In November 2020, a small team delivered the ‘Diocese of Palmerston North 2020 Update‘ in various locations around the Diocese. As part of this ‘Update‘, I delivered a short presentation called ‘Roadmaps for Transformation‘.
This article is a summary of that presentation. It draws heavily on recent reflections on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our ecclesial life, the teachings of Pope Francis and the work of Fr. James Mallon with ‘Divine Renovation’.
Where we currently find ourselves
I want to begin by proposing that we currently find ourselves in liminal space.
Liminal space is the in between of ‘no longer’ and ‘not yet.’ Liminal space can be really uncomfortable.
When I say I think we are finding ourselves in liminal space I mean ‘we’ as a Diocese, as a Church, and to a certain extent ‘we’ as people living in 2020.
We are being called out of something old and into something new. The old isn’t fully gone and the new thing isn’t fully realised. So we feel stuck in the in between.
You might place yourself or the community at different places on the continuum.
I would like to briefly touch on three characteristics of liminal space that were written about recently in an article about Covid-19. I think that these apply to us as a church too [read full article here].
You have left the familiar and are moving into the unfamiliar. You experience feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, uneasiness, insecurity and awkwardness.
We acknowledge that liminal space may be one of the most vulnerable places we ever find ourselves. In “normal” times many of us find ourselves living well orchestrated lives that prevent any vulnerabilities from seeping in. When they do, the desire to run or retreat to what we used to know, can be overwhelming.
In liminal space we can feel as though our identity is up for grabs. And the uncertainty of it all can mess with us. Each of us, in different ways, are experiencing a culture of questioning that runs over into all areas of our lives. This culture can cause us to question our purpose. This isn’t always a bad thing though, loosing the familiar can unmask our idols and even if we feel lost for a time, it provides an opportunity for us to rediscover what our true identity is both as a Church and as individuals.
Why we find ourselves here
The reasons I would suggest we find ourselves in liminal space are probably not that surprising. You might have others to add too. For the purpose of this article I would like to focus on two of them, our identity and the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It is not that the Church of Christ has a mission, but that the mission of Jesus Christ has a Church.”
Fr. James Mallon, Divine Renovation, 17
In 2018, Fr. James Mallon came and spoke to the Diocesan Priests of Aotearoa. In his book, Divine Renovation, Fr. James speaks of our need to rediscover our true identity and our mission. He says that “we have forgotten our essential missionary calling. We have contented ourselves with maintenance and serving ourselves.” (17)
We seem to have forgotten why we are here.
I have recently been presenting around some of the crises I think we face as a Church and I believe that our identity is the foundation of all other challenges we face.
In relation to our identity I want to speak to two questions.
First, who are ‘we’ as a Church. Who is the ‘we’ that we refer to?
Secondly, what is the point of ‘our’ being here? Why do we do what we do? Can we articulate that?
are we together?
As a pilgrim people of God, are we together on the mission? From my experience, it seems to me that so often ‘we’, as Catholics, seem to focus on our differences more than what unites us.
Pope Francis describes this as a “us & the others attitude.” [read more]
Sometimes it feels like many Catholics spend more energy defining themselves within a group in the Church rather than actually getting on with why we are here. Whether it be …
Left or Right …
Progressive or Conservative …
Ordained or Lay …
In or Out …
Practicing or Non-Practicing …
[insert your own categories]
It is okay for us to think differently from one another but as Pope Francis also says, “always in the unity of the Church, under Jesus the Shepherd.”
It is tempting to look back and think that at another time in our history and think that things were harmonious. There is no such age in the history of the Catholic community, here have always been conflicts of demographics and ideologies.
But in turbulent times like these, we need to focus on what unites us.
I would like for us to consider what happens when ‘we’ actually refers to all of the baptised. In 2018 there were just over 50,000 people within the geographical region covering the Diocese of Palmerston North who identify as Catholic on the Census. In the same year, there were around 8,500 students and teachers in our Catholic School system and just over 7,000 who attended Mass on Sunday.
That means that on a weekly basis there is roughly, give or take, around 15,000 people connecting with either a Catholic parish or a Catholic school. So what about the other 35,000 or so people who continue to identify on census as Catholic, but for whatever reason do not choose to connect with a local faith community on a regular basis?
How can we recognise the Spirit of God in all 50,000 people? And how can we ensure that when we talk about the Catholic community there is at least some acknowledgement of all of those who identify in some way as “Catholic” and not just those who show up regularly in our immediate community?
Further to this, for us in Aotearoa, acknowledging and collaborating on mission as schools and parishes is incredibly important. We need to keep looking for ways to work together and ask the hard questions about why so many people want to engage with our schools but often not our parishes.
Why do we do what we do?
- Why do we want strong communities?
- Why do we not want to see family or friends drift away from the Church?
- Why do we want to keep our young people active in the Church?
- Is it just to keep the numbers up so we look good & vibrant?
- Is it so we can give people a positive and emotionally uplifting experience?
- Is it so we can balance the budget and run programs?
None of these things are bad in themselves, but the true answer to “why” may be obvious to some, but maybe not all. What is the Church here for? Do we really know what the mission is? Can we articulate this?
“Mission-focused Churches see their purpose … to be acting in service of the larger reign of God in the world.”
Fr. James Mallon
This is the mission. To go, make disciples, baptise and teach.
This is where we have to find our identity.
We’ve built structures and systems as a Church to support the mission. But this is now distracted us from the mission and meant that the mission has become to “maintain these structures and systems.”
We need to spend time working on the system rather than just in it.
We also need to keep tabs on the things that cause us to turn inward rather than outward. Things that distract us from our mission.
Distractions from our mission
I think that there are two key things that cause us to turn inward rather than outward. Bishop Robert McElroy from the Archdiocese of San Diego noted these in a lecture he gave late last year.
1. A Bunker Mentality
“The first thing that causes us to turn inward rather than outward is a bunker mentality. We seem to have become paralysed by the constancy and substance of attacks against the Catholic Church. This is especially challenging for the many people who have given their lives in service of the Church.
This bunker mentality has also arisen because of a failure to recognise the enormity of abuse and also because of the secularising trends of our society. Both of these things have caused huge drift away from the Church.
When we allow the bunker mentality to paralyse us, we find ourselves unable to constructively engage with the world or find the energy and hope needed to be creative and innovative.”
2. Culture of Maintenance
“The second thing that causes us to turn inward rather than outward is the culture of maintenance that is so pervasive in the Church in this time in history. We are the inheritors of institutions and structure, buildings and financial commitments that were established in a prior age.
We are also inheritors of patterns of decision making that place enormous value on how decisions were made in the past as a guide to how they should be made today.”
Both of these things create a powerful force of inertia. Which in turn means that maintaining the status quo is seen as more important than reviewing our priorities. The bunker mentality and culture of maintenance turn us away from our mission.
(Bishop McElroy, 2019)
In July 2020, Bishop McElroy ordained a auxiliary bishop in San Diego. During the homily he spoke of the implications of the last few months saying that “the pandemic has transformed the landscape of our ecclesial life in ways that will permanently change the nature of pastoral action and evangelisation.” [read more]
disruption of our ecclesial life
Bishop McElroy suggested in this homily that the ways we have been doing parish life and evangelisation for decades has now been ruptured by the isolation we have lived through as a result of the pandemic.
We lived through isolation in Aotearoa during the time of lockdown. I would like to also suggest that perhaps for us down here at the bottom of the world, we are facing a renewed experience of our physical isolation from the rest of the world too. We are experiencing the positive outcomes of our borders remaining closed, as we work to keep Covid-19 out of the community. But we are also experiencing the challenges of border closures too, for trade, for tourism, for families separated across the world. We may have realised once again just how far away we are from other places in the world.
I am aware too of the way in which immigration has continued to sustain our local faith communities. We don’t know yet what impact Covid-19 will have on migration and immigration, but it does ask us to question the possible ongoing implications of border closures on our ecclesial life as the Catholic Church in Aotearoa.
Bishop McElroy goes on to say that “there is great danger that the pandemic is creating a culture of increased disengagement within the life of the church that will persist long after a vaccination is found.”
lack of solidarity
We have also be reminded that we do not live in a world that is in solidarity with one another, despite the fact that we have also realised just how interconnected we are. Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, speaks to this.
Finally, “the pandemic has destroyed our individual and collective feelings of security.” We have had to deal with the fact that we are not in control.
Because of these three things, the disruption to ecclesial life, our lack of solidarity as human beings and the loss of security; Bishop McElroy said that “the pastoral mission of the Diocese of San Diego in the coming months and years must not be one of recovery but of transformation.”
Where we are being called
I would like to suggest to, that despite the differences between us and San Diego (in size, culture and pandemic response), that the pastoral mission of the Diocese of Palmerston North too needs to be not one of recovery, but of transformation.
Bishop McElroy goes on to say that the roadmap for this transformation lies in the theology and pastoral experience of the Church in Latin America expressed in the Aparacida document and teachings of Pope Francis.
And I would agree, especially after having been involved in the various meetings on the Synod of Young People in Rome. The Latin American pastoral approach emphasises accompaniment, encounter and mission, all things that call us – as a community of faith, out of ourselves and into authentic relationships with one another, the Church and with Christ.
The foundation for responding to needs in a post-Covid world is summed up in this quote from the conference at Aparacida (2007):
“what is required is confirming, renewing and revitalising the newness of the Gospel rooted in our history, out of a personal and community encounter with Jesus Christ that raises up disciples and missionaries” (11).
In other words, “discipleship demands mission and arises only from an encounter with Christ. The experience of a pandemic has made this more true, not less” (Bishop McElroy, 2020).
Below are the documents that will help us continue to form our roadmap.
We need to continue working to bring these documents (and others) and the various models to life in our own place.
We need to work to inculturate them into our unique context.
We need to move forward with the commitment to finding ways to form missionary disciples.