Reflections on Lay Pastoral Ministry

A series of reflections on Lay Pastoral Ministry written by Bernadette Wurlod will be made available through various Diocesan publications.  The writing will be taken from a research paper titled, “A reflective narrative and theological exploration of qualified lay ministries in Victorian rural Catholic communities: Their impact on Church life in the light of Vatican II and possible directives for revisioning lay ministry in this context.”  Bernadette is a parishioner of St Thomas’ Parish Terang, an educator in pastoral ministry providing group and individual supervision for both lay and ordained ministries.

A problem and questions:

As the 1990s approached, the number of priests in the Ballarat Diocese was declining, smaller communities amalgamated with larger parishes and church buildings were sold, an experience not unique to the Australian Catholic Church but a global crisis inviting creative responses.[1]  The Bishop of Ballarat set up a Pastoral Planning Task Force in 1993, a consultative process preparing for an uncertain future in light of Vatican II teaching.[2]

A Shoot Will Spring, the Pastoral Planning Taskforce’s report, stressed working regionally together for the continuation of all parishes.[3] Local level involvement in pastoral planning appeared to cease towards 2000 while concurrently sexual abuse victims and advocates were speaking out. Planning for a future with a lack of priests, now faced the topic of sexual abuse.  Priestly formation and their accountability began to be questioned.  Previous respect and trust regarding church leadership was affected.

In 2014 Looking Forward: A resource for pastoral planning in the diocese of Ballarat suggested  that by 2024 70% of Catholics will live in major regional cities in three Ministry Districts where Masses, prayer gatherings, sacraments, physical resources and faith formation will be offered.[4]   Due to decreasing population of rural communities, resources will be increased in areas where the population is higher, a reasonable concept with inbuilt loss for scattered populations.[5]  2012 research indicates that of the 102,018 Catholics in the diocese only 1 in 10 participates regularly in Mass and 50% live in three central cities: Ballarat, Mildura and Warrnambool.[6]

This model of pastoral planning focuses on the number of priests available to the most people at one time. Using current data, Looking Forward predicts fewer people identifying as Catholics with less than 10% attending Mass.  Less frequent Masses will be available and the diocese may provide as few as 20 priests.

Looking Forward considers a greater acceptance of a pluralistic society, this is balanced by a recognition that people who commit to Catholicism may do so with greater conviction.  The emergence of small faith communities within ministry districts is encouraged, although inevitably the most populated centers will have better access to Eucharist and Sacraments. Those living in rural areas will be marginalised

A small case study of current trends

It is arguable that prioritising larger city centers has not created a solution but has extended the problem as highlighted in my comparison study of two regional Parishes, A, and B.

Parish A: One parish priest (PP) resides in the city of Parish A, a retired priest assists without major responsibilities. The PP is Canonical Administrator of four smaller faith communities under the umbrella of Parish A.  The city-based church of Parish A, provides two weekend masses.  Each month the four smaller churches provide two masses and two Assemblies of Word and Communion.  On one weekend there is no service.

The staff, based at the city church, include two parish secretaries, a business manager and a sacramental coordinator. The PP is also the Canonical Administrator of another cluster of churches within the diocese, located across nine smaller towns and communities. An assistant priest resides in one of the cluster towns with the help of a retired priest.[7]

Parish B: There is one large city church and one smaller faith community that is part of parish B.  Staff based in the city church include a pastoral associate, a secretary and business manager. The larger city church within Parish B has three masses each weekend.  The smaller Catholic community has two masses and two Assemblies of Word and Communion per month.

In the larger city church of Parish B several people act as key contacts for a variety of groups such as social justice, parish leadership team and bereavement care.  The secretary is the main contact for everything pertaining to Liturgy, Baptism, Hospital Communion and Funeral ministry.  The PP covers most of these liturgical areas, but several people serve as ministers of communion to hospitals on Sundays.

In the smaller faith community of Parish B lay leaders have ownership for the provision of worship and take responsibility for Assemblies of Word and Communion supported by the PP and larger city church.  The city church is centrally located, and two other parishes exist in the outer city, both have a PP. This proximity provides a support structure with three priests residing in the entirety of the city.

The Assemblies of Word and Communion in the smaller faith community of Parish B are reported to be well organised and driven by the community’s determination to continue as church with confidence in the leadership provided.

Emerging observations and questions

Parish A’s PP has enormous geographical and ministerial areas of responsibility.  The parishioners involved are essential for the life of the church. On paper Parish B’s PP appears less pressured with time and commitment compared to the PP in Parish A and has support from two neighboring parishes.

The smaller faith communities in the cluster of Parish A and B have fewer opportunities for Eucharist while the larger city centers have Eucharist each weekend.  Commitment and responsibility are present in the smaller faith communities. The prediction for the future in the case of Parish A, and B is provision of Eucharist where there are larger numbers of people.

Administration, business, sacraments, funeral ministry and pastoral care are the areas of employment in Parish A and B.   Although both PP’s appear to be working at fostering, collaboration within lay ministry, succession planning and formation in current and future lay leadership is sketchy. While an employed sacramental coordinator in Parish A, provides leadership in sacramental care preparation, funeral ministry and reflection on the Word, the PP of Parish A takes responsibility for liturgical ministry across larger and larger areas of the diocese.  This raises questions of sustainability for spiritual, mental and physical health of all ministries. Does Parish B have plans for the continuation of the small rural faith community church as the numbers decrease and age?   Are we witnessing in these two parish comparisons a reflective, collaborative theology in action or passive desperation?

Part 2 to follow.

Bernadette Wurlod

[1] Leonardo Boff, Ecclesio-Genesis: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church (London: Collins, 1986), 1-2.

[2] Catholic Diocese of Ballarat, Report, 5-6.

[3] Catholic Diocese of Ballarat, Report from Pastoral Planning Taskforce, 66.

[4] The Diocese of Ballarat – Looking Forward.  2014, 16.

[5] The Diocese of Ballarat, Looking Forward, 5.

[6] The Diocese of Ballarat, Looking Forward, 8.

[7] “Catholic Diocese of Ballarat,” accessed April 2, 2018