Australian conference seeks to strengthen parish life

Sydney, Australia, Aug 28, 2014 / 06:25 pm (CNA).- A national New Evangelization conference in Australia last week worked to reinforce parishes as faith communities actively seeking to grow in discipleship.

“It is essential for the parish to re-orient toward reaching those who are not active in the life of the Church,” said Fr. Michael White, one of the keynote speakers at the event, entitled PROCLAIM 2014.

Fr. White is the pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Md., which has nearly tripled its weekend attendance from 1,400 to more than 4,000 during his tenure. Commitment to the mission of the Church has also grown within the parish, as evidenced by the significant increase of giving and service in ministry.

He addressed participants at the conference along with Tom Corcoran, who is the associate to the pastor at the Church of the Nativity, responsible for weekend message development, strategic planning, and staff development.

“The key elements to rebuilding the parish are focusing on unchurched people, prioritizing the weekend experience and moving Church people to action,” Corcoran said.

Together, Fr. White and Corcoran co-authored the book, “Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter.” They drew from its contents, based on their own experience revitalizing a parish, in their conference talks.

Among the topics they addressed were the need to live out the Church’s missionary calling in order to transform parish life, and practical ways to encourage parishioners to take a more active role, contributing and assuming responsibility for sharing their own faith.  

The key message for the Church is to call parishioners “to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ,” Fr. White told more than 500 delegates at the event.

The PROCLAIM 2014 symposium, held Aug. 21- 23 in Chatswood – a business district north of Sydney – was organized by the National Office for Evangelization, which has its mandate from the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

The event drew from Pope Francis’ encyclical “Evangelii Gaudium” and focused on the theme, “Living the Joy of the Gospel in Parishes.”

Over the three-day conference, various workshops addressed topics including how to be an authentic welcoming community, disability and inclusion, understanding youth evangelization, explaining your faith without raising your voice, and how a parish can support the sexually broken.

Some speakers discussed practical questions regarding the recruitment, training, and education of catechists and other key contributors in the mission of the parish.

Dr. Ruth Powell, director of the National Church Life Survey Research in Australia, was joined by three panelists from the Anglican, Baptist and Pentecostal churches in her address, “Finding a way Forward,” which presented trends in evangelization across all denominations.

Powell, who is also an associate professor at the Australian Catholic University, pointed to statistics indicating that only 52 percent of Mass-attending Catholics feel at ease sharing their faith. Another 15 percent say they are looking for opportunities to do so.

Highlighting that the average Catholic newcomer is a 46-year-old woman who is married and university educated, looking for something missing in her life, Powell challenged conference participants to consider how Catholics can reach out to newcomers.

She also called attendees to think about how to support mothers and fathers in the task of evangelization.

Bishop Peter Ingham of Wollongong, who chairs the Australian Catholic Bishops’ evangelization commission, described the conference as “an incredible opportunity for bishops, priests and parishioners to understand the successes and challenges in parish life.”

“PROCLAIM 2014 is about helping Catholics respond to the call to the new evangelization, helping to build our parishes as faith communities full of disciples and missionary in outlook,” he said.

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