For the past few months, the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne has been undergoing a process of discussion and discernment as part of an invitation to "Take the Way of the Gospel". Fr Anthony (Tony) Kerin has attended a number of the online information sessions held with parish communities and is encouraging parishes to embrace the call to be missionary, to ‘think outside the box’, and to see this as an opportunity for growth and revitalisation.
As the Episcopal Vicar for the Eastern Region and parish priest of St Francis Xavier/St Clare's in Box Hill, Fr Tony says he is excited and optimistic about the Archbishop’s invitation to ‘re-think mission’ within the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.
Far from being something to ‘fear and feel anxiety about', he said, ‘It’s an opportunity for our parishes to go beyond themselves, to reach out to the unchurched and to bring the joy of the Gospel to them.’
‘Take the Way of the Gospel is the Archbishop’s strategy for evangelising and opening the Church to people who are no longer coming to see us or who have never heard about the message of Jesus,’ he said.
‘We are called to be missionary. Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” He didn’t say, “Go and be disciples, alone.” It’s not sufficient just to be disciples, we have to make new disciples. That’s the great commission, our call, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. It’s compulsory.’
‘What’s optional, however, is how the church takes on its missionary character, taking into account the local situation and circumstances.
'This is an opportunity to be an invitational church that welcomes others to come and join us,' he said. 'So, it’s really about opening the opportunity for them to see the joy that the Gospel brings to us in our lives, and to share that with others.’
When considering who ‘them – the target audience’ is, Fr Tony said, ‘In many parishes, that will be reaching out to the 85-90% of Catholics who are still saying they’re Catholic on the Census, but who don’t come and visit us so often.’
‘And also, to reach that 38% of people who, in 2016, wrote “no religion” on the Census form; they’re a much larger group now than the Catholics are. We used to be the biggest group in the Census; “no religion” has surpassed us at the last Census. And when we see the results of this year’s Census, I think we’re going to find we’ve got a bigger target audience than we thought!’
Fr Tony recognised that there has been some ‘apprehension’ expressed among parish communities, that ‘this talk about Mission is going to “take over” or replace the parishes, but it’s not’.
‘The parishes are going to remain,’ he said, ‘but this is an opportunity for the parishes, together with other parishes, to go beyond themselves and to reach people that we haven’t been reaching so far.
‘It’s not enough to be a parish that looks after those who come to church. A self-satisfied parish like that is really in the business of self-preservation and just hanging onto what they’ve got. It’s not outreaching, it’s not renewing, it’s not growing, it’s in a caretaker mode, and the problem with caretaker mode in parishes is that pretty soon it becomes undertaker mode. 'We’ve got to do something different, and Take the Way of the Gospel is a missionary opportunity to bring that message to others.’
At the online gatherings, Fr Tony has enthusiastically shared his ideas for various ways to reach out and share the Good news, which he acknowledged will be different for each parish community.
‘One of the ways of doing that is by having a program like Alpha or Parish Renewal. These are opportunities to just welcome people along, to say, “come and join us, have a meal or just chat and share your life” and getting people to tell the story of Jesus in their life and what it’s meant for them. Suddenly they discover that they’re not alone; that all of us have stories of how God has touched us, and directed us, in the way we’ve lived our lives. And people then start to get excited about sharing that with other people.
‘Another example: If a parish has a university or TAFE in its midst, there are lots and lots of students, in particular, international students, some who have never been exposed to the Gospel and are looking for community, friendship and connection. These are a group who could easily come along to a free meal once a week for Alpha, and suddenly discover what the Gospel is about.
‘But not just universities and tertiary students, what about shopping centres, where people gather? What could we do at Forest Hill Chase? Or Eastland? What could we do to be a presence of the joyful followers of Jesus, in those aspects and areas? Or sporting clubs, or farmers’ markets? We could put a stall up at a farmers’ market, saying, “Yes, here we are”.’
‘What about churches or parishes that are in areas with hospitals, like Maroondah Hospital at Croydon, or Knox Hospital in Wantirna, or Box Hill Hospital and Epworth, here in Box Hill? Or Heidelberg, with the Mercy and the Austin? Reaching out to people and being a Church presence to medical and health staff, allied health workers, families who are there experiencing distress and disease and difficulty in their life. These are people to reach out to as well. They present an opportunity to be prayerfully present and sharing the joy of the Gospel with them.’
‘So, there’s lots of different ways to reach out, because this isn’t about getting people to come to Church. This is about getting people to come to Jesus.'
Fr Tony said that despite the many challenges presented by the current COVID pandemic, there have also been some surprising benefits. ‘When you run something online of course, the opportunity for people to come in and sit down and listen from the comfort of their own home, is something you don’t have if you’re running programs or sessions at the church or in the hall, or at the school.
‘We’ve had people checking us out online, seeing whether we’re a welcoming community, whether they’d like to get to know us a bit better. And provided that we make them feel comfortable, then that’s an opportunity that we wouldn’t have had without COVID.
‘One of the other blessings of course of online Masses is that some of our parishioners who haven’t been able to come for some time because of immobility issues, are suddenly back there, in front of the screen in their home, and seeing the parish that they’re so familiar with and so much in love with, seeing the faces that they remember from when they did come to Church, and reconnecting. One chap said to me, “I’m in a wheelchair now but at the online Mass, I’m equal to everybody else”. Little things like that spark us.’
Fr Tony reiterated that the work of The Way of the Gospel will not be done for the parishes. Rather, the parish communities ‘are going to do it’. He said, ‘The ideas have been outlined by the Archdiocesan team, but now the discernment in the local area is what’s going to take the task, that’s what’s going to require them to connect. So, they’re the ones who are going to have to do the work now, about how they reach out to this target audience, in their local area.’
‘Again, the parishes will still continue, and they’ll still be there, and they’ll still have their parish priest and parish council, and all of that sort of thing, but working in mission gives them an opportunity to be bigger than themselves and to do things they couldn’t afford to do on their own, and to share in the resources and the volunteers that a greater group of people provide.’
Essentially, Fr Tony feels this is a wonderful opportunity for the Church in Melbourne and he has big hopes! ‘I keep telling the Lord what I’m hoping for: I want a Church that’s alive and active and involved and overflowing with people wanting to be serving others.
'The great sign is when we’re no longer just providing sacraments to people, but they are being renewed by those sacraments to go out to others, and we’ve made disciples.
‘That’s the goal to have a Church full of disciples, following the Lord and sharing their joy with others.’