Pastoral Challenges of Mission in the Church in Australia Today

Pastoral Challenges of Mission in the Church in Australia Today
Reflections on Fifty Years of Mission by Scalabrinians in Australia
by Fr Peter Brock

May I start with a geography lesson.

The main river system in south east Australia is the Murray-Darling.

The River Murray rises in the snow fields of Mt Kosciusko and the Australian Alps, and forms most of the border between NSW and Victoria. The Murrumbidgee River flows into it on the NSW side, and from the south flow the Victorian rivers where some of you have ministered - the Goulburn River through Shepparton, the Campaspe through Echuca and the Loddon at Kerang.

The River Darling is much longer. Its tributaries flow from the western side of the Great Dividing Range in central NSW and southern Queensland. The waters make their way slowly north west before turning south again to Bourke, and down through Wilcannia and Menindee. The two great rivers finally meet below Mildura in the south west corner of NSW, and flow then into South Australia and finally into the sea about 100 km from Adelaide.

A few years ago I went to the point where the two rivers meet, just outside the town of Wentworth, downstream of Mildura. There is a picnic area there so I stopped and admired the view.

I decided that, for fun, I would swim across the river to Victoria, on the other side. The current was not very strong, the river is only about 100 metres across, and I'm quite a good swimmer, so I had no fears or hesitation about the swim.

I entered the water just downstream from where the waters of the Darling enter the Murray - although at this point the Darling has ceased to exist, and now the whole body of water is known as the River Murray. The water was pleasantly cool, though quite dirty.

Then about halfway across to Victoria I got quite a shock, to meet the waters of the Murray. The water was suddenly much colder, but also much cleaner.

I reached the opposite bank and stood for a moment in Victoria, then I swam back again and found the same thing. The waters of the Murray had come north from the snowfields and were cold but not too dirty. But halfway across I reached the warm but muddier water that, for many weeks, had been soaking up the sun of western Qld and NSW.

I wondered then, and still wonder, how far downstream from Wentworth you have to go until these two bodies of water have become one, not only in name, but in composition and temperature. I wonder whether a person swimming across the Murray at Renmark in South Australia could notice any difference from one bank to the other. And by then the temperature of the water would be warmer than the Murray at Mildura, but cooler than the Darling at Wentworth.

* * * * *

I want you to imagine that stretch of the River Murray from Wentworth to Renmark as an analogy of the immigrant experience in Australia.

What we might call "mainstream Australia" can be compared to the River Murray. As you know, mainstream Australia is still trying to deal with its original river, the long history of Aboriginal life and culture in this land. Most of "mainstream Australia" before the Second World War came from Britain, with occasional trickles from elsewhere, such as the Chinese on the goldfields. But for the most part the tributaries of Aboriginal, British and Asians had not mixed much before World War II.

Then came the next mighty surge of immigration - like the River Darling. People came in great numbers from southern, central and eastern Europe, and you Italian Scalabrinians followed them out here.

I said the wave of immigration was like the River Darling, and I said the Darling was warmer, but dirtier than the Murray, so I have to be very careful how I word this next part. Let's put it this way - the wave of European immigration brought new warmth into the Australian mainstream, and let's agree that they added new colour!

I suppose the first generation of migrants are like the river downstream of Wentworth. Many of the migrants have taken out Australian citizenship and are therefore no longer Italians or Greeks or Poles or Czechs, but are all fully and legally Australians. But of course they retain their languages, and many of their customs, culture, food, religious practices.

But by the second or third generation, the waters are much more mixed. You will hear the surnames Divenuto or Kasprowicz in an Australian sporting team, but they are playing cricket, not soccer. Cricket! And in last Sunday's rugby league Grand Final there were players called Gutenbiel and Minichiello.

They still call their immigrant grandparents nonno or Oma, but talk to them in English. They enjoy the food that their grandmothers cook, and the wine and liqueurs that their grandfathers serve, but they are equally comfortable with hamburgers and beer.

They all think of themselves as Australians. They might say they are Australians of Italian or Polish background, but they I don't think they would describe themselves as "Italian-Australians" or "Polish-Australians".

* * * * *

Now you Scalabrinians are called to minister to people as they bob their way along the new river they have entered through immigration. Of course this applies not only to the Italians who minister to those who came here 50 years ago, but to the Filipinos and South- and Central-Americans who have come much more recently.

But inevitably, you too are drawn into the life of "mainstream Australia".

At first it is because the young immigrant asks you to perform his or her wedding ceremony with a native-born Australian. Or because, at the funeral of an immigrant, you meet and minister to the Australian-born in-laws, children and grandchildren.

And, because of your networking skills, within your own religious community and beyond, you are asked to help immigrants in their first contacts with Australian bureaucracy, government agencies, interpreter services and the like. You find yourself ministering, not just within your own tributary, but at that point where your tributary meets the other body of water.

You Italians have seen, and the Filipinos and Central Americans will see, that in a generation or two, you are ministering to people who consider themselves now almost entirely within the mainstream of Australian life. Though they will never lose their accent, and while they keep contact with their country of birth, and perhaps revisit it every few years, they now think of Australia as home. Australia has changed them, just as they have changed Australia.

* * * * *

So it seems to me that the pastoral challenges that you face will change with the length of time that you and your immigrant community have lived in Australia. In the early years you are called to be shepherds to people who are fragile and vulnerable as they begin a new life in a strange and foreign land. But as the years progress, perhaps you are called simply to be priests in Australia - perhaps even to think of yourselves as Australian priests within the church in Australia.

You would know that "mainstream Australia" still looks and feels like a vaguely Christian environment, like "mainstream Italy", "mainstream Central America" and "mainstream Philippines". Australians still mark the year by the holiday periods of Christmas and Easter. Most people still declare on the census forms that they are Christian. Most people still wish to be buried or cremated after a church service, or at least with the presence of a Christian priest or minister.

However the very things that draw people to Australia - the freedom, the standard of living, the climate, the space - all these things can have their down side too. Australia, as you know, is an increasingly materialistic, consumerist, "pagan" sort of society.

You also know that most of our young people, even those who have gone all the way through Catholic schools, and even those formed in devout, practising Catholic households, drift away from the liturgical life of the church.

This must surely be, and remain, one of the key challenges to all of us as pastors in this land. How do we keep alive the flame of faith in those who now have little or no contact with the liturgical life of the church?

* * * * *

Let me give one answer, perhaps a surprising answer, from the life of Mary MacKillop, buried in this very place at North Sydney.

As you know, she began her religious life at a school in the little town of Penola, in the bottom corner of South Australia. As her small community grew, she came into conflict with the Bishop of Adelaide who eventually excommunicated her. (The whole business was something of a misunderstanding, and the excommunication was lifted a few months later).

However, it is remarkable that Australia has given the church, as an example of holiness to be admired, and as an intercessor in the communion of saints, a woman who was formally and canonically excommunicated.

And not only that. Mary wrote in a really startling way about her excommunication.

"I really felt like one in a dream. I seemed not to realise the presence of the Bishop and Priests; I know I did not see them; but I felt, oh, such a love for their office, a love, a sort of reverence for the very sentence which I then knew was being in full force passed upon me. I do not know how to describe the feeling, but I was intensely happy and felt nearer to God than I had ever felt before. The sensation of the calm beautiful presence of God I shall never forget".

Mary did not feel bitter against the church or its ministers and hierarchy, even as they excommunicated her. Indeed, as she says, she held their office in reverence.

But she also says - and this is the thing that I find remarkable, and worth reflecting on - that, even as she was excommunicated, she felt nearer to God than ever before, and she sensed what she calls the "calm, beautiful presence of God".

I think her words are a powerful reminder that, even outside the church, even excommunicated from the church, a person can still be near to God, can sense the presence of God, can indeed feel nearer to God than ever before in their life.

It is a reminder that God is bigger than the church, that God is found beyond the church as well as within it, that God is not restricted to the structures, the sacraments, the forms, the formal liturgy of the church.

I am sure that there are many people - young people especially - who seek and find the "calm, beautiful presence of God" in places other than our churches and church life. As St Augustine said, the hearts of all of us are made for God, and those hearts cannot find rest until they rest in him.

It seems to me that the pastoral challenge we face is to meet - indeed, to search out - these people, not only to talk to them, but to listen to them, to hear them tell of their experience of seeking and finding the presence of God. Just as each of us in the room is bilingual, so we need to be bilingual in our religious discourse - to be able to speak about God not only in our own, what I might call, "church language", but be able to understand and interpret the religious language of those who speak about "the calm beautiful presence of God" in language different from our own.

In her ministry, Mary MacKillop went to the frontiers of European settlement, and went beyond where some in the church felt she should go in terms of innovation. She found new ways of living religious life. Like all Christians, she had to carry her crosses.

Perhaps here in this place, you who were not born in this land may invoke Mary MacKillop to help you in your journey on that Australian river. At her beatification ceremony in Sydney in 1995 Pope John Paul II said that "the holiness demanded by the Gospel is as Australian as she was Australian". May she put new heart and new courage into us all.

Peter Brock
Executive Officer
National Commission for Clergy Life and Ministry
North Sydney, October 2002

  • Created: 26 September 2008
  • Modified: 23 April 2009