three-day conference in Melbourne last week, one of the most significant challenges Catholic Social Services Victoria wanted to explore was concerned with parishes. Parishes play an important role in being at the coal face of providing services and support to the wider community; they are often the living sign of the Gospel at work.
Dr Bob Dixon, who has recently retired from his position as Director of the Pastoral Research Office of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference
, hosted the workshop ‘Love thy neighbour: The challenge for parishes’, which looked at the ways parishes contribute to Catholic social action. He reported that outreach in parishes is not particularly well supported. Only one in five, for example, are involved in any kind of parish activity at all, apart from their basic Mass attendance.
The ACBC’s Pastoral Research Office, in response, has investigated the characteristics of successful parishes, and come up with eight ‘measures of vitality’, as Dr Bob described them. Along with such qualities as leadership, planning, hospitality, community and more, the most important is outreach.
A number of successful parishes from around Australia were held up as examples of significant and successful outreach. An example included the parish of Montmorency, whose priest Fr Terry Kean was introduced to the workshop. Fr Terry reported that about 400 people attend Mass at his parish each weekend. Although he acknowledged the problems around ageing in the Catholic parish community, he focused on the positive initiatives flowing from his parish. One of the most successful of those is the Philippines social outreach. To date, at least 13 parish groups from Montmorency have visited the Philippines and donated pigs, goats, electric lighting, water resources, food and medical support.
Over the last eight years a volunteer group from Montmorency has also regularly visited Sacred Heart Mission in St Kilda. The outreach started as a once-a-month visit, but now has over 100 volunteers from the parish who roster themselves on every single Sunday. The parish’s Asylum Seeker Support Group funnels $300–$400 of food every week through its resource centre and every year they donate coats to the needy in winter.
Fr Terry paid tribute to the parish Social Justice Group, which coordinates these activities. ‘They’re all volunteers,’ he stated. ‘It’s a completely voluntary mission.’
Dr Bob Dixon concluded by introducing to the workshop another guest speaker, Bernadette Dennis from St Joseph’s Outreach Services in South Yarra. A lay person and long-time volunteer, Bernadette spoke of the work being done in what was once St Joseph’s Primary School. The school has been converted into a vital transitional housing centre, providing furnished, self-contained accommodation to people transitioning back into the community from backgrounds of drug abuse, mental health issues, homelessness and unemployment.
Bernadette echoed the workshop’s general concerns around funding, volunteering and marketing, but went on to outline fundraising activities such as film nights, an appeal weekend, an annual high tea as ways of keeping their message (and their needs) in front of their sponsors and benefactors. One powerful piece of advice Bernadette gave the meeting was the importance on looking beyond short-term solutions. ‘Make sure it’s going to be sustainable, whatever you do,’ she urged.
The consensus of the general discussion was that many parishes serve as healthy models for other parishes seeking greater involvement from their communities.