Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese's Mass strategy: the path to recovery?

In my review of the state of the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese I mentioned the diocesan Assembly process in train, looking primarily at the problems of providing Sunday Masses in the face of changing demographics, declining Mass attendance rates, and the loss of the sense of Sunday's as dedicated to God. 

The final Report of the Archdiocesan Assembly (which I attended) is now out is now out, together a set of initial decisions by the Archbishop and some proposals for further consultation. 

And it looks like a fairly solid, sensible starting point to me.  Whether it can a deliver the necessary results will, however, be the real challenge, dependent on leadership at the diocesan and parish levels.

Liberal hysteria

Over at Cath News, fueled by some misreporting in the Canberra Times on the decisions taken to date(headed 'use it or lose it' on Mass provision), there was a fair amount of hysteria, to the point where first the media advisor for the ACBC and then the Archbishop himself felt they had to intervene in the comments box. 

It is actually good to see a bit of supervision happening over there - if only our bishops intervened to correct some of the other debates over there that so often go off the rails doctrinally! - but it should be unnecessary if the site did its job properly.

Still, in a way it is good to see people react so strongly to proposals to reduce the number of Masses - seems there is still some remnant of genuine love for the Mass out there!

Indeed, someone who objects to the idea of closing down Sunday Masses with less than 15 attendees (a not unreasonable proposition in my view!) even has a shot at me claiming that those elderly mass goers "deserve better than the alarmist nonsense promulgated by blogs like Australia Incognita (read ignorantia) with their talk of schism -a claims [sic] made with no solid evidence and ignorance about what is actually happening in parishes." 

Virtual schism?

In reality the actual Report of the Archdiocesan Assembly documents all too clearly the challenge of dealing with the virtual schism in the Australian Church.

It notes, for example that:

"Critically, however, the Assembly also disclosed a diverse range of views of what being Catholic might mean. In some cases, these amounted to opposing views: for example, on the role of the laity in the Church; or on engagement with, or opposition to, secular society; or on the role and value of Catholic schools."

The range of suggestions recorded from the Assembly reflects that divide.  On the one hand there are those who see the causes of low mass attendance in things like:

The failure to teach convincingly what the Church actually believes, combined with shoddy liturgy, is a major turnoff for most people

On the other there are those who see the current direction of the Church as problematic because of its focus on 'legalism and control', who say that:

There is a sadness that the governance of the Church is failing to implement some of the ongoing reforms of Vatican II, particularly with regard to the role of the laity.

And of course there is the ritual suggestion from the spirit of Vatican II crowd  that the solution to the shortage of priests is to:

Ordain women, use married ex-priests or have married priests

Steering a path through

But in fact the report itself seems to do a fairly good job of steering a path through the divide.  Take for example this statement of what the objectives of the reform process might be:

Catholics want to feel part of prayerful, vibrant, loving, and engaging communities, and therefore:

We need to improve our understanding of the Eucharist, specifically in our welcoming, our reverence, our music, our liturgy and our homilies

We need to support our priests better, form our lay people better, and encourage more participation

We want better partnerships between schools and parishes

We need to use information technology more effectively.

Hard to argue with any of that, depending of course on what is meant by some of the terminology!

Can Mass attendance be turned around?

The really positive outcome of the Report, in my view, is the emphasis in the Archbishop's decisions arising from the Report on reviving parishes as centres for evangelization, including finding ways of contacting those who don't come to Mass, and even going out door-knocking:

Given that parishes have to become centres for evangelization (going out to people), not just centres of sacramental and pastoral service (to which people come), parishes will explore ways of contacting in their homes the many who are either far from Christian faith or who have ceased attending Church, e.g. use of social media, local letter-box drops (especially at Christmas and Easter), going out “two by two” to knock on doors.

Of course, how real this will actually be and whether it will be effective depends in large part on what they see when they actually visit the parish, and there are proposals to tackle the obvious problems here too, including a proposal (for further consultation) to set up liturgy committees in each parish or group of parishes:

"...taking as its charter the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and, in particular, my 2008 Pentecost Letter, “Preparing the Feast” and also drawing upon the work of the Archdiocesan Liturgical Commission."

Now Committees, and especially Liturgy Committees, can be dangerous things, but a mechanism to actually implement what the GIRM actually says, as well as the Archbishop's (very good) Pastoral Letter on the Liturgy could, in my view, be a very positive thing if managed properly.  It is after all, one of the enduring administrative deficiencies in the Church that Rome and even local bishops put out endless sets of rules and statements (typically in fairly undigestible form without summaries of the concrete proposals), but no one ever follows through to see that they are implemented!

There are also some welcome initiatives to increase transparency and accountability, particularly in relation to diocesan and parish finances.
Reduce the number of masses?
The more controversial proposals, which have been put out for a further consultation, include:
  • There will be no more than two Masses each Sunday in parishes other than those which are larger (and have the services of two or more priests) and those which have a number of communities to serve.
This is in fact the canonical norm.  But given the Assembly's focus on recovering Sunday's as the Lord's Day, can I suggest restricting Saturday Vigil masses to those parishes with more than one priest, so that the two Masses are actually said on Sunday?!  Indeed one comment in the Report notes the lack of 'family friendly' Mass times - too many priests set early times presumably to get their duties for the day over and done with...
  • In any month on a Sunday, no parish or community is to have fewer celebrations of Mass than Liturgies of the Word with Holy Communion
Well, a step in the right direction I guess, though personally I'd just close down those liturgies of the word down altogether.
  • Where the number of those attending Sunday Mass is less than fifteen adults, provision of Mass and Services of the Word with Holy Communion will cease.
Fifteen parishioners is clearly not a viable number.  But if those attending Masses in jeopardy want to save their parishes, well, now is the time to get out there door knocking or whatever to bring more people in...
A step in the right direction?

All in all, this Report seems to me at least to strike a reasonable balance between the competing views and provide at least a possibility of revival. 

Of course there is a lot more I would have included had it been me writing it!  Things like each parish to have at least an hour's Adoration a week, with an intention of praying for priestly vocations.  A ban on female altar servers, and much more.  You can read some of my previous suggestions here.  But I guess you have to at least start from what you have in front of you.

Actually turning around Mass attendance and achieving genuine renewal will be no easy task.  It will need a lot more than has been set out in this Report.  Still, it seems a step in a positive direction, so please do keep the Archbishop and the diocese in your prayers.

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