|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?
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.
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.
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.