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Lay Leaders Gathering (22/5/21). Report to the parishes of St Mary’s and St Colman's

At the invitation of their parish priests, 170 lay people attended a gathering at the Veneto Club, Bulleen, on May 22 to hear proposals for the future planning of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. They learnt that this planning would be centred on the establishment of “missions” across the Archdiocese. The purpose was to address current “unsustainable” parish structures and to bring new vitality to the Church’s pastoral direction.

The lay attendees represented the 209 parishes of the Archdiocese of Melbourne and included representatives from St Mary’s and St Colman’s parishes, Donna Martin and Robert Carey.

Archbishop Comensoli’s vision

Archbishop Peter Comensoli addressed the meeting first and said the plan for establishing missions throughout the Archdiocese was to improve the vibrancy and vitality of parishes and to make proper use of resources of personnel and properties.

The Archbishop said the idea of missions was not new but was the practice of the first Archbishop of Melbourne, James Goold, who set up missions around Melbourne “where there was an existing community of the faithful”. These communities were active in serving the needs of local people. Parishes were established after the founding of these missions and kept up the relationships between each other, the Archbishop said. (One of the earliest of these missions was centred around East St Kilda, the Archbishop said, with its church, St Mary’s being among the Archdiocese’s first.)

The Archbishop said the changing nature of the Archdiocese was a timely opportunity to review how we organised ourselves. He was not proposing to close parishes or to close churches. Rather, he said, the task was to look at how families and communities were already operating before there was any reorganisation of parishes. He asked people not to think of parishes so much as a territorial location, or as a building but as a community of people who gathered for a single mission.

His proposal was the creation of a number of missions throughout the Archdiocese under which parishes would be organised. Decisions about the composition of the missions would be made at the local level.

The Archbishop proposed three questions which parishes needed to consider:

1. What is our local mission?

2. What parishes might be organically organised into a family of communities?

3. How might we effectively resource our mission?

A changing Archdiocese

The vicar general, Fr Joe Caddy, presented a report on the changing shape of the Archdiocese. There was an imbalance in the size of parishes and how they were resourced, in terms of buildings and personnel, he said. Inner city parishes, often better resourced, were among the smallest parishes, in comparison with the largest 30 parishes which were more than 15 km from the CBD. While the average weekly Mass attendance across the diocese was 500, nearly one third of parishes (31%) had fewer than 100 attending Sunday Mass.

Fr Caddy explained it was getting increasingly difficult to replace parish priests as they retired or experienced ill health. Increasingly in the future, lay leadership would be critical.

In moving to the new mission structure, Fr Caddy said each family of parishes would need to develop strategies for greater cooperation with each other, with the aim of establishing more viable, vibrant, and sustainable entities which were fit for the mission of providing the good news and outreach of our faith. Working together, they would be better equipped to provide quality sacraments and liturgical life for the people living in the mission territory.

Proposed model

The gathering heard finally from the Archdiocese’s Executive Director of Stewardship, Tim O’Leary, who presented a proposed model for the structuring of missions. Mr O’Leary said an “average” parish in the Archdiocese had the following characteristics:

  • General population 22,000

  • Catholic population 5,052

  • Av. weekly Mass attendance 500

  • Av. Age (Catholics) 42

  • No. of churches 1.5

  • Catholic schools 2

  • No. of priests 1.1

  • Parish volunteers 106

  • Baptisms per year 48

  • 1st communions per year 48

  • Weddings per year 6

  • Funerals per year 22

Mr O’Leary said the proposed model – a “view from 30,000 feet” – saw the establishment of 62 missions, incorporating the 209 parishes of the Archdiocese. Fifteen of these missions would be in our Southern Region, which extends south from the CBD down the Mornington Peninsula. Each mission would have a leadership of at least two priests, working as a team. The resources of the parishes in each mission would be pooled and administrative functions and pastoral decisions would be shared with key lay leadership.

Archbishop Comensoli proposed a period of three to five years for the implementation of the missions but said he hoped to see a few missions set up by the end of this year. Once the composition of each mission was identified and agreement was reached at the local level about how the mission was to be administered, there would be a “canonical decree” to establish that mission, the Archbishop said.

The next steps

The gathering heard that the “journey from here” would comprise:

1. Communication of the plan to parish communities; 2. Regional gatherings with clergy and lay leaders to discern the shape of local missions; 3. The establishment of missions in each of the four regions of the Archdiocese; 4. The identification of all future missions by 2022.

Archbishop Comensoli said, while local parishes would work at their own pace and determine the next steps for themselves, there were already some natural groupings of parishes which would more quickly be identified as mission territories. Fr Caddy said in conclusion, “If we do not recalibrate and renew, we risk our very existence.”


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