Discerning the Future Together

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter into another.” Anatole France, French Writer. These thought provoking and compelling words were what greeted participants of a discernment in common weekend for parish leaders, as they leafed through the first pages of the vast and wide-ranging document prepared for the occasion.

From August 18 – 20, eighteen members of the South West Coast Parish Pastoral Leadership teams embarked upon a journey of collective discernment facilitated by Fr Michael Smith SJ at the beautiful Star of the Sea Guest House in Apollo Bay. We began the day on Saturday morning by composing a timeline on butcher’s paper stretched out across the windows of the dining room, outlining the history of our church communities. Where we have come from and how our identities have been formed by over a hundred and fifty years of history, now a shared history for our parish.

Reflecting also on the recent parish amalgamations in light of the feelings of grief and loss that accompanied this transition for some and trying to draw conclusions of what this new reality means for our communities. Appreciating where we have come from certainly helped participants to enter in the next part of our session, looking at the life-death-resurrection model of organisational development. Every organisation including parishes can be understood through the paradigm of the life, death and resurrection cycle.

Transitioning into a new ‘mode’ of parish as we are, Fr Michael’s words were a timely reminder, that we must remain grounded in the deep story of who we are as faithful followers of Jesus in the South-West, and in the storytelling culture we must continue to build to be power generating for mission and outreach into the future.

On Sunday morning the theoretical conversations of the previous day found practical expression, as participants collectively arrived at concrete goals that best expressed who we are and what we desire as a parish. The goals produced really focused on being Christ centred and witnessing to our faith through our example as a community of welcome. These goals our community produced will be further refined and the discussions had over this weekend will feed into our new parish council and future pastoral goal setting.

As the final day drew to a close with the celebration of Mass, Fr Michael’s parting wisdom was clear, “pray, pray and pray more.” Our role as leaders and missionaries must come out of a deep knowledge of God and his desires for our community. Prayer must be part of every meeting, every major decision and every parish venture. Even reading the balance sheets can become “a contemplative experience.”

For this model of parish amalgamations to work into the future, subsidiarity must be at the heart of it. Parishioners must have agency over the future of their parish and the direction it’s heading. As we have seen from the Plenary Council and the forthcoming Synod on Synodality, consultation and collaboration can be messy, but Pope Francis has invited us to go out and “make a mess.” This collaborative leadership models really gives expression to the sensus fidei (the sense of faith) of the people of God. I pray that all parishes can take the time and opportunity to invest in their future leaders also. Thank you to Fr Michael Smith for facilitating the weekend, Sr Margaret McGrath rsm, for hosting us, Fr John Fitzgerald for his guidance and support and thank you most especially to all the participants who gave up their weekend to be involved as current and future leaders of the church communities of South-West Coast.

Fr Bill Lowry