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Pastoral Planning in the Kimberley

Fostering Lay Leadership in Balgo-Kutjungka Parish

Balgo/Kutjungka Parish is on the north-west edge of the Tanami Desert, in the Diocese of Broome WA but closer to Alice Springs NT. It consists mostly of Indigenous people living in various communities and speaking a variety of languages. Like every parish, it is unique in its people, geography, history and many other ways. But its attempts at pastoral planning and preparing lay leadership are common to parishes all over Australia.

The following paper was prepared by Fr Matt Digges, parish priest, Sr Barbara Broad RSM, pastoral associate, and Sr Kay O'Neill RSM, Centacare, based in Mulan.

Lay Leadership is a challenge which faces us in the Kimberley Church - a reflection on the life of the Church in the Balgo/Kutjungka Parish ...
We live in changing times. A reality of the Kimberley Church is the aging and decreasing numbers of ordained ministers and religious men and women, while at the same time the population of the Kimberley is growing. The challenges that faced the people of the Kutjungka region differ in many ways from 1939 when the first little band of missionaries arrived at Rockhole and eventually settled at Old Mission. In those first days the message of the gospel was evident to the Kukatja and Walmajarri people in the example and preaching of the first missionaries. Slowly they came to know Jesus. Old man Sunfly in 1990 said: "We always knew about Mama Kankarra, but we didn't know about His Son Jesus until the priests and sisters came." The continued enfleshing of the gospel in the region will be dependent largely on the faith of the people of the region with Church Leaders being key to this. It is imperative that we take up the challenge of lay leadership in the Church and put our efforts into the developing of strong leaders confident in faith and culture if the church in the Kimberley is to continue to blossom.

The pastoral team of Balgo/Kutjungka Catholic Parish offer the following reflection as a help to the formulation of pastoral plans for each parish in the Diocese. Each parish is unique and a plan must emerge from within, but the basic realities that we have to deal with are similar. It is hoped that we are able to plan together.

The current position of Balgo/Kutjungka Catholic Parish
There are four main communities which comprise the Parish, Wirrimanu (Balgo), Mulan, Kururrungku (Billiluna) and Yagga Yagga. There are some outlying and seldom visited communities such as Kiwirrkurra and Well 33 which have significant links to the Parish and are not served by any other Catholic ministers.

There are a total of thirty Church Leaders, of whom twenty could be called active and reliable. Of these fifteen are women and five are men. The men are the weakest of the leaders. Within the parish live eleven religious. Five are men, in school and adult ed, and six are women, one is the pastoral associate, one is involved with Centacare, and four in schools and adult education.

From Easter 2003, the Parish will be served by one priest. Whilst efforts are being made to recruit a pastoral associate, this may take a long time or not happen at all. This is down from four staff two years ago, when the team comprised a priest, Mercy Sister, seminarian and volunteer.

Role of Church Leaders
The Church leaders form the backbone of the parish. They are the recognisable sign of the Church, chosen by personal discernment during Lent each year. Those wishing to be Church Leaders are asked to ‘test the waters' during Lent by letting their intentions be known. Public opinion has a way of becoming known! People are also asked to encourage those with the right gifts to put themselves forward. Those who have served for some years may be encouraged to ‘sleep' for a year so as not to burn out. A Church leader in the Kutjungka is expected to be involved in:

  • Preparation of the liturgy
  • Ministry in the liturgy
  • Leadership of the liturgy in the absence of a priest
  • First spiritual care to the sick
  • Public face of the Church to most people
  • Leadership of catechesis for sacraments
  • Ecclesial reference group for school and community leaders.
  • Advocating for the Church in the broader community ie. the public voice of the Church.
  • An extension of the Pastoral team.

Our reality
The pastoral team ministers with the Church Leaders to the people of the Kutjungka. Together with them we are seen as the face of Catholic faith in the region. In recent years some members of the Church, including Church leaders, have joined the AOG and Peoples Church. Initially this necessitated an intensive catechesis by the pastoral team and caused much debate among Christians. We addressed this in the paper: ‘Ecclesiology in the Kutjungka', of 2001. This division among Christians has resulted in Catholics, particularly Church Leaders, understanding more about their faith. In short, it toughened them up!

In Mulan about one third of the church left. This included non-Catholics who had joined the Church because it was the only Christian presence in the community. Had not the Church Leaders had some training and strong in their faith maybe the whole Church would have gone. A similar situation to this happened in Bidyadanga in 1996.

The Schools
The three schools in the Parish have developed in the light of the reality of each community. The religious division in two of the communities is an issue for the schools in the area of catechesis, as they can no longer presume that all families will support the Catholic ethos of the school. There can be a tension between the school and parish life, which at times may be healthy. Certainly there is need for continuing dialogue between parish and school.

Ministry of the Pastoral Associate
When planning pastorally it is necessary to look at current ministry to determine what is peripheral and what is core. This is not easy, since something such as the publishing of the Mirli Mirli (Parish Bulletin), that is clearly not core to a PA's ministry, is an invaluable pastoral resource. Similarly a sewing class provides an opportunity for pastoral contact in a relaxed atmosphere.

The following could be considered as essential:

  • pastoral presence
  • modelling of ministerial possibilities for laity / preparing for future reality
  • education and support of Church Leaders
  • co-ordinating parish sacramental programs
  • ensuring regular liturgies in the absence of a priest
  • sharing in the teaching and preaching of the Catholic faith
  • These aspects could be considered as peripheral to the role pf PA:
  • actual leadership of liturgies in the absence of a priest
  • catechetics
  • production of parish newsletter
  • involvement in women's groups

Ministry of Parish Priest
Once again the line is blurred. Reducing ministry to what others cannot do is not doing justice to the ministry of the ordained priesthood. However the following are essential:

  • guardian of Catholic faith in the parish
  • teacher and preacher of the Catholic faith
  • Sacramental ministry

Whilst assisting the faith formation and evangelisation of the parish, the following are considered to be peripheral:

  • youth outreach
  • ministry to schools and health care system
  • financial management
  • maintaining plant
  • justice and peace outreach
  • community development
  • diocesan duties
  • preparation and conducting of funerals.

To the Future...
It is our vision that within 10 years the Parish will be able to function without the presence of a full time priest or religious pastoral associate.

Sometimes this goal seems a hundred miles, yet on other occasions it seems achievable. The following critical issues need to be acknowledged:

  • Family breakdown, substance abuse, violence
  • a reticence to be "in front"
  • perceived lack of belief in one's ability to lead
  • overworking of functional community members
  • financial limitations
  • isolation, lack of support and appropriate training
  • lack of interaction with other Catholic Church Leaders may lead to interaction with leaders from Protestant Churches and subsequent confusion / wrong catechesis
  • The lack of men in leadership roles in the Church
  • Ministry to youth and the crisis of youth dysfunction
  • Diocesan policy on standards and training for the permanent Diaconate

What is being done NOW

  • Regular weekly local Church Leader meetings are a priority (ie. they do not get cancelled)
  • Quarterly Kutjungka Parish Church Leader meetings
  • Church Leaders are supplied with information, support with transport, encouragement and assisted with financial support to undertake retreats, training and courses at Mirrilingki and Nungalinya. At times these courses may be offered in the region.
  • Sacramental preparation courses have been written that can be delivered by Church Leaders. These are currently delivered in teams with the priest, pastoral associate(s), religious education coordinator and / or parents / teachers.
  • Encouraging contact with Church Leaders from other Catholic communities eg. recent visit to Santa Teresa, a proposed visit to Bidyadanga later in 2003, a large group to attend NATSICC in October 2003 hopefully with a stopover in Santa Teresa and a proposal to invite other East Kimberley communities to join us for Pentecost.
  • Support for Church Leaders in fundraising initiatives
  • Encouragement and support of leaders and potential leaders
  • Encouragement and support of people in their desire for a deeper devotional life eg. praying for and with the sick, praying in times of crisis. This sometimes requires a suggestion to be made and accepted.
  • Catechesis of Church leaders leading to an ability to witness to Catholic faith and live side by side with other churches without compromise.
  • Proactive ecumenism
  • Fostering a sense of the Kutjungka Parish as part of the wider Catholic community. The Mirli Mirli (Parish Bulletin) can be helpful in this sense.

Where to from here?
A specific program for training of Church Leaders in theology, scripture and liturgy will be developed this year, in consultation with Mirrilingki and Nungalinya.

A greater rate of devolution of responsibility for certain tasks within the parish will begin after Easter:

  • The priest will visit Yaka and Billiluna on alternate weeks to celebrate Mass and assist in planning the following weeks lay-led liturgy.
  • Church leaders in Mulan are being prepared to gradually assume administrative tasks for the local Church after Easter. An office will be located in the PA's house. At least for the short to medium term there will be no Pastoral Associate.
  • Tuesday Church Leader meetings in all communities will be strongly encouraged whether the priest is present or not
  • Church leaders in each community will be encouraged to support Church leaders in other communities
  • Local means of raising finance particularly in Balgo and Mulan will be encouraged.
  • Regular lay led prayer meetings or sing-a longs will continue to be encouraged.
  • Occasional planned absences of priest on a weekend from Balgo or Mulan will facilitate the emergence and acceptance of lay led liturgies in an ordered way.

In summary we are reminded of the words of Pope John Paul when he addressed Aboriginal Australians in Alice Springs during his visit in 1986: "the church in Australia will not be the Church it is meant to be until you have made your rightful contribution." We are challenged to make every effort to actively allow this to happen.

To say the challenge is too hard is to fail to believe in the power of the Spirit. Graced with the present reality, let us walk confidently with the guidance of the Spirit.

  • Created: 25 August 2008
  • Modified: 25 April 2009