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Parishes as Centres of Service
Parishes Learning From Each Other in Service to the Community

For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat,
I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you took Me in.
Matthew 25:35

More than 100 adults and children gathered at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Cheltenham on Saturday, 27 August for the “Reimagining Parish Services Expo”. Leaders from more than 15 parishes in the South Eastern corridor and social service agencies exhibited a diverse range of services. Further Expos in the north, east and west of Melbourne are envisaged. 

Some of the service agencies included MacKillop Family Services, St Vincent de Paul Society, Wellsprings For Women Inc, Welcome the Asylum Seeker Parish Support Program, CatholicCare, Pregnancy Assistance Frankston, Cardijn Community and Young Christian Workers. 

Fr John Petrulis, parish priest of 10 years at St Kilda/ Elwood parish, which includes the Sacred Heart Mission outreach commenced the speaker program. He encouraged those gathered to resist the urge to be ‘inward looking’, but rather, to go out.

‘The very meaning of the word Church means to be called out of, to be broken open to the reality of what’s around you,’ he said. ‘We can get so caught up in ourselves personally and as a community. We become very inward focused. There is a call to be broken open, to be brought out into the world around us. It’s a personal call and a communal call.

‘I think we’re always poorer if we’re just living in isolation from one another as parishes. We make each other rich by the wisdom and gift of our shared mission. We’re called to be the Church in the world—the grief and anxieties, the hopes and joys of God’s people are ours, especially those in most need.’

Using the example of Fr Ernie Smith, who started Sacred Heart Mission in 1982, Fr John encouraged parishioners to take the time to notice what’s going on in their local communities. ‘Fr Ernie and the early workers began by walking the streets and listening, and noticing things. They started to notice the reality of people’s lives and to respond as they could at that time.

‘In the same way, we can begin to notice and begin to be curious. Ask questions about your local area. The real language of God’s heart comes from the real life of people around us. There’s a call to face the culture we live in, that we suffer very much by the power of individualism to imprison us in our service. We’re always persons and a person is always connected to others. There’s no such thing as individual service. We’re people serving together.’
Fr John encouraged everyone to start small. ‘Fr Ernie’s outreach began bit by bit,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t one big dramatic effort. It was a way to begin that enabled a whole gathering of people’s hearts.’

Echoing his sentiments, Chris Smyth from St MacCartan’s parish in Mornington shared how the efforts of 12 people had made a huge impact on the lives of people in East Timor.

‘We started small—we’re doing most of the labour and now we’re on our 34th shipping container, it’s 20-foot long and valued at $8,500 each time.’ Part of the money has been raised by the local parish community saving five-cent, ten-cent and sometimes fifty-cent pieces. The parish itself has also committed a line in its annual budget towards its overseas work.
Gwen Fitzgerald from St Anthony’s Glenhuntly also inspired those gathered by sharing the development of their Christmas dinner and weekly meals for local people. Told it ‘wouldn’t work’, the Christmas dinner has gone from 50 guests at the first gathering, to now serving more than 250 people and has more than 80 helpers.

‘All of our action has stemmed out of prayer,’ said Gwen. ‘We have all learned so much, and while we support people in many ways around our parish, most of all it’s the love of the people for us, and the friendships that we’ve made, that we most value.’

Those gathered were challenged to ask: What keeps us as a parish enclosed and disconnected from the local community? What are the barriers? How can we grow to be a church in the world around us? What are the critical conversations we need to keep on having in our parish gatherings?

Fr John Petrulis reminded everyone, ‘God is not a noun. God is a verb. God is crying out to us in the ordinary lives of people around us.

‘We’re being addressed every day. When did you see me hungry and in need? Even though that might not be a literal place, it might be thirsting for belonging, thirsting for breaking out of my loneliness, thirsting for support in my mental illness and so on—all of those needs are in every suburb of Melbourne … God is addressing me and calling me out to be of service.’

Following the presentations and lunch, the expo provided an opportunity for all gathered to showcase their services and to interact with each other.
Executive Director of Catholic Social Services Victoria, Denis Fitzgerald said he was ‘delighted to be part of such a vibrant gathering, with such a firm focus on building the Kingdom of God here in Melbourne.’

‘The aim of the gathering is to give us inspiration and to enable us to see how things are done so that we can reflect on that and build on our own circumstances. It’s reimagining how we can do things, learning from others, from parishes like ourselves, and seeing how we can better respond to the Gospel call to help those in need.

‘This gathering has deepened my appreciation of the richness, enthusiasm and innovation that is out there in parishes. It has strengthened my resolve to work with colleagues to try and spread that further.

‘The spirit of generosity is fantastic—to have people prepared to come on a Saturday to share their insights and experiences with others, to help grow the mission, to deepen our engagement with the mission of parishes being centres of service has been invaluable. It’s been a very rich day.

‘I’m very grateful to all the volunteers who helped make the day such a success, and in particular, to Adrian Foley, who co-ordinated and lead this event. This is community spirit and action at its best’.
'Building Stronger Parishes', a major research project by the Australian Catholic Bishop Conference’s Pastoral Research Office, also provides valuable insights and examples – recommended for parish priests, parish associates and parish council leaders, at www.buildingstrongerparishes.catholic.org.au

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