National Meeting of Diocesan Directors 2017

The National Clergy Life and Ministry Directors Conference,

3-7 July 2017: A Report .....A STRANGER WILL COME.

The title of this Conference Report is taken from John’s Gospel (21:18) where the full text is:

A stranger will come and bind you up, and take you to where you do not want to go.”

This text was used by the facilitator, Mr. Garry Everrett, to focus the attention of the CLM Directors on the task at hand which is addressing the most serious crisis faced by the Catholic Church in its history in this country. The facilitator went on to discuss briefly, two possible interpretations of the text. The first was that the stranger was the enemy who placed chains around us and took us to the place of death. The second, was that the stranger is a friend (a Samaritan figure), who has come to bind up our wounds, and take us to a place unfamiliar to us. In both cases, the stranger in our place and time was named as the Royal Commission. How we see the stranger is of utmost importance as to how we respond to the issues raised.

The Conference was titled “The Yearnings of CLM People”, and began with an evening of gathering, welcoming and community building. After dinner Fr. Greg opened the Conference by relating the emergence of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark. The people walked away from Jerusalem and the Temple in order to go into the desert to listen to the Baptist. It was there that the people encountered metanoia or a turn around. The implication was that we should be prepared to do likewise during the next few days. This opening was followed by a brief presentation by the facilitator, about the assumptions underlying the design of the Conference program. The clear emphasis was to be on output or outcomes. The input would be high on quality, but low on quantity.

The facilitator’s second presentation focussed on five inspirational quotes designed to prepare the heart (spirit) as well as the mind for the tasks that lay ahead. Participants were provided with a copy of these motivational thoughts. Again, the implication was clear that we must be prepared to be agents of change. It was stated that in a crisis, we either breakdown or break-through.

The first full day of the Conference commenced with a hymn and prayer sourced in the recent experiences of abuses perpetrated by ordained and religious congregational men. The “Hymn of Healing For The Church” was composed by Michael Henry fms, and the prayer further developed the themes of sin and shame, as well as hope and trust in God.

With hearts and minds now suitably prepared we were ready to engage with the only keynote speaker of the Conference, Francis Sullivan, Executive Officer of the Truth, Justice and Healing Commission. Francis provided key insights into the findings of the Royal Commission, and drew implications for the Church, the people of God. His presentation was riveting; the content challenging; and the impact profound. This was our agenda.

It is not possible to summarise here the input, but some extracts, will help stir us anew. The extracts are not quotes, but approximations based on personal notes. The exact wording may be slightly different.  He said among other things:

We must not focus on the WHAT but the WHY; not he institution, but the culture.

Why did the culture grow abuse?

Sexual abuse is an abuse of power.

Three prominent explanations are contained in the exercise of abuse: power; privilege; and poor participation.

We talk community but act authoritatively.

Clericalism is exhibited when anyone uses the system to advantage his or her self.

The Church is a cracker at being dishonest.

Who gets to participate in the REAL decisions not just the token ones?

The Church uses inertia as a management tool. We just wait for things to pass.

We need to articulate best practices for a self-actualising adult Church.

We must be agents, not co-dependents or objects, as the People of God.

Francis Sullivan thus provided a focus for what was termed “the plan”.  Each participant was expected to develop a plan for helping the clergy, in his sphere of influence, to examine ways in which the local Church might become a better Church. It was hoped that each plan would be discussed with the respective bishop on return to the diocese. We recalled the axiomatic words of Fr. Gerry Arbuckle the cultural anthropologist: “The new is elsewhere”, and also the words of an Australian Bishop in commenting on the implications of the Royal Commission for the Church:  ”It can no longer be business as usual.”

The remainder of the Conference was given over to individual and small group work, supported by Panels and Open Forums. Always, the driving force was the production of the individual plans for Clergy Life and Ministry. All input was respected and valued, and the chief evaluative criterion was:  ”How will this input help to shape my plan?” All participants were generous, passionate, discerning and respectful of difference as the program unfolded. They were all companions on the journey.

Midway through the second day, participants had each prepared a draft plan to discuss with his bishop. Each plan was unique mirroring not only the different contexts, opportunities and obstacles in each diocese, but also mirroring the unique interpretation of the Conference challenge made by the individual CLM director, and the use of his personal gifts. These plans were then shared with small groups of Critical Friends, with a view to eliminating any perceived weaknesses, and enhancing the strengths. Ideas from the plans of critical friends were also shared in a spirit of collaboration and support. A final Open Forum allowed for a wider sharing of best practice ideas among the whole group.

An after-dinner speaker, Fr John Daly, provided an informative and entertaining account of his founding association with CLM as a national organisation. His reflections paved the way for the final day’s input provided by Sr Eveline, Dr Alex Nelson and Fr. Peter Maher on the theme of Reflective Practice and Supervision as an excellent method for improving priestly practice.

I conclude this report by returning to one of the five quotes used on the opening night of the Conference. In the words of Martin Luther King:

The ultimate measure of a people is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy.

I saw Conference participants stand tall and strong; stand in hope; and stand facing the future.

Who could ask for more?

Greg Bourke, National Director CLM  7th July 2017.

  • Created: 19 November 2019
  • Modified: 19 November 2019