Tricia Norman is the Senior Pastoral Associate across the three partnered parishes of Camberwell, Balwyn Deepdene and Surrey Hills Wattle Park, in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Parish priest Fr Brendan Reed together with assistant priest, Fr Trac Nguyen serve around 14,000 parishioners. As parishes across the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne heed the invitation to “Take the Way of the Gospel”, Tricia shares her personal experience of the parish communities coming together and how ‘listening, communicating and building trust’ is key.

Tricia said she is ‘extremely fortunate to have been involved in a series of three partnerships that have evolved since 2010’. She explained, ‘We first began with the partnering of the parishes of Deepdene and Balwyn in 2010, which eventually amalgamated in 2013. Then Camberwell Parish partnered with Balwyn and Deepdene in 2016 and in May 2020, we were joined by Surrey Hills and Wattle Park.’

Fr Brendan Reed is the parish priest of each of these communities, assisted by Fr Trac Nguyen, and includes five churches: Basilica of Our Lady of Victories, Camberwell; All Hallows Church, Balwyn; Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, Deepdene; Our Holy Redeemer Church, Surrey Hills; and Our Lady of Perpetual Succour Church, Surrey Hills.

‘For the first partnership with Balwyn and Deepdene there was a fair bit of planning that went into the process over a three-month period. The leadership teams from both of these parishes formed a committee to plan the partnership. There was a lot of consultation and communication with communities about what was going to happen, we had “Frequently Asked Questions” and information about our future together.

‘It was really exciting to be part of that first partnership and to see that the communities were coming along on that journey. It was a really fulfilling experience.’

Tricia explained that the partnership between Camberwell and Balwyn Deepdene in 2016 occurred ‘much more quickly’ and as a consequence, ‘parishioners weren’t given the same opportunity to come along on the journey and plan our future together’. ‘While things still worked out, it probably took a little bit longer for the communities of Balwyn Deepdene and Camberwell to work together as closely as they now do. Consultation, communication and keeping everyone informed is so important in the partnering process, along with listening and hearing what people have to say,’ said Tricia.

This proved a little more challenging when the Parish of Surrey Hills Wattle Park joined the Camberwell, Balwyn Deepdene Parish during Victoria’s COVID-19 lockdown period in May 2020. ‘There were challenges for all of us given the circumstances,’ she said. ‘For Surrey Hills Wattle Park, they were not able to get to know, or meet their priests, Fr Brendan and Fr Trac, face-to-face for some time. It’s really a credit to that community; they have been incredible in terms of their support of our priests, the parish councils and all of the initiatives that are taking place at the moment.’

Reflecting on how the three “series of partnerships” formed, Tricia said, ‘Our experience of partnership has evolved, and it’s been a slow process. Part of the process was about recognising that each of these communities have their own identities, with their own history and parish life. That was really important to acknowledge for our priests and staff group.

‘It wasn’t about “making everyone the same”. Rather, we went about getting to know the communities in a really sensitive and respectful way. It was about enabling our parishes to grow as vibrant faith communities, while creating opportunities for new partnerships in mission. Listening, dialogue and building trust has been really important.

‘It’s never been about becoming a super parish and losing the local parish identity. It’s about respect for our history, continuing to care and support members of our community and a desire to work together for mission.’ Tricia said this was evident when the liturgy groups from across the three parishes came together earlier this year to plan Easter, and then formed local liturgy teams to work more closely with the various celebrants and communities at the individual churches.

‘Our leadership teams, our parishioners and our priests wanted to find ways that we could, where beneficial, move and work together, as partners in mission,’ Tricia said. ‘With each of these partnerships, it’s also been an opportunity for those individual parish communities to have a moment of renewal and rejuvenation in terms of their own mission and ministry.

‘Often, without realising, we set up systems and do things in a certain way “because that’s how they’ve always been done”. So, when there’s a change in a parish, it’s also sometimes an opportunity for the community to reflect on what they do and why they do it, and to open it up for others who may not have felt that there was an opportunity for them to join ministry and groups before.’

Tricia shared that a “Transition Team” has been established, comprising representatives from each of the parish councils charged with the mission of looking at how a new governance structure in the future might work across the parishes. The team has done some thinking and planning around possible ways forward. The result of this planning is the Building Stronger Parish Partnerships for Mission initiative, with recommendations being presented to the councils and parish communities for consideration.

A parish meeting was recently held online to reflect on the past year and to hear further thoughts, plans and recommendations for the partnered parishes, one of which includes establishing a single representative Parish Pastoral Council.

‘Another recommendation includes the establishment of a lay ministry of “Parish Life Teams”,’ said Tricia. ‘This team would have a local parish focus and look after the Sunday worshiping community in each of our churches, with the aim of being a welcoming presence and getting to know the people in the communities.’ Tricia said that with the priests being across the various parishes, the Parish Life Teams would help ‘ensure that those communities felt that they had a face-to-face point of contact for pastoral needs and pastoral care. The Parish Life Teams would also assist with helping people get involved in parish life.’

‘Our evolving parish partnerships constantly ask us to listen to where the Gospel is calling us and to assist to bring that to life in our parishes,’ Tricia said.

Partnership opportunities are actively being sought, in the hope that communities can ‘share their gifts and talents in shared ministries and projects where it was mutually beneficial and enriching to do so’. Already, the partnered parishes have established a combined parishes Safeguarding Committee, Learning Team and Social Justice Network.

‘There is so much going on, and so many opportunities for us to explore,’ said Tricia. ‘There is an invitation from Pope Francis for the church to begin discernment and dialogue in preparation for the 2023 Synod on Synodality and across the Church in Australia, there is the Plenary Council, which is taking place.

‘In our local church in Melbourne, Archbishop Comensoli has invited us to engage with [Take] the Way of the Gospel and be involved in renewal of our local faith communities as local missions. What I really love about this initiative is that it’s about dialogue and listening. It’s about giving parishioners and parish communities an opportunity to have a say and to be part of the planning and the journey.

‘It’s about a conversation within our own communities about where do we see our future? What opportunities do you want to see as an outward-looking Church? We are fortunate to have these opportunities.’

Photographs courtesy of Chris Kapa and parishioners of Camberwell, Balwyn Deepdene and Surrey Hills Wattle Park Parishes