Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Parramatta diocese: getting serious about what needs to be done** updated

Today I want to continue my series of diocesan reviews with a look at Parramatta, Australia's fifth largest diocese. 

This post is essentially a good news story, because although Parramatta, like many dioceses, currently faces very serious challenges indeed, its bishop is doing something about it, embarking on an engagement process aimed at rejuvenating the diocese that looks to be spot on in its objectives.

Bishop Anthony Fisher OP, 51, was appointed in 2010, having previously been an Auxiliary of Sydney and co-ordinator of the Sydney World Youth Day. Bishop Anthony joined the Dominicans in 1985 after a short period practising as a lawyer. He has a doctorate in bioethics, and continues to put out books and articles in this field.

The diocese

Source: ACBC website
The diocese includes around 330,000 catholics in a total population of 1.1m and has a geographical area of 4,289 sq kms.  All up, the diocese currently has 49 parishes and 83 catholic schools.

Parramatta, part of the broader Sydney metropolitan area, is a relatively new diocese - it was carved out of Sydney Archdiocese in 1986.  But though it is new as a diocese, it has some of the oldest parishes and churches in Australia.

It has had only three bishops: Bishop Anthony's predecessors were Bishop Bede Heather and Bishop Kevin Manning (currently Apostolic Administrator of Wilcannia-Forbes).  And they did not leave it in a happy state.

Bishop Heather (1986-97) retired early in the wake of the alleged cover up/mishandling of abuse scandal. Bishop Manning (who has just celebrated fifty years of priesthood) came to the office with an conservative reputation, but soon belied it, saddling the diocese with perhaps the most modernistic of Cathedral interiors in Australia (though there is some competition for this title these days).

Their legacy is a diocese with one of the highest priest to population ratios in the country, at 1:2180 in 2004 (exceeded only by Sandhurst, Townsville, Wollongong and Brisbane).

A diocese where, according to the newly released Diocesan Information Guide, the number of marriages conducted has declined from 831 in 2000 to 512 in 2010, and regular mass attendance was down to 1 in 7 in 2011, and has been falling by about a percentage point a year.

A diocese where, on current trends, the current figure of 47 active diocesan priests will fall to 42 by 2015 and 36 in 2020.

And that represents a huge challenge for one of the fastest growing areas of Australia with the youngest average age of any diocese in Australia as well as being the most ethnically diverse (including 5,000 Aboriginal Catholics, the largest urban concentration in the country) populations.

Liturgy a strength

On the plus side, the diocese has some 48 (!) religious orders operating within its bounds, including the Conventual Friars' noviciate, and the Tyburn Sisters, a fast growing Benedictine Congregation dedicated to Adoration.

The diocese has its own Holy Spirit Seminary which now has eleven seminarians.

The Parramatta diocesan website (reflecting one assumes the churches of the diocese) used to be decorated with pictures of liturgical dancing (see below).  No longer!

I've actually seen claims that the Sunday Solemn (OF) Mass at St Patrick's now outshines even St Mary's, Sydney. 

Certainly the cathedral has daily Lauds, ( I gather this pre-dates the current regime), Adoration, times for confession each day from Monday to Saturday, and any other regular devotions according to its website.

That said, the bishop remains unusual amongst Sydneyites in as much as he has yet to celebrate publicly in the Extraordinary Form (or the traditional Dominican Rite) as far as I know.  And the Cooees have, in their inimitable way, certainly questioned the current bishop's liturgical tastes!

Nor is there (as yet) a regular Extraordinary Form Mass in the Cathedral, despite a campaign being run to effect this by a group of lay people.

Still, the diocese has quite a number of places where the EF is regularly said.  It helps of course that the  FSSP Australian HQ continues to be based in the diocese, not to mention the Conventual Fransciscans noviciate.

Transparency and accountability

I mentioned earlier that Bishop Anthony has just announced the start of a strategic planning process for the diocese, complete with its own blog.  You can hear him talking about it here.

This looks to be really impressive stuff, the first diocese in fact I've seen that seems to be genuinely engaging its people by looking at the measures of things that really count, such as the proportion of marriages in the Church, children baptised, education, the vitality of parish life and so forth.   Nor is it only concerned about currently practising and lapsed catholics, but clearly has an eye to mission more broadly as well.

And the consultation process gets down to the parish level, seeking advice on how to increase vocations, restore the family as the cornerstone of the Church and society, and more.

Please pray for the success of this clearly needed program of evangelization and re-evangelization.


HolyCatholicApostoli said...

spWhy was the largest archdiocese in the nation, at the time, the Archdiocese of Sydney split into three parts (Sydney, Parramatta, Broken Bay)back in 1986.
Was this a good idea? Why/ Why not?
Should the current largest Archdiocese in Australia, Melbourne, be split into Melbourne and Geelong?

Carob mollasses said...

Kate, excellent series - please continue it. I'm looking forward to Sydney and Melb getting covered. Some enquiries - now, the Parramatta numbers would be enough - 1:2180 to earn them a good slamming from you, Kate, but Bishop Fisher gets a pass because he is turning the diocese around, and doing the Conservative* agenda (and a bit of the trad* too it seems). (* with due nuances of your recent taxonomic post taken on board).
Questions - how long do turnarounds take? Lets look at that, so we can make a prediction of turn time, and then ascertain if the conservative/semi-tradd package actually worked, or was just appealing to a small (loud) group in the diocese.

The 48 religious orders - how many of these are pre-1986, and pre-Bishop Fisher; is the large number a positive or merely an effect of being on the west side of Australia's biggest city, and so historically a natural place to settle? (Which means one has to adjust the absence of them elsewhere as counting against other dioceses and their terrible floppy liberal bishops).
Also: to what extent do urban religious orders speak of embourgeoisment and loss of mission in favour of suburban comfort, rather than signalling success of that diocese in having them there?
Could you look at the Tyburn sisters and whether they are recruiting from OS? (the pictures suggest somewhat yes). You should probably put the religious orders on the same footing as the diocesan clergy with regard to importing people - if it is a negative for one, it should be for both.
Isnt 11 seminarians a ridiculously boutique number? Is running a full seminary for such a small number a good use of resources (esp. specialist ones, e.g. skilled formators?), given there are other dioceses (e.g. Sydney) with large numbers nearby? Are they doing their theology in house or at Cath. Institute (with good Fr Gleeson of recent posts! - quelle horreur!) or in Notre Dame, or what?

Additional point - on modernist cathedrals - have you seen the Perth one? What's going on with the circuloid rearrangement and the pink marble there?

HolyCatholicApostoli said...

Fr Ted Tyler of the Parramatta Diocese has an excellent site where he gives his homilies for each day:
Here is today's (Feb 7)

Kate said...

On the diocese breakup, I don't know the answer but I'm sure others can help out. I'd also note that the acatholicas claim the Archbishop is trying to reverse this. Personally I'm in favour of smaller dioceses at it allows the bishop to get to know his clergy and people, visit the parishes and schools regularly, and provide genuine leadership.

Ah Carob. Bishop Anthony doesn't strike me as even vaguely traddie even if he is doing some of the things that I personally have advocated in his reform process! But that is just because they reflect good psychology, commonsense and best practice from around the world!

And yes I am inclined to give a relatively new bishop a break (as I have done in other write ups of dioceses with newish bishops) unless of course they are doing things that run directly counter to church law and directions. And I'm especially willing to give them credit where they seem to be taking some strong positive steps to acknowledge and tackle the obvious problems in the diocese.

Though I do know of course that the acatholicas of whom I presume you are one or sympathise with, are pretty aggrieved at Bishop Anthony's cleanup efforts which I gather came particularly close to home for them.

In terms of timelines, it takes around seven years to train a priest, and on average I'd guess a couple of years on top of that to foster a genuine vocation ethos in a diocese, and get individuals through the process of discernment etc.

So any signs of a long-term turnaround on the priest front are going to take at least ten years to work through.

Similarly, changing the mentality and culture of a diocese is always going to be uphill work. You would presumably try for some early wins and sings of progress. But real turnaround will take years to embed.

Still, depending on the particular strategy the bishop adopts, within a few years one can I think expect to see signs of progress (such as recruitment of priests from overseas, seminarians, etc), stagnation or even regression.

There are things that can be done in the short term that help, such as recruiting missionary priests from overseas, which I regard as an entirely positive and sensible step. And in my view having a diocesan seminary seems to be a fairly key and very worthwhile investment to make - as I noted in the cases of Wagga Wagga and Perth. In my view more dioceses should consider going down that track.

I noted of course that this is a diocese with a long history, hence the reason for the diversity an number of religous orders there. But where a diocese is lacking a strong contemplative monastery and/or priests, my own view is that a bishop should look at whethr that can be remedied.

And on the Tyburns, they do not practice stability, but move their members around the world to suit the needs of the order. But I understand there are quite a few Australians both at Riverstone and in their rapidly growing number of convents around the world (including two convents in NZ).

R J said...

Bishop Fisher might well be above the Australian episcopal average in terms of fealty to Catholic doctrine; alas, on the basis of media reports he would seem to be long overdue for a sharp introduction to the reality-based community, concerning the sex abuse issue:


The idea that conservatively-inclined clergy can be trusted, purely through being conservatively-inclined clergy, to avoid becoming either sex criminals or sex criminals' apologists should years ago have been pensioned off. After all, three of the scariest words in Australian Catholic history are "Father Ron Pickering."

That said, I have found this website's diocesan analyses around the nation to be extremely useful. Long may they continue.

Peregrinus said...

Hold on, hold on, hold on.

You rightly urge dioceses to me more transparent and accountable, Kate, especially by putting good solid information on their websites. It seems to me that Paramatta is doing this, and as a result is being held up as an example of a particularly problematic diocese. This may not be fair.

The diocese tell us that its mass attendance rate, in 2011, was one in seven. While this is nothing to be smug about, it is in fact above the national average attendance rate for 2006 of 13.8%. I’m not sure how it compares nationally in 2011, but that’s because Paramatta has published its 2011 count, whereas most other dioceses have not.

Bear in mind that in 2006, on the figures you published a few days ago, after ten years of stewardship by Bishop Manning, Paramatta had the highest mass attendance rate of any diocese in Australia. Obviously there has been some slippage since, but to what extent is that slippage in Paramatta, and to what extent is it slippage nationally, in which Paramatta has participated? We don’t know, but unless we know of something fairly significant that happened in Paramatta in the last five years, my gut says we are looking at something wider than Paramatta.

As for the low priests-to-people ratio, you blame this on the “legacy” of Bishops Heather and Manning. I think this may be unfair. From it’s inception in 1986, Paramatta has always had a low priest-to-people ratio, and this reflects its nature as a suburban diocese without much in the way of low-population urban centre, or low-population rural areas. It’s no coincidence that Wollongong and Broken Bay also have low priest-to-people ratios, and that all three have significantly poorer ratios than Sydney. From catholic-hierarchy.org, the 2004 priest-to-people ratio in Paramatta is pretty much about what it was in 1990 (the earliest year that catholic-hierarchy has figures for). Over the same period Broken Bay and Wollongong had significant declines in the priest-to-people ratio. Sydney’s ratio improved, but only because the number of Catholics in the diocese fell from 801,000 in 1990 to 579,000 in 2004. (How did that happen? There were no boundary changes during the period.)

In short, we have limited data on which to compare the performance of Paramatta with neighbouring or similar dioceses, but such comparisons as we can make suggest that Paramatta does relatively well on measurable indicators. If we know of particular problems in Paramatta, like recent sharp falls in mass attendance, that’s at least partly because Paramatta is more forthcoming; the neighbouring dioceses may well be having the same problems, but just keeping schtumm about them.

Kate said...

Peregrinus - Yes I too would very much like to see the numbers for 2011 for other dioceses!

But I wasn't suggesting Parramatta is any worse off than many other dioceses - indeed, I've highlighted similar collapses in actual and projected priest numbers for example in a number of dioceses.

What I'm applauding here is the willingness to be upfront about the nature of the problems faced, and to tackle the issue head on.

As for the past, the issue is, faced with what they started with, what have past bishops done about it? Have they worked vigorously to promote vocations? Have they brought in priests from overseas? Have they done anything to promote Sunday attendance, such as ensuring good liturgy and a sense of commitment to mission?

The reality is, in some dioceses bishops have done these things over the last five to ten years plus, and their efforts are already or will pay off over time. But that didn't happen, as far as I can see, in Parramatta, leaving a legacy of ageing priests...

Peregrinus said...

I still think you're being a little unfair, Kate. On the priest to people ratio, Paramatta held its own at a time when the neighbouring dioceses with which it can fairly be compared all declined quite badly. I don't know what step it took to acheive that, but the evidence suggests that they did take more effective steps than their neighbouring dioceses.

(Sydney acheved a better performance on the priest-to-people ratio over the period, but it did so by keeping priest numbers more or less steady, while losing about a third of its Catholic population. This is not a technique we would wish to seem emulated in other dioceses!)

Kate said...

The real figures to look at on priests are I think those projections into the future of active priests.

The problem across Australia is an ageing demographic of our priests. So moving forward depends on ordaining new ones and recruiting from overseas.

Between 2001 and 2011 Sydney actually ordained 29 priests according to the Australian Catholic Directory; Parramatta ordained eight; Broken Bay one.

Those numbers I think speak for themselves.

Kate said...

Folks please, avoid the throwaway lines attacking individuals, however justified you may feel they are!

Quite apart from general principles (like substantiating your case), these days bloggers have to worry about defamation and such like things...

Bob said...

Kate, I was until fairly recently a parishioner at St Patrick's Cathedral, and had spend five years living there. While not a fan of the building, the community, worship and music there was of a high standard.

Parish community life was friendly, and young children were welcome and openly treasured.

I feel you may be a little harsh on Bishop Manning. You cite the cathedral timetable as a positive, including as it does morning prayer and daily confession. That timetable is not a feature of the new regime, but rather a feature that was there under Bishop Manning as well.

I am also somewhat familiar with other parishes in the diocese (South Blacktown and Winston Hills). It is a very big and diverse place!


Kate said...

PM said:

"I think RJ is being a bit hard on Bishop Fisher. He was ambushed with a question about an old case at an interview on the even of World Youth Day, as part of the ABC's crusade against WYD. While I understand he regrets the tetchy tone of his reply, I think it's excusable from someone who had been working day and night for months and was confronted with a crude attempt at sabotage.

The bishop is certainly stirring up the acatholics. He gave a wonderful talk to a gathering of educators in which he said that Catholic schools were too often vaccinating children against faith by giving them dead husks of pop psychology and pop sociology."

This comment has been edited by the moderator.

R J said...

I don't know whether Kate's reference to defamation laws (an understandable worry for any modern author, in Australia above all) was aimed at anything that I myself had written. If so, then I am sorry.

But I think that, pace PM (whose comment, I note, needed to be moderated), an episcopal expression of regret for making a statement which relatives of the priest's victims regarded - in my view with absolute justification - as disguisting, is no substitute for a bishop's most important task in 2012.

This task I defined in a Minnesota-based magazine last year concerning antipodean bishops' responsibilities: "What has been done to ensure that [homosexually molesting] laymen ... will not burgeon in the future [of seminaries], and to stop ... homosexualizing priestly formation right now? From this silence, I take the correct response to be 'zilch'."

We are all these days, I should imagine, heartily weary - on general principle - of prelates who, like most politicians, talk the talk as a substitute for walking the walk. I write this note while visiting the USA, still (unlike Australia) a recognizably Christian country, which fact becomes obvious to even the stupidest observer within 24 hours of leaving his first American airport.

Kate said...

Bob - Thanks for that info, I'll amend the post slightly to reflect that.

RJ and PM: I am being overcautious I'm sure, but my intention, as I've signalled on the blog, is to enforce what I consider to be strict catholic principles on comments, aimed at avoiding any appearance of detraction, calumny etc.

And thereby I hope avoid any other legal risks!

Discussing information in the public arena is absolutely fine, aiming to equip us on how to respond etc; making known relevant (and I stress relevant) background on people can sometimes pass the necessary public interest tests provided it is accurate.

But as far as possible I'd like comments to focus on actions and words rather than throwaway lines that sound like ad hominems - so, to use an earlier example, x has a history of running stories attacking mainstream catholicism/ twisting stories to be anti-catholic stories is preferable to 'x is an anti-catholic bigot' for example.

Stella Orientis said...

A few comments from me, now that most others have contributed.

Disclosure: I reside in the diocese and am known to the Bishop.

Seminary: Education of Parramatta seminarians has up to this point been at CIS, alongside those of Sydney, Canberra-Goulburn etc. +Fisher has been working with Notre Dame to develop a course that would allow him to send his seminarians there, this year they begin their philosophy studies at UNDA instead of CIS. The plan is for UNDA to eventually offer the entire academic programme for Parramatta (as well as various religious orders).

The clerical rumour mill has it that the Bp has been systematically improving the quality of Seminary staff, though it is of course an ongoing process. The present rector is an import from England, and when he visited my own Parish last year I found him to be a magnificent preacher. He managed to silence the large (and infamously noisy) congregation of young families with an account of the life of the blessed in heaven - not the fluffy junk I heard as a kid, but sound meaty doctrine. I for one think the Parramatta seminary is on a fine track, and +Fisher's knack for attracting vocations will fill it in no time.

Liturgy: The liturgical schedule of the Cathedral may or may be an inheritance of the prior reign, but none could deny the enormous improvement in quality of the liturgical music under Bernard Kirkpatrick during the +Fisher tenure, or the small but significant adjustments to Cathedral furnishing under assistant MC Fr Andrew Bass (such as the frontals applied to the "high" altar at the 2011 Easter Triduum). It can only be hoped that as more time passes the servers and acolytes will also be better trained as a model to the parishes of the diocese.

Religious Orders: Most of these have indeed been here in Parramatta since long before the housing boom, and many are (sadly) selling their marvellous buildings to property developers (such as the old Assumption provincial house of studies belonging to the Capuchins in Penrith, next to their colorbond steel pyramid parish church). There is however some hope that +Fisher may decide to invite some of the fresh-faced, habited young orders from overseas (especially of women) and he has hinted at it during various events.

Stella Orientis said...

Omissions: A major omission I think is the presence of Campion College, a liberal arts college inhabiting the building and grounds of a former Marist house of studies. I'll let you get into that on your own schedule (perhaps if you decide to do a critique on the state of Christian tertiary education in Australia?) though I must say that I for one am delighted to have Campion here, and always relish an invitation to their weekly formal dinner.

Another is the famous Theology On Tap initiative held at the Commercial Hotel in Parramatta each month. This was started by Patrick Langrell in 2007 at the PJ Gallagher's pub in Drummoyne, quickly outgrew the premises and moved to PJ Gallagher's Parramatta for Abp. Chaput's keynote during WYD 2008. Patrick subsequently took up a job with (now Cardinal) Dolan in New York, passing leadership of ToT to his younger sister Jessica Langrell. He's back now, working for +Fisher as a research assistant, and she's still running ToT in Parramatta while studying part time at Notre Dame and convening the university chaplaincy. Last count saw about 600+ attendees (including Catholics roughly 18-35, and priests/religious) and +Fisher regularly present.

Bishop: Some mention has been made of the Bishop's comments during world youth day regarding abuse victims. This came up shortly after at USyd when an atheist (as is typical) decided to ambush the bishop with this issue. The Bishop, visibly upset, made clear that his ire was aimed in no way at the victims of abuse, but the muck-raking journalists attempting to sabotage him. If you re-read the Bishop's comment in this light you will see that his words have been twisted to suit the journalists' (diabolical) agenda. Not really related to the welfare of the diocese, but an important point in need of clarification.

Pastoral Plan: The Bishop's pastoral letter has been made available in the diocesan paper "Catholic Outlook", as a standalone flyer (in a multitude of languages) and as a video on YouTube, read by the Bishop himself. This video was played at all Sunday masses in the diocese this weekend past, at the Bishop's instruction. There are several lay consultations scheduled in the various deaneries too, and the Bishop has really taken the initiative by ordering a yearly census at the parish level, among other things.

Bob said...

Interesting comments by Stella.

I can't stand Theology on Tap and comparable initiatives. But then I don't like pubs, or the kind of folk who go to fifteen different "youth" things all over the city well into their thirties, but who might find it hard to quietly attend mass in their own local parish from time to time.

I am not wild about the cathedral, but the changes to it and its furnishings in recent times are making things worse not better. At least it had a sort of consistency or integrity previously. I was not aware Fr Andrew Bass was anything to do with those changes, but I would not be surprised. I am particularly disappointed by the present plan to remove the artwork from the Chapel of Reparation (the Sacred Heart Chapel). As I understand it that piece is to be removed from the Cathedral altogether.

I am not sure what you are referring to with the changes in music under Bishop Fisher. The organist, Bernard Kirkpatrick, substantially predates Bishop Fisher's reign, and it is my view that the quality music under his direction also substantially predates Bishop Fisher's reign! Apart from the high mass at 11am (formerly 9.30am) there is always the quality organ playing of James and a usually excellent cantor at the 9.30am mass.

Stella Orientis said...

Hi Bob. My understanding from speaking to Bernard has been that while +Manning was supportive of his work with the Cathedral choir and music, said programme is far more in line with +Fisher's own larger desires for a liturgical renewal. Thus Mr Kirkpatrick is accorded more freedom in his work than was previously possible -particularly in the employment of Latin.

Regarding the Sacred Heart Chapel: the Cathedral should be a place where the senses turn the mind and heart toward Almighty God particularly through the employ of beautiful form.Cathedrals are houses of prayers, not galleries, and not everything produced with a religious subject or pious intentions is suited to display in a liturgical context. I have no doubt that the Bishop, in his desire to focus the Cathedral less on Man and more on God, will find a suitable place outside the Cathedral to exhibit the piece presently found in the Sacred Heart Chapel.

During my last conversation with him about this topic, he said he was planning to move the statue of Our Lady into that alcove to better preserve it from the hot sun that daily floods her present home, and use that space to make a more worthy shrine to the new Diocesan patroness, St Mary of the Cross. What's not to like?

Stella Orientis said...

Regarding Theology on Tap, it is true that some of the attendees fit the model you mentioned. However, most are university undergraduates whose faith formation was lacking at best (public school) or outright defective at worst (Catholic school).

A big funnel of youth to ToT is the university chaplaincies of USyd, UTS, UNSW and Macquarie (as well as a significant contingent from Notre Dame).

On second thought, I think even the thirty-somethings attending "youth" events regularly attend Mass, though perhaps the emphasis in your comment was "in their local parish"? If so, then all I can say is that where they choose to unite their souls with the divine sacrifice is between them and God.

SCEcclesia said...

A small detail - Bishop Anthony is forbidden by canon law to use the Dominican Rite. Ever since his consecration as a bishop.

Kate said...

Tha't intriguing David, I've never heard of this restrictin - can you provide a reference to the relevant law?