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Wednesday, 24 September 2014 11:34

Planting seeds for the harvest

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lay speakers 2014The growing partnership between lay people and religious institutions has brought renewed vitality to Catholic mission and a strong assurance that the work of religious congregations is moving forward into the future. Giselle Lapitan looks back to the stories of lay speakers in the 2014 National Assembly and shares their insights on mission and governance.

The growing partnership between lay people and religious institutions has brought renewed vitality to Catholic mission and a strong assurance that the work of religious congregations is moving forward into the future. Australian lay leadership and pastoral ministry in a variety of contexts were also shown to be animated by their secular character and a profound understanding of their baptismal responsibility in service.

The collaboration that lies at the heart of the shift in governance was explored in the 2014 Catholic Religious Australia National Assembly several months ago. It was the second annual assembly where lay partners were invited to share their perspectives on leadership to Australian congregational leaders. Speaking at the Assembly were Ms Angela Dewar of the Family Care Sisters, Mr Ian Hobbs of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea (ISMAPNG), Mr Joe McCarthy of the Marist Brothers and Ms Terry Creagh , Chair of Good Samaritan Education (GSE).

The seeds of lay partnership

The stories and panel discussion demonstrated a deepening understanding by lay people of the fundamental vocation to bring Christ to others in the fullness of church through their secular character. Their stories illustrate the varied ways that lay people animate and enrich the work of bringing the Kingdom of God to the world, through the prism of religious charism.

“I had a real calling to work with women, in particular to allow them to become who God intended them to be, before they got blown by life’s events and experience,” said Angela Dewar. “One of the times I realised that this was a real calling for me was when I had two friends at one stage who were really struggling with life. Both had big families and they had all sorts of issues going on.”

“So I took them out for a weekend and I remember sitting at the balcony with one of these friends and I said, ‘What I would love to do is not just give you this comfort but to be able to help you and give you what I gain from spiritual direction.’”

This insight led Angela to volunteer with the Family Care Sisters who were giving women the opportunity to get out of their environment and get a break. After 9 months, the Sisters offered Angela a position in 2007.

“It’s a job I love that absolutely fits what I believe is my calling: to work with women and to give them spiritual direction.”

Br Graham and Joe McCarthy Joe McCarthy affirmed the role of vocation. “When we talk about lay partnership and co-responsibility it’s not a random collection of people wanting to come on board,” he said. “It’s about people who believe in God and want to be active about that.”

He spoke passionately about his personal experience with the Marist Brothers who served as mentors and friends at critical moments in his youth, helping shape his faith life and fostering a passion for social justice. It was in this community of like-minded young adults living out Marist spirituality where he later met his wife.

“Today in my professional role, I have the opportunity to ‘give back’ and be part of the discernment and visioning that will bring a vitality and viability to the Marist community in the future,” said Joe.

For others, their engagement with religious through their career and professional circumstances moved them towards a passion for sharing in the mission. “I’m here because I chose to be,” said Ian Hobbs of ISMAPNG. “I was inspired by the Sisters from day one, as were the thousands upon thousands who were influenced by the Sisters of Mercy.”

“In my case, the Sisters are the light through their choice of life. Lay people are amplifying that light and adding some colour, so that more people can be touched and experience God’s love and mercy.”

The challenge of building community

How does one build genuine partnerships and foster a commitment to mission? Ms Terry Creagh discussed the framework used by Good Samaritan Education in a phrase borrowed from Fr Claude Marechal: “a story to enter, a language to speak, a group to which to belong, a way to pray, and a work to undertake, a face of God to see.”

“When I talk about partnership, it’s about relationship between people built on a genuine appreciation of skills and recognition of the expertise provided by the many roles needed for the ministry to continue,” said Ian.

“It’s all about relationships built on pillars of trust, dialogue, authenticity and genuine friendship,” said Joe.

The speakers had many similar reflections on how to enable others to share in mission with commitment and enthusiasm:

  • Create a culture of openness. Listen to what’s going on in community and to what others are saying. Listen carefully and attend with the ear of your heart. “We need to be alert to the possibilities, to see where the abundance lies. We need to be open to what might evolve,” said Terry. “We need to engage openly and honestly with the struggles the partnership brings.”
  • Carefully discern the selection of staff and leadership of the ministry. “Find encouraging and empowering local people who are willing and able to provide service leadership in the places they live and work, “said Joe.
  • Take risks with discernment and courage.
  • Respect the life experiences that partners bring to the mission.
  • Build community regularly and locally. Come together in meaningful ways that serve the rhythm of people’s busy lives and in ways that remind people of the mission and living tradition that they belong to. “We know that people come with the enthusiasm for the mission. We know that it is the charism that attracts people to engage in the overall task and provides a constancy of orientation in this work, the mission of God,” said Terry.
  • Require members to participate in education and formation programs, not only for pastoral theology and ministry, but to build relationships with each other and develop Christian community.
  • In the emergence of PJPs or Public Juridic Person status, focus on people and structures that allow the Spirit to do the work. (PJP is a legal entity under canon law that allows the Church’s ministries to function in the name of the Catholic Church, not a single person but a group of people entrusted to oversee the mission of an institution and ensure that it is carried out according to Catholic principles.)

The fruits of partnership

What does succesful partnership of this nature look like? As the number of lay people increase in Catholic ministries amid the diminishing numbers of religious working in these institutions, the speakers attested to a growth in the work, reach and sphere of influence of institutions and ministries. “As the congregation got smaller, they managed to partner with other people, organisations and congregations to maintain what they do,” said Angela, speaking of the experience of the Family Care Sisters. “They’ve shown great initiative and innovation.”

More importantly, genuine partnership cultivates a deep sense of responsibility and commitment to sustain the spirit of religious founders and charisms into the future.

Ian shared an unforgettable experience that occurred in the first year of the establishment of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea (ISMAPNG).

“As with all good practice, we sat down to plan for the next 12 months: What are we going to do? What’s the important thing for the next 12 months?” he said. “The surprise was that in the midst of all this, we found we needed to focus on identity, culture and values in an environment where the number of lay staff was increasing and the number of sisters actively involved was decreasing,” he said.

“We saw that the Mercy identity, culture and values were something we needed to capture and embed in the whole organisation.”

Indeed, authentic partnerships achieve more than an effective organisation and structure for governance but also foster the passion and hope for mission. “The joy, confidence and gratitude that the Sisters of the Good Samaritan expressed to the members of newly formed entity and the sense of support we felt in embracing the new responsibility stay with us today,” said Terry.

“Although the congregation is getting smaller and smaller, its work is growing.” Said Angela. “That’s an amazing thing to watch and be part of.”

Photo, left, shows Mr Ian Hobbs (left), Ms Terry Creagh (middle) and Ms Angela Dewar (right).

Photo, right, shows Marist Brother Graham Neist with Mr Joe McCarthy.