Diocesan priest Fr Gerard Keith is no stranger to change. Before his current appointment at Resurrection Parish in Kings Park, in Melbourne’s west, he was parish priest in Geelong for 15 years. During that time, he oversaw the coming together of three individual parishes into one – St Michael’s Parish – incorporating the churches of Holy Family Bell Park, Ss Peter and Paul Geelong West Geelong and Holy Spirit, Manifold Heights. It is this experience that has put Fr Gerard in good stead to accept the invitation to discern, discuss and consider change as part of the invitation to “Take the Way of the Gospel”.

‘We are living in a time of change and for many this can be seen as a time of crisis,’ said Fr Gerard, ‘But a time of change can also be a time of opportunity. In Pope Francis’ book, Let Us Dream (2020), he says, “If we have the courage to change, we can emerge from the challenge better than before”.’

Fr Gerard’s experience of 15 years in the cluster of the three Geelong parishes bears testimony to the truth of the Holy Father’s statement. He said, ‘the take-home message for me was that by working together in partnership with goodwill, we can emerge better than before.’

That idea of coming together and partnering together provides a way in which we can move forward, better. Due to my own experience, I can see both the potential and the reality of what’s possible when parishes work together in partnership.’

Fr Gerard explained that during the process of coming together, there were ‘no shortage of mistakes or missed opportunities’, however, with the advantage of looking back over those 15 years with a ‘birds-eye view’, there were many ‘real and tangible improvements’ particularly in the areas of pastoral outreach, the liturgy, the sacraments, school and parish connection, administration and finances.

Having three parishes coming together and working together, even though they retained their identities, meant that good things were able to happen,’ he said. ‘These things weren’t possible beforehand as individual parishes acting alone, because the sheer lack of numbers wouldn’t allow it.’

Fr Gerard provided a number of examples, the first being the rallying of parishioners from the three parishes around the annual fundraising event for cancer research and those impacted by cancer, Relay For Life. At the time, Fr Mick Fitzpatrick, who was the former parish priest at Ss Peter and Paul who became an assistant priest to support the success of the pastoral cluster, developed a severe form of cancer.

‘Fr Michael was a really pastoral man and very much loved in the community,’ said Fr Gerard. ‘When he became critically ill with cancer himself the cluster of parishes decided to form a group for the relay known as “Fr Mick’s Mates”. It started with the parishes, and then later on involved the schools.’

The “Fr Mick’s Mates” team was involved with many ‘fundraising and friend-raising activities’ which not only focused on raising money for good causes, but they also brought people together socially. ‘We had some ladies who made homemade jams and knitted little baby blankets, which were then sold outside the church. We also had gatherings such as parish barbecues and an annual Melbourne Cup luncheon,’ said Fr Gerard.

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Fr Mick Fitzpatrick

‘We were actually Geelong’s best fundraiser about six or seven times for the relay event. The success can be attributed to the good will of the parishioners and others working together for a worthy cause.

This is a good example of how we can be on mission together, a leaven in society, showing real concern for people in our community. As parishes on mission, we were literally walking with those who suffer from cancer and their carers.’

‘It created that sense of community, that sense of belonging and outreach with a good purpose. Again, this is an example of mission, of being engaged with the wider community as well as engaging within.’

Fr Gerard provided another example of the parish accepting an invitation to develop a partnership with a Columban parish in Malate, Philippines, serving many poor people. Together with some parishioners, Fr Gerard travelled to the parish in the Philippines for an ‘immersion experience’. ‘There were a whole variety of activities associated with that over the years and the schools became involved, too,’ said Fr Gerard.

There are all different sorts of connections that speak to our sense of mission in the world, ways in which we reach out to others in the context of social justice, very much inspired by our Gospel values and Catholic Social Teaching.’

On a practical level, he also explained that the amalgamation of the three parishes also meant a better use of resources. By coming together and through parish discernment, under-utilised building assets were sold or leased, with funds used by the whole parish to support its missionary and pastoral work. Having a centralised administration office led to ‘more efficient and effective support for parishioners’, too.

Fr Gerard speaks of ‘stewardship’ and the call to be ‘good stewards’. ‘I think that the stewardship model of mission asks, how do we make the best of what we’ve got? By endeavouring to make the best of what we have, with what we can do, that opens up possibilities and potential for things further afield.

I like the image of hands holding the seed, and that idea that we’ve been given a gift, and at best, let’s use it and use it for that sense of mission. Stewardship comes across the whole gamut of the life of the parish and the life of the Church, in the stewardship of the people and drawing from that real collective wisdom that is there.’

When speaking of the amalgamation process, Fr Gerard suggested ‘taking it slow’. ‘I think the process is evolutionary, not revolutionary,’ he said.

‘Once the decision is made, things just naturally flow on a bit. There has to be movement, but perhaps at times not too radical a movement. We need to be conscious of people’s sensibilities. Ask “what are the changes that you can make incrementally, which perhaps don’t impact so much on the people. Start with those, and then slowly move towards some of the bigger changes.

It’s important to include people along the way, in as many ways as possible. There is a time of discernment. What do we hold onto individually, and what do we hold onto collectively?’

‘Good listening is important, too. People are aware of the situation in our Church, but we need to be able to voice this, together.’

Fr Gerard Keith has been parish priest of Resurrection Parish Kings Park for just over three years. A good part of this time has been spent in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is looking forward to restrictions lifting so that the parish can gather again to enjoy its rich multicultural and flourishing community (and so that he can watch less crime shows Netflix!).