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We cannot be complacent about the challenges facing Catholic social service agencies

Denis Fitzgerald

Executive Director, Catholic Social Services Victoria
Social service organisations are an outstanding example of the Catholic church in action in Australia. However, as necessary as their services are, the challenges our Catholic Social Service agencies are facing are building.
CatholicCare and CentaCare agencies operate in most Australian Dioceses. On top of that there are bodies such as Jesuit Social Services and Good Shepherd Australian New Zealand that build on the work of Religious Congregations, and services run by the Maronite, Melkite and other parish based organisations that add to the collective endeavour.
All of these social service organisations are working at the coal face to support vulnerable people in need, and to build a more just society. On any given day, our social services agencies throughout Australia are providing services as diverse as family and relationship services, mental health support, homelessness services, community building, and disability and youth services. On top of this, some agencies are also providing chaplaincy services for those in prison, in youth justice or immigration detention, in hospital, and beyond as well as providing assistance to Indigenous Australians and recently arrived communities. The list of services provided is as diverse as the list of needs is long. 
Love of neighbour and the call to work with humility for a more just society are central to the mission of the Gospel, so these endeavours are to be welcomed and celebrated.  But there is no room for complacency.
The Second Vatican Council serves as a beacon:  ‘the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.’  Some of the ‘signs’ our social service agencies are grappling with at the moment include:
* the impact of the sexual abuse and ‘catastrophic failure of leadership’ laid bare by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex abuse. The impact is profound, not only for victims and survivors, but for all parts of the Church.  Nothing can erase the shame and the damage that has been done, but an inadequate response now would rub salt into the wounds.
* the diminished standing the Church has in civil society. Calls for dismantling of tax concessions for the church are heard more frequently as the community becomes more distant from the church and undervalues what the church provides to society.
* community needs and our awareness of them are changing. Many Australians are much more aware of family violence than was the case some years ago; Indigenous Australians have challenged the general community on the issue of nationhood, even as they suffer severe disadvantage in many aspects of life.
* radical changes in Government policies from community based responses to problems to individualist approaches.  The National Disability Insurance Scheme and aged care funding highlight this, with their emphasis on client choice and market mechanisms to govern the provision of services. The nature of our communities is changing rapidly.  We are a growing population, and an ageing one.  New suburbs are emerging around major cities, and the ethnic make-up of suburbs, church congregations, and of our prisons, is evolving rapidly. 
* changes to our environment, and our understanding of it.  The challenges laid out by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si on ‘Our Common Home’ are about responding to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.
* the need to keep pace with innovation and changing technology. Responding to calls to form innovative and cost effective partnerships to support initiatives such as new housing models and fresh approaches to family violence. As well as new work in policy development within the Catholic social services sector.  
These challenges are draining but springs of hope can emerge on the darkest landscape, whereas the smoothest path can mask weaknesses and risks. No single person, parish, organisation or diocese can successfully digest these changes in isolation.  No single review can answer all current questions, let alone identify those that are emerging. 
That is why it essential to gather to bring our collective experience and understanding to bear on the issues of the day.  Catholic social service providers gather as a community of faith, committed to responding to the Gospel call to stand with those who are in need, and are joined in these gatherings by people from many other parts of the Church and beyond who share our passion and commitment to the promotion of human flourishing.
The next Catholic social services national conference - Hearing, Healing, Hope - is from 21-23 February 2018 at the Catholic Leadership Centre, East Melbourne. It will be a time to reflect on the many developments around us, and on our mission, to identify the springs of hope that are to be nurtured and built on.
Rather than being overcome by the many challenges, we will meet together to ensure we can continue to successfully uphold the fundamental Catholic Social Teachings of giving precedence to the poor and vulnerable in our society. 
For more information about the conference, click here. NOTE: ONLINE REGISTRATIONS HAVE NOW CLOSED

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