Since I am a copious note taker, and the content of the Conference was so good, I will dedicate the next series of blog posts to sharing both those notes and the thoughts they engendered. How long that will take is in God's hands, depending on Him to provide the time. Hopefully there should be some more content every two or three days until I run out. Due to my father's generosity (who also attended) I have some of the handouts for two of the workshops that were going on at the same time as the ones I attended, and will add that in when the time comes.
But before I forget the details, I want to record some of things I learned while talking to people as we waited for the concert hall to open, for the workshops to start, with those who manned some of the stalls, with those who walked to and from the conference venue with me, during the breaks for coffee and food, with those waiting in the queue for lunch, and the queues that sometimes formed in the loos. Those times of waiting were extraordinarily fruitful and I met a great number of inspiring people.
One bloke was manning the Emmanuel Community table, married with children, who grew up in the community. He spoke about how the local bishop had given them permission to function as a parish, to gather for Mass Sunday by Sunday, and to provide a full sacramental life and preparation for those sacraments – and how that was going very well.
One priest from the diocese of Bathurst was a missionary immigrant from that wonderful All Hallows seminary which during the 20th century sent out so many priests to our country. He was there out of concern for the welfare of his parish and had driven six hours to get to the conference. My own parish priest from childhood days was a graduate of All Hallows.
Sitting with Dad during the major sessions, he shared with me his vision for making parish meetings more effective. The 'let's get all our ideas on this topic out on the whiteboard' and then discuss them isn't working. Few people can come up with truly excellent ideas without a lot of thought and reflection. So why not provide a pre-prepared list of ideas to the meeting, that you can go through one by one seeking a yay or nay response, ensuring that you get to discuss the good stuff quicker? Of course, you'd ask for additions to the list on the day from those present at the meeting.
One of the priests manning Conventual Franciscan Friar's stall was named Fr Benedict, and he lived up to his well- chosen religious name by granting a blessing from the heart over a holy card of St Padre Pio which I desired for a parish friend facing a major operation on the feast day of St Padre Pio.
One woman had come all the way from Townsville, and is involved in RCIA and sacramental preparation in her parish. They now do RCIA all year round, welcoming inquirers as they come, and journeying with them until they are ready (however short or long a time that takes). Each year they would prepare about 50 school children for sacraments and about 20-30 indigenous youngsters in a separate programme. Possibly because they have a reverence for ancestors and elders, these indigenous youngsters respond wholeheartedly to the lives of the Saints and develop strong life-long bonds with the Saints they choose as confirmation patrons.
Another woman hailed from Surfers Paradise, where they have done a most interesting thing: changing the name of the Parish Pastoral Council to the Parish Mission Council. Thereby also changing the focus of the Council's activities toward the vision of Pope Francis for our parishes.
Waitara parish decided to buy several copies of 'Rebuilt' for parishioners to read on a 'read and return' or 'read and keep for $5' basis. They are also experimenting with helping people take little steps out of their comfort zones by inviting them once in a while to sit somewhere different at Mass and see what happens.
The Bishop of Dunedin, New Zealand, was at the conference for all three days. Most of the rest of the 24-strong contingent from NZ were from the North Island. When asked what he most wanted prayers for, he said not one thing but three things: vocations, evangelisation, and fiscal soundness for his diocese currently struggling with large debts. Please pray a Hail Mary for him, and for his diocese, that God may grant him the big miracle he seeks.
On the train I had a nice long chat with someone who works in the local diocesan development fund. These funds are set up as money managers in a diocese to harness the collective financial bargaining power of the whole diocese, providing a way for individuals and institutions to invest in church projects and for churches and schools to get loans at good rates of interest. The current challenge is that due to the greying of many religious orders lay people have been taking on management / board positions in Catholic institutions and thinking with secular minds when it comes to loans and investment – not knowing that there is the diocesan development fund option that will enable them to serve not only the institutions they are involved with but the wider mission of the Church as well.
Another interesting conversation was with a member of our diocesan Parish Support team. Teams like this know of so many resources that are available which most parishioners don't. Generally, as someone involved in a parish ministry if you can articulate clearly what you need, then the parish support team can help you.
Two priests younger than me had travelled to the conference from the highland regions of Papua New Guinea. There vocations seem to be steady, with annual ordinations of new candidates to the priesthood.
Don't underestimate how valuable having expats from other countries in your parish can be. What enormous courage it takes to pack up your whole family and move to a new country! They know a lot about 'moving out of your comfort zone' and have lots to teach us. One Irish expat lives in Canberra and has first-hand knowledge of conditions in the middle east and in south east Asia. One expat American is discerning how best to serve God though her Blue Mountains parish.
It was great to meet a young diocesan priest from the Philippines who is currently ministering in Lismore diocese. He was very aware of how he must be a missionary to all God's children, not just to other expats from his country.
Another lady encouraged me to think about the needs of those in our communities who have suffered strokes. They are unable to stand in queues for long periods and the balance required to eat while standing up with plate in one hand and fork in the other is just beyond them.
The Sisters of St Paul de Chartres was a religious order I wasn't familiar with, and who had a stall at the conference. I look forward to reading some of the material I collected about them and their founders. What I did learn is that like the Carthusians (St Bruno) they not to seek canonisation for members of their order. Since the canonisation process is a lengthy and costly one this means that they are more likely to keep focus on the mission God has given them. Obedience gets rewarded, because at least 3 of the 124 Korean martyrs beatified this month by Pope Francis were members of their order, and I guess that process would have been prepared at a national level.
Often I asked attendees where they had come from and what motivated them to make the journey. Some came from Hobart, Perth, Toowoomba, Bateman's Bay, Ballarat, Canberra, Queanbeyan, Maitland/Newcastle. Many were sponsored by their parish or diocese (as either conscripts or volunteers), many came because they had read the Rebuilt book, some because they came 2 years ago, some because knew something has to be done at parish level and wanted to know what could be done.
While travelling on the rails, I was surprised to see so many people are watching video (movies, podcasts, YouTube), more than were flicking through texts and Facebook. Now video clips are not my cup of tea, and if I find one on a website or Facebook post I usually skip over it, but obviously to reach those not in the pews using online video content has to be part of any evangelisation strategy.
At least two people not attending the conference asked 'What's going on?' questions. All these people moving around with huge white carry bags and name tag pouches caused comment. One was a young man of the Maronite tradition who travels from somewhere like Punchbowl to Chatswood each day for work. Please pray that God provides him a good job closer to home.
Another delight was meeting a young priest from Parramatta diocese, who has resolved to emulate Fr Tom Forrest by bringing mentions of the Mother of Jesus into his preaching.
One of the Benedictine nuns from Jamberoo, who had a stall with their handmade candles, told me how pleased she had been that some of the general public had come in to look at the stalls and ask questions.
For Proclaim 2016 I hope the organisers set up 2 or 3 demountable reconciliation alcoves beside the grassed area against the wall. Quiet areas for such ministry were hard to find amidst all the wonderful conversations going on. In such a location generous priests could be available not only to conference attendees but also to the general public who might not have the courage to step into a church to go to confession but might have enough in such a marketplace setting.