Parish survival 101: clerics reveal all

13 May 2009

By The Record

A breakdown of the last national Census parish by parish reveals a gaping chasm between numbers of people who identify themselves as Catholics and those who actually darken the doors of a church more than twice a year.  Anthony Barich discusses with several Perth priests how to reach out to the unchurched Catholics out there and how to nurture those who do attend.


A grandmother prays with her grandson in church at an Ash Wednesday Mass. It is often grandparents these days that are passing on the Faith, but Mass itself should be the end result of the internal prayer life of the home, Perth priest Fr Pat Cunningham says. Photo: CNS.


By Anthony Barich

In the 2006 National Census, 377,849 people living in the Archdiocese of Perth called themselves Catholic, with Yangebup parish surging to second spot on the list of parishes with the most numbers.
This overall figure contrasts strongly with a participation survey carried out in May that year that revealed Perth Archdiocesan parishes averaged a total of 51,740 per weekend.
This is down from 2001, when the national count of attendance found that 59,650 attend Mass on a typical weekend in Perth.
This is consistent with figures released by the Pastoral Projects Office  (PPO), an agency of he Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, which confirm that Catholic Mass attendance numbers are declining and have been since the 1970s.
Bob Dixon, PPO director, says that despite an increase in the number of Australians calling themselves Catholic in the most recent 2006 Census, the decline of Mass attendees is occurring at different rates and in different demographic segments throughout Australia.
The PPO is charged with collecting data about the religious practice of Catholics in Australia – coordinating Catholic participation in the five-yearly National Church Life Survey, (NCLS) last held in 2006 – as well as special projects, such as the Catholics who have ceased attending Mass report of last year.
In the 2006 survey, an average of 708,618 people attended weekend worship Australia-wide, representing 13.8 per cent of people identifying themselves as Catholic in the census.
This was down from the 2001 figure of 763,726 or 15.3 per cent – a drop of 55,108 despite an overall growth in the Catholic population.
The Pastoral Projects Office provide several downloadable documents on their website providing information about the age, ethnic and gender make-up of the Church faithful.
Perth parishes will be asked to draw on these results to devise a strategy to embrace lapsed Catholics. Catholic numbers have overall increased but the percentage of people who say they are Catholic is down in the Archdiocese of Perth, from 25.6 per cent to 24.6 per cent.
This percentage figure was still above the number of those who said they were Anglican, and probably for the first time, said Fr Patrick Cunningham, Perth co-ordinator of the Pastoral Data Project.
Fr Cunningham said the figures are a call to encourage lay people – especially parish councils – to interest themselves in finding new avenues of pastoral work, so the priest can focus on sacramental duties. 
“It should be a lay initiative,” he said, “as the laity are the very people about whom the statistics are talking.”
The top 15 parishes account for half of numbers in the 108 parishes in the Archdiocese of Perth. Overall, there were just under 14,000 more Catholics in 2006 than there were in 2001.
Yangebup, a growing suburb 25km south of Perth city, has shown the steadiest rise in numbers. With 10,171 now declaring themselves Catholic out of 44,128 in the suburb, it was ranked 22 in the 1996 Census and 11 in 2001. It sits behind Ocean Reef, which has been consistently high – ranked first also in 2001 and fifth in 1996.
In Spearwood, ranked 11th – down from a third placing in 1996 – nearly one in every two people are Catholic, with 48.7 per cent of people declaring themselves Catholic.
Ellenbrook, another growth area to the south of Perth, has shown the sharpest growth, now ranked 36th, up from 60th in 2001.
Applecross is also up 21 places from 50 in 1996 to 29 in 2006. However, this figure could be in part due to the Brentwood ‘cell’ being transferred to Applecross since the previous Census.
Ranked 15th in the Archdiocese for numbers, it also has the second-highest percentage of people who declared themselves Catholic (39.6), while Hamilton Hill, ranked 60th in numbers, also had a strong percentage of Catholics (37.5), as did 62nd-ranked Attadale (35.9 per cent).
Fr Cunningham says the factors accounting for these figures are many, but some suburbs have high numbers of people from one specific ethnic background, meaning that many practicing Catholics are migrants, but locally-born Catholics are not baptising their children as much.
Migrating nationalities like the Vietnamese, Fr Cunningham says, are preserving the family unit and attending Mass as a family.
Fr Cunningham, a former editor of The Record and a priest of over 57 years, says that the percentage who say they have no religion is also important – 64 per cent of the population are still Christian – but while this is what people want to be known as, it may not represent what they are necessarily doing in their lives.
In May 2006, when Perth parishes participated in the national participation count in Catholic parishes, Bateman averaged the highest – 2839 – followed by St Mary’s Cathedral (1771), Whitford (1616), Morley (1461), Fremantle (1430) and Willetton (1374) among the highest.
However, these figures, in most cases, pale in comparison to the number of people who call themselves Catholics in these areas – 7701 in Bateman, 9552 in Whitford and 5386 in Willetton.
The lowest numbers for those who call themselves Catholics, including practicing Catholics, are found in remote country towns whose parishes have merged, Fr Cunningham says, partly because farmers “don’t change their loyalties easily”.
Fr Cunningham, said that in these situations, “the priest doesn’t stand a chance to get to know all the parishioners”. Instead, it is the responsibility of the lay to get to know their neighbours.
This is the case in metropolitan and country parishes, he says.


Accountability and welcome 

Speaking with Fr John Sherman OMI 

A  welcoming atmosphere at the parish while taking very seriously the matter of handling parents references to get their children into Catholic schools are the priority evangelical tasks of Fr John Sherman at Fremantle’s Basilica of St Patrick.
Fremantle’s 2006 Census figure of 2130 is less than double the number of practicing Catholics reported to live in the area, but Fr Sherman, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, says these figures as misleading, as up to 70 per cent of its attendees are from outside the parish zone.
The figure of practicing Catholics per weekend, he says, is closer to 940, but, interestingly, he says, collections are up – an indication that there are more people at Mass. “It’s different here in Fremantle. We’re like St Mary’s Cathedral in that they like the old church, and people who have been associated with St Patrick’s Basilica in the past often come back,” he told The Record.
Fr Sherman says it’s “almost impossible” to door-knock in his area, as the Fremantle population is full of busy young business people, so Fremantle’s priority of evengelisation is a welcoming ministry. The parish has someone at the door greeting parishioners entering the church and the congregation is encouraged to greet each other before Mass, “which sends a magical energy through the congregation during Mass”.
Fr Sherman also takes “very seriously” the matter of handing out a reference to parents who ask for one to be admitted into a Catholic school, always sitting down with them and, in a friendly manner, brings them to account about their involvement with the parish – in other words, are they going to Mass.
“We’re dealing with a population that’s not very practicing, so there needs to be some accountability with them,” Fr Sherman says.



It’s your friendly priest calling 

Speaking with Fr Eugene McGrath

The age-old priest’s practice of door-knocking to connect with the community is still possible, but the priest needs a dedicated team of lay to help carry it out, says the man who resurrected a parish with the age-old method.
Fr Eugene McGrath, 79, has been 55 years a priest and is now chaplain to the Little Sisters of the Poor at Glendalough, but prior to that visited many hundreds of homes in the parishes where he was based.
It all started when, after being ordained a priest in 1954, he started cycling when assistant priest at Queens Park to do parish visitations to Kenwick, Cannington and Wattle Grove, among other surrounding suburbs – all in his clerical collar and black suit.
He was not the only priest that did this and there have been many other methods of evangelisation used by priests over the years. He is not one to think his way is superior, but he says the effectiveness of the practice was evident.
“Lots of priests have things that appeal to some people more than to others,” he said.
In his 14 years at Belmont, where he established perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, he sustained a constantly updated parish census with a dedicated team of 12 Legion of Mary members who met with him weekly and uploaded figures onto the parish database.
The first visit to any house would be a friendly visit, then each following visit would take a step further in drawing the house-dweller or family back to the Church and its sacraments.
A priority during this time was the significant number of elderly in the parish. “We concentrated a lot on keeping them in touch sacramentally with the Church; and if they couldn’t come to Mass, my policy was that if they had been to Mass before in their lives, then it’s crucial to keep them in contact,” he said.
“If people are ill or elderly then we would take them Communion in their homes,” he said, adding that this regular contact meant that if the elderly died, “they weren’t unknown, and had the sacraments”.
Updating the parish census, he says, gives the priest a better knowledge of his territory so he can designate lay to “do the groundwork” of pastoral ministry, and for the parishioner “it’s a different feeling for them in the pews if the priest on the altar has been to their houses”.
He concedes that door-knocking is almost impossible for a priest to do on his own, but, if it can be carried out by marshalling the lay, then parishioners can have regular exposure to the sacraments – something he sees as crucial.
While weekend Mass numbers were boosted – in some cases with people from outside his zone – he says “it’s not about filling the pews on Sunday, but being in touch with the people where they are in their lives”.
Regular contact between the school and parish meant that parishioners carried out the job of visiting the school providing important things like instruction.
“I belong to an era where we began work From the start as priests with a great emphasis on knowing what pastoral was all about, which is meeting people in their lives,” he said.

Learn from the master evangeliser

After his 55 years as priest, Fr Eugene McGrath finds much strength in the renewed focus in the Church on the greatest evangelist in this the Year of St Paul.
In an effort to encourage his brothers in the priesthood, he said it is “important for me to mention that we are but chosen instruments who are called to act in the Person of Christ for the people committed to our care by the call of the bishop across the years of our ministry”.
“In this year of St Paul I have been grateful that so many of his writings cover what a priest is called to be and to do and to acknowledge,” he said.
“So much is contained in Philippians 2:12: ‘Keep on working to complete your salvation, for God is always at work in you to make you willing and able to obey his own purpose’. Elsewhere, Paul shares the secret of his own self-giving: ‘The love of Christ is driving me’. Paul would never allow us to be hindered by the reality of human weakness when he reminds us that ‘we are only fragile vessels that hold His treasure of grace, to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us. I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast’.
“The Lord has included all of us when he assured St Paul: ‘My grace is enough for you; my power is at its best in weakness’.
“As chaplain at the Little Sisters and while sharing the final part of my life’s pilgrimage with residents who are able to appreciate that as I enter my 80th birthday in 2009, the gifts of my priesthood are for them now. But they are reminded of how much the part of the Eucharistic prayer should mean to us here: ‘Lord, remember your Church throughout the world; make us grow in love, together with Benedct our Pope, Barry James our bishop, Donald his assistant and all the clergy’.”
Words of St Therese of Lisieux also give Fr McGrath great solace: “At the evening of this life we shall appear before God with empty hands. For we do not ask you Lord to count our works. All our good works have stainmarks in your sight. Therefore we want to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your merciful love the eternal possession of your self. It will be the moment of greatest trust in God’s loving Divine Mercy.”


We do what we can, but we’re open to new ideas…

Speaking with Fr Bryan Rosling and Fr Joe Walsh

The parish priest of what could by now be the largest parish in Perth says the latest Census figures “mean nothing” to him, as his parish, along with doubtless all others, are already doing what they can with what they’ve got.
Fr Bryan Rosling is parish priest of Yangebup, ranked in the 2006 Census as the parish with the second-highest number of people who declared themselves Catholic, with 10,171 people, behind only Ocean Reef (10,814).
Having just passed the 1000-mark for weekend attendances, Fr Rosling says it is likely his parish has by now overtaken Ocean Reef, as his suburb, located 25km south of Perth, continues to grow. Yangebup parish even awaits a division into a second parish to its south.
With several initiatives, including a booming altar servers’ group of 100 that serves as a youth group that meets monthly, a friendship social club that connects elderly singles, a Mater Care program that reaches existing parishioners and a second St Vincent de Paul Society started up to cater for increasing demand, the parish’s lay are well and truly activated. While saying he’s open to suggestions as to what more the parish can do pastorally with these figures at hand, he says they “mean nothing to me, I’m well aware of the growth of the parish; I’ve been here 10 years,” Fr Rosling said.
“We have a letter drop every Easter and Christmas letting people know about it, we’ve increased it from 7000 eight years ago to 16,000, and I still don’t know if we’re covering all the homes in the parish. We provide schools with a certain amount of pastoral care and reach out to as many as we can.”
While the figures are already out of date and parishes receive them up to two years after the stats were taken, he says the parish is conscious of its own growth, and “I don’t get too hysterical about the figures. You do the best you can with what you’ve got”.
Though Yangebup is a young area, the parish also has a healthcare focus, with Fr Rosling celebrating a monthly Mass on Tuesdays at Brighwater, a government-run run aged care institution, and a weekly Mass every Thursday morning at the centre in Success run by the Knights of Southern Cross. Lay Eucharistic ministers also take Communion to elderly people at these centres each Sunday.
 “We’re not doing anything that any other parish isn’t doing, but the demand is growing for these things,” he said. He says there is only so much a parish can do – people know where to find the Church, and the parish is in reasonable contact with the local community.
Fr Joe Walsh, parish priest of St Joseph’s in Subiaco, builds a community through offering the church spaces for functions including groups of lawyers, restaurateurs, teachers and doctors, so that they find the local church as a place of welcome.
If individuals at these groups then feel comfortable enough to ask about the faith, they can make a separate appointment to do so. This is done under the Catholic philosophy of ‘grace built on nature’, where people respond to warmth and hospitality.
The parish also has a strong focus on home visitation, based on the philosophy of ‘a house-going priest fosters a church-going people’. An effective youth group has also recently sprung up.