to 'missions' supported by religious sisters...

Next diocese...

I hope this piece proved of interest.  This one is somewhat longer than what will probably be the norm for these pieces though!

Please note, dear readers, that I'm not paid to research or write this blog!  I am relying on receiving some reader input here, so please do send in prompts for issues and events you think should be covered...


Anonymous said...

Despite any good sermons Archbishop Coleridge is alleged to have given, failing to publicly rebuke Bishop Power is sufficient to condemn him, apart from his political correctness and everything else he hasn’t done (and never will).

Adrian Sharp said...

This is going to be an interesting trip around Australia!

althea said...

It is interesting that you mention a push on confessions. I did a survey of confession times in Canberra/Queanbeyan (just the city area) last year, and it was worse than I thought - less than 20 hours scheduled, 75% of which are on Saturday. I generously allowed 30mins for "open ended" confession times - though I suspect if you aren't there right on time they don't happen at all (eg TLM). If penitents only took 5 mins (HA!HA!) only 235 people could go to confession each week.

I calculate that for a parish of 500 to each spend 5 minutes in the confessional once a month (often held up as the ideal), you would need 10 hours scheduled each week.

Priests need to make themselves more available for confessions, and at more convenient times. What family in Canberra finds Saturday confessions convenient? especially the morning. Spread out the times - early morning, late evening, midday during the week, after school one day. Make it EASY for people to get there - and SIT in the box, don't make us come looking for the priest.

Surely this is more important than the admittedly many administrative tasks a priest has, and who knows, it may even inspire more involvement in the parish.

Anon 2 said...

The FSSP is notable for lack of pastoral concern, even compared to OF parishes.

For example, Ash Wednesday last year was observed with one Mass, celebrated at 7.30am. You'd almost imagine an intention to ensure that the ordinary faithful would not attend.

J M said...

Archbishop Coleridge wrote a good article in AD2000 entitled
"Reform of the reform: a 'shift in liturgical culture'" in May 2010.


Kate said...

Yes nice words.

But has AB Coleridge ever actually celebrated ad orientem publicly in his cathedral? If so, I've neither seen nor heard about it.

Kate said...

By way of an update, the Latin Mass community now has set confession times Monday to Saturday, but not before or after Mass on Sunday.