Friday, 16 March 2012

Wollongong Weirdness

The last of the New South Wales dioceses to be considered in this series on the state of the Church in Australia – save of course for the Metropolitan See – is Wollongong, the eighth largest diocese in terms of number of Catholics, in Australia.

Just Eccentric??

It has a number of odd features which I for one find hard to understand. 

Let me give a few examples.

It has not one but two Cathedrals.  Now the need for a pro-Cathedral might be readily seen in a very large geographical diocese.  But in this rather small (well, by Australian standards anyway) diocese, the two buildings are actually in neighbouring parishes! 

Even more oddly, the actual Cathedral (a large gothic building) was only dedicated as such in 2010 despite some 162 years of service!

The diocesan website seems weirdly intent at pushing film reviews at you.

And then there is the "stewardship" movement the docese subscribes to...

But do read on.

About Wollongong

The diocese takes its name from Australia’s ninth largest Australian city (third largest in NSW after Sydney and Newcastle), the seaside town of Wollongong, around 80 kilometres south of Sydney.

Wollongong itself is essentially an industrial city, which attracted a highly multicultural population through its steelworks. The area has long been economically depressed, however, with unemployment rates well above the national and NSW averages, and very high rates of youth unemployment. These days it is also a commuter base, with around 20,000 of its people actually working in Sydney. The diocese also takes in the Illawarra and tourist oriented Southern Highlands region.

The diocese was created out of Sydney and Canberra-Goulburn in November1951, and its first bishop took Office in 1952, so the diocese is currently celebrating its 60th birthday. It has had four ordinaries: Thomas McCabe (who resigned aged 71 in 1974); William Murray (1975-1996); (now AB of Adelaide) Philip Wilson (1996-2000); and the current Bishop, Peter Ingham, aged 71.

The diocese of Wollongong includes some 185,000 Catholics (2010), or 28.6% of the population of the diocese of 646,000.

One of the smaller dioceses in terms of geographical size, at 6,121 sq kms, it has a number of historic churches within its borders.

Priests and mass attendance

The picture of ordinations and priest numbers is similar to that in most other Australian dioceses with less vigorous ordinaries: there have been few ordinations, and though the nominal number of priests in the diocese has remained more or less stable over the past decade, it has failed to keep pace with population growth.

And of course the declining number of active priests due to the ageing demographic of those priests that remain - in 2001 there 38 diocesan priests, and a total 76 priests; in 2010 the nominal total was 74. The website suggests that there are actually around half that, with 35 active priests. Moreover, the population of the area has increased, resulting in the already high priest to people rising to a very high 1; 2,500.

The priest shortage does not look likely to end any time since the first ordinations in five years occurred only late last year (both late vocations) and the diocese has only three seminarians in total.

In 2010, there were 79 male religious resident in the diocese and 118 female religious.

These include the Jamberoo Benedictine nuns popularized by the ABC program The Abbey, the Varrowville Carmelites, and Pauline Father's Penrose Park Shrine of Our Lady.  The latter is notable for its major events such as its monthly 'Fatima Days' which attract huge crowds.

In 2006, mass attendance rates in the diocese were below the national average, at 12.6% of Catholics.


Bishop Peter Ingham was originally a priest and Auxiliary (from 1993) of Sydney Archdiocese. He was installed as bishop of Wollongong on 25 July 2001.

The bishop's bio page is filled with cutesy quotes on servant leadership, and the value of gentleness and concern for others.  Certainly some of the Bishop's recent talk on what being pastoral in the priestly ministry really means (it actually talks about getting people to heaven in amongst the more predictable material) might usefully be read and absorbed in some other places, most notably and particularly his comment that:

"If I am to relate to others for the sake of the Gospel, I can’t afford to be discourteous, rude, bad-tempered, or a user of people."

It's not quite clear to me, though, how well these fine sentiments actually align with reality. 

Certainly, as in so many places where “new ways of being church” are being explored, those more conservative priests who disagree with the liberal hegemony seemed to be viewed as 'threats' and 'sources of disunity' rather than valued for their diversity...


The bishop has a strong interest in the liturgy. Alas, in Australia a diocesan bishop with an interest in liturgy has not, in general, proved to be a positive thing!  Leading liberal Bishop Patrick Power of Canberra, for example, reportedly said not long after his appointment:

“His interests and committee work have emphasised ecumenical and interfaith relations. He is a strong advocate for a more inclusive and ecumenical style of liturgy. This was certainly reflected in the traditional but fresh style of his installation liturgy.”

His interest is, it is true, reflected in a positive way in daily morning prayer in the Cathedral, and strong promotion of the liturgy of the hours on the diocesan and parish websites.

Yet the bishop is one of those who has publicly undermined the implementation of the new missal by his criticisms.  There have been a few blog posts by priests recently critical of those who use their positions within the Church to criticize the missal, even using parish bulletins to do so. A Secular Priest has even pointed to the canonical issues this raises. Yet how can priests be blamed when their bishops set the bad example in this?

Bishop Ingram is one of those who, far from keeping his concerns about the new translation in house, has been publicly critical of the new missal, with some of the highlights of his dissertation on the subject to his priests (still available in full on the diocesan website) picked up by the UK's Bitter Pill back in January.

Unsurprisingly, then, the diocese has but an ‘every second Sunday at 3pm’ EF Mass.

Mission and outreach

There are some strengths though in this diocese, and one of them is the diocesan website's mission orientation. It makes an especial effort to easily present key elements of catholic identity such as basic prayers and other catechetical information.  It makes a real effort to make the Liturgy of the Hours accessible to all.

And that is carried through with accessible information on where parishes are located, mass and confession times (and at least in the couple of parish websites I looked at, a reasonable amount of time is set aside for this).  There isn’t much concrete accountability information, but that is the norm in Australia…

Mind you, as noted above, one rather strange aspect of the website is the focus on film reviews!  Now I appreciate that we are all paying for Fr Leonard and co's interesting efforts in this area, so perhaps the rationale is that we ought to get some value for the outlay the ACBC makes for all those trips to film festivals around the world and so forth, but do Wollongongites (perhaps because of that high umemployment rate?!) spend all their days watching DVDs and going to the movies?  And even if they do, is this really something to be encouraged?!


One other point of note in the diocese seems to be it's commitment (along with the usual suspects - the Queensland dioceses, Adelaide, Newcastle and Broken Bay but also eclectic Perth) to the "stewardship" movement.

It is pretty hard to grasp just what this really is about, since it is mostly presented as anecdotes rather than analysis or actual concrete measures, but it seems to be a rather naive version of social justice and environmentalism mixed together and given Christian decoration.  Here is an extract from the Wollongong diocesan website to give you a flavour:

"Imagine if you were homeless and someone gave you a new home for free. You would receive that gift so gratefully, recognising that this person must care for you deeply. [This all seems an incredibly naive denial of human concupiscence!  And the evidence for its misguidedness is in every public housing area in the country...] You would probably call that person to mind each time you returned home - especially on wet and cold nights! You would look after this precious gift. If you encountered others in need of shelter, you may reflect on what you had received and offer to house them as well. You may even look for ways to increase housing in your local area.

This gives us a taste of what stewardship is about. Stewardship begins with a profound recognition that God has lovingly given us our home, this world, and all that we possess and all that we are. We are so loved and precious in God's eyes! As with any precious gift, stewardship then calls us to cultivate the gift of our own lives, talents, and world responsibly. However, we could do that and just keep the goodness to ourselves. Stewardship recognises that if we have received these free gifts out of God's goodness then we are called to share them lovingly in justice with others. And when we do share, we don't offer the leftovers but return what we have been given with increase to our God.

Get what it is all about?  Can't say I do.

Kind of par for the course for this diocese though...


Fr Ronan Kilgannon said...

Dear Kate,
Not mentioned above in the Diocese of Wollongong are three hermits. They seek apostolic fruitfulness by their live of penance and prayer in solitude. One is a Brother of a teaching congregation, the other two have been consecrated hermits of the Diocese for the past decade (Cn 603). Sister's rule is based on that of the Carmelites, and the priest's an adaption of the Rules of St Benedict and St Romuald.

Antonia Romanesca said...

Wollongong: “…as in so many places where “new ways of being church” are being explored, those more conservative priests who disagree with the liberal hegemony seemed to be viewed as 'threats' and 'sources of disunity' rather than valued for their diversity...”
This is a terrible [Catholic] national tragedy and one has to fear what the Hand of God Almighty might well do about it. If it continues over the long term, one has to fear that the entire Australian Catholic Church might go down the Swannee, as a result. In our diocese, we don’t see that ‘new ways of being church’, going back to 1986,’ has brought the Church forward – what we see, is tens of thousands of Catholics who have left the Church, seemingly permanently and almost always because of how they have been treated and not because they have suddenly “become spiritually devoid.” Meantime, the more extravagant of the New Age priests, bray from the ambo: “society does not want to know about us – this is why our pews are empty!” More quiet conservatives and gentile, scholarly middle of the roaders running the Church in Oz though [thanks to the very large number of Episcopal vacancies occurring about now], is going to improve this situation, before we will be compelled to emigrate to Italy – is this not so?