The Future of the Church
The following is an address given by Seminarian, Dong Van Nguyen, who recently spoke at the celebrations held at St Patrick’s Parish, Wellington, marking the Parish’s centenary.
Recently, Fr Carl Mackander came to Dubbo, where I am currently doing my pastoral work. He asked me if I could give a talk about the future of our diocese at the Wellington Parish Centenary Celebrations. He added that he had already told Bishop Michael that I would be the guest speaker. Immediately, I felt like I was thrown into the deep end. Firstly, because he had told people before he had asked me. Secondly, and more importantly, ‘The Future of the Church’ is a huge topic. None of us is capable of talking about the future of any thing, let alone the future of the Church, which is the Body of Christ.
If you ask me what the Catholic Church of Diocese of Bathurst will be like in 10 or 20 years, my answer is: ‘I don’t know’. If you ask me what the Diocese of Bathurst has changed in the last century. Well, I’m not so sure about that either. I’ve only been in this diocese for almost seven years.
If I don’t know the future, nor the past of the Diocese, what I’m supposed to be talking about now? Imagine you are in a three-story shopping mall and you don’t know where the Reject Shop is. What you should do is to look it up on the map. Once you have found the location of the Reject Shop, the next thing you must look up is ‘your current location’. Without being able to determine your current location, even if you could find where the Reject Shop is on the map, you wouldn’t know how to get there.
It is the same when we talk about the future of our Diocese. Each one of us may have different visions for the Diocese. However, in order to get to the envisioned diocese in the future, we have to look honestly at where we are now.
I’m aware that on occasion like this (Centenary Celebration) we should talk about our achievements. However, I also believe that in order to move forward into brighter future, we should also look at some problems as well. And, in order to fix any problem, the first thing we need to do is to identify it, and then evaluate it honestly.
What I see with in the Diocese in the last seven years is with the eye of a foreigner who come from overseas. I also view the Church in the eye of a young man, who has left everything behind in his home country to come to join, and God willing, to serve the Church here in Australia.
Nearly seven years ago, when I first arrived to this diocese, the Bishop sent me to Dunedoo so Fr Carl could teach me Aussie English and culture. So, if I am not doing well, you know who to blame.
In the afternoon of the first day I arrived, Fr Carl took me to show me the church. On the way, we met Beth, a parishioner. Fr Carl introduced me to as a pre-seminarian for the Diocese of Bathurst and will be staying with him for a while. Do you know what Beth said in response? “Oh, great! We will have one more person to go to Mass!” I thought, “Uhm, that’s strange! Why would one extra person at Mass matter much?” In my home parish in Vietnam, our daily Mass is full of people. Even Mass that starts at 4.30am, hundreds of people would be there. So, it wouldn’t be a big change for the congregation to have one more or one less person at Mass. Therefore, I did not understand Beth’s response when she first met me.
The next day, I went to Mass and there we were: Fr Carl said the Mass, I did the reading, and Beth did the Prayer of the Faithful. That’s all. One person takes up to 33 per cent of Mass attendants. Only then I realized how much one more person at Mass means to Beth.
To be honest, I didn’t feel shocked at all, because I was told about church attendance in Australia before I came. I know that Dunedoo is only a small town. So, I wouldn’t expect to see hundreds of people at weekday Mass. But still, I felt a bit sad because what I saw was beyond my imagination.
Whichever parish you come from, you have to agree with me that church attendance is decreasing. We have to admit together that we are struggling. The Church climate is changing. People are less and less interested in going to church. There are not enough young people at Mass. Where is our next generation? In the last few years I have seen a few churches in our Diocese closed down, not only because we cannot afford a priest, but mainly because people stopped coming to church. What is going on?
When we think about the future of the Church, immediately and naturally we think of young people, the next generation. And then, we tend to blame them for not going to Mass, or for not practicing their faith. Well, I think that is not always a right attitude to have.
A few years ago, when I was on pastoral placement in Mudgee Parish and I witnessed this. There was a young girl who turned up at Sunday Mass thinking that she was Altar serving that day. When she came in she found out that she was not on. She turned and asked the priest: “I’m not serving today, can I stay for Mass?” He said: “Yes, of course, you can”. Then she asked: “Who am I going to sit with?” He told her to sit with whomever she came with. But she said, “My mum dropped me here, and she has gone to do something else”.
At that moment, I realized that the reason why I don’t see many young people at Mass is probably not because the young people don’t choose to come, but because their parents are too busy.
I told you this story in order to assure you that the future of the Church does not as much depend on our children as it does on those who are more advanced in age and in faith. In other words, the future of our Diocese depends on all of you here and now.
Someone once said that God does not have grandchildren. Indeed, each one of us is called to be son and daughter of God. Each of us is called to be Jesus’ disciple. What does it mean to be a disciple? A disciple is more than just a believer, but a follower, a preacher, and a missionary. Jesus did not come to gather believers, but to make disciples, and he commanded his disciples to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Mt 29:19).
Each of us is a follower of something. You may be a disciple of art, or of music, or of fashion. When we are a follower of something, we tend to talk about it, to include it in our daily conversations, to joke about it, and to dream about it. So, if you are a true disciple of Jesus, do all these things in your daily life, starting with our families, and then in our communities.
When I talked about how the the Church is changing with a lady who I brought Communion to, she told me how much she missed the old days. She still remembers vividly how important she felt on the day of her first Communion and Confirmation. She also said that her father and his friends used to walk for twelve miles to get to Mass on Sundays. I told her that is how people still are in some places in Vietnam. Also, I expressed my concern about the future of the Church in some developed countries. She said: ‘Don’t worry, the Church will survive.’ ‘Yes’, I said, ‘I trust that Church will surely survive. In fact the Church has survived many great persecutions in the last two thousand years, and will continue to survive in the future.’ But I told her that I do not want the Church to survive. I want the Church to LIVE. And I think the Church can only live if each one of us becomes a disciple.
As some of you might know, my family has a coffee farm. In order to have a good harvest, we need to take a special care of the plants in blossoming season. One secret my father discovered is that in order for the flowers to blossom together well, we have to wait until the flowers are thirsty enough. Therefore, in the blossoming season, my father goes every day to the farm to check carefully the flowers to see if they have suffered enough from water deprivation. When the time has come, we water the coffee plants, one by one, with abundant water. And then the flowers will open with maximum capacity, and promise a fruitful harvest.
When I reflect on what the Church is going through now. I imagine she is like our coffee farm in sunny season - she is thirsty! However, the Father is still waiting for the right time to supply her with water. He is checking everyday. He is not sleeping. He is waiting...
As a seminarian for the Diocese of Bathurst, I have a great hope in God’s plan for our Diocese. And I imagine if Jesus were preaching here now, he would probably say the same as he said more two thousands years ago: ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few’. And probably he would also add: ‘Each one of you is a laborer, go and help with the harvest.’ Would you be willing to say yes?