In the Beginning, the Word
A Pastoral Letter to God's People in the Diocese of Bathurst
Dear Friends in Christ,
On Pentecost Sunday every year the Church remembers the day she began to live her mission: to proclaim the Gospel of Christ and make disciples of all peoples.
On the weekend of Pentecost this year, over 250 members of our local church gathered in Bathurst to ask the Holy Spirit to renew our understanding of that mission, as we are called to live it here and now. It was only a first step, but that is how every journey must begin.
What did we learn? And where do we go from here?
With nominations received from the Pentecost gathering, and with an eye to balancing regions, gender and age, I have set up an Assembly Council. (You can read more about it on our Diocesan website:- www.bathurst.catholic.org.au/?i=1172&diocesan-assembly-council)
With this group and the Council of Priests, we have begun to tackle those questions. I hope that everyone who attended the Assembly, and all who have followed it, will understand that they too remain part of this process. The Assembly Council knows that its role is to keep alive this communication with them.
Not all the work will be completed before we gather for our next Assembly in two or three years’ time, but we can begin. Some ideas that have emerged are simple and specific, which could be put into practice soon. Others are longer term goals and aspirations, which need longer term planning. We will not try to start everything at once, and end up achieving little. It is important to begin with work on the foundations, so that what we build is sound.
In the beginning was the Word (Jn 1:1)
The opening sentence of John’s Gospel has been with me as I have reflected on where we should begin the work of renewing and rebuilding God’s house, his Church.
Often, during the Assembly process, people began by noting that our congregations at Mass are getting smaller and older. This is a fact and its complex causes are worth attempting to figure out. Social factors have an influence in pushing Church attendance up or down. That part of the story is one we cannot alter easily or quickly.
But it is not the whole story. If people believe in the meaning of Mass: in the importance of coming together as a community to worship and listen together to the Word of God: in the stupendous gift of Christ’s sacrifice made present and of our communion in his Body and Blood: then nothing, whether Sunday sport or poor music or boring preaching, will keep them away.
However, without faith, what is the motive, what is the reason to come? Without faith, what is the reason to keep coming?
In the beginning, the Word. Our first task is not to fill the churches for the sake of filling them. It is to help people meet Jesus Christ and discover the joy of living with faith in him. In building a relationship with Christ, we discover our relationship with his Church. Our own faith, however weak, grows when we share it. But our own faith needs constant nourishment, too.
The foundation of our work in renewing and rebuilding God’s house, his Church, must be in this nourishment and sharing of faith. If we can begin to do that, we shall become strong enough and wise enough to build on it.
In the Assembly process, we have learnt that, for many, the Bible is unfamiliar; and its relationship with the teaching of the Church obscure. Even the best homilies can do only so much to help us connect our lives and faith with the Word of God. Where do we go from here? As a first step, I will ask every parish to choose and call men and women who are willing and able to be trained to lead small groups to read the Scriptures together.
Later in the year, there will be regional sessions to give these leaders the basic formation they will need. Once the groups are going, there will be continuing opportunities for formation, both for the leaders and for those who want to learn more.
These Word and Faith groups will not be about the academic study of scripture or theology. Those activities have their place, but not here. Nor are they to be discussion groups, either over-structured or going round in circles. They are to be simple meetings with Christ, who is the Word of God, present in the scriptures, speaking to the lives of those who gather to listen and share what touches or puzzles them.
The readings for the following Sunday will be used. There may be questions about them that the group cannot answer. The leaders will meet regularly with the parish priest, who will help as he can, and also be helped in preparing his homily to know better what people might need to hear. I hope that priests will join the meetings of groups in their parishes. It will nourish their faith, too.
I hope that these groups will be able to invite and welcome those who are distant from the Church, or have never been inside.
Seven More First Steps Now
1. We learnt that some parishes struggled to find a way to choose their representatives to send to the Assembly. That is part of a wider difficulty in choosing and calling parishioners to service in ministries and on pastoral and finance councils. Where do we go from here? It is time to review and renew how our ministers and parish councils are selected and operate.
2. Revised guidelines for Sunday Worship in the Absence of a Priest will be out soon. Formation for lay ministers of Holy Communion will follow.
3. A Social Justice Network, modelled on the Youth Ministry Network, will be set up.
4. There will be an education campaign explaining how finances for the Church’s mission are collected and spent; and reminding all Catholics of their duty to share, according to their means, in this responsibility.
5. All parishes will be asked to acknowledge, with a plaque and/or in their bulletin, the original custodians of the land.
6. Blast and Manna Fest will continue, with a push for more support in promotion from parishes and schools.
7. I will celebrate an annual Mass for the renewal of Marriage promises, and encourage parishes to do the same. A Marriage and Family Education working group will be established.
The major initiative of setting up Word and Faith groups, and the first steps I have just listed for other areas, will need the co-operation of many people, including you, to succeed. The Assembly process is not limited to what others might do. Recently, Pope Francis quoted Mother Teresa saying “the reform of the Church starts in you and me.”
St Paul wrote to the young church of Corinth words that apply to us: “God uses us to make the knowledge about Christ spread everywhere like a sweet fragrance. For we are like a sweet-smelling incense offered by Christ to God, which spreads among those who are being saved and those who are being lost. For those who are being lost, it is a deadly stench that kills; but for those who are being saved, it is a fragrance that brings life. Who, then, is capable for such a task? We are not like so many others, who handle God's message as if it were cheap merchandise; but because God has sent us, we speak with sincerity in his presence, as servants of Christ.”
+ Michael McKenna
Bishop of Bathurst
Solemnity of Mary of the Cross
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him,
and without him was not anything made that was made.
In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not mastered it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
He came for witness, to bear witness to the light,
that all might believe through him.
He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.
The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.
He was in the world, the world that was made through him,
yet the world did not know him.
He came to his own home, and his own people did not receive him.
But to all who received him, who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God;
who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh
nor of human will, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us,
full of grace and truth.
We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.
(John bore witness to him, and cried, “This was he of whom I said,
‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’”)
And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.
For the law was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has ever seen God;
the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father,
has made him known.