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Melbourne Church fails 'hearts and minds'

Two Melbourne priests have issued a broadside at the Catholic Church in Melbourne, saying the Church must confront its failure to engage the minds and hearts of the people or risk losing them altogether.

Fr Len Thomas, of West Ivanhoe, and Fr Peter Foley, of Belmont, warn that there are 'prevailing forces' within and without the Church which threaten its authentic mission.

The priests take the Melbourne hierarchy to task for its alleged failure to bridge the gap between the Cathedral and the Vatican bureaucrats on the one hand and the priests and people on the other. "Compassion and diversity suffer when priests receive cold, blunt directives, usually about liturgy," the Priests say. Centralised control, both in Australia and from Rome, generate a lack of trust towards church authority, and a shrivelling of pastoral vision - in priests as well as people, the priests say.

Both priests believe that it is the increasingly strident backlash against the directives of Vatican II which is alienating Catholics.

Recently, the closure of the Office for Pastoral Planning led by Fr Maurie Cooney, together with the winding up of the ministry to pastoral associates, caused considerable ill will in the Archdiocese. Both functions have been subsumed into the new Office for Evangelisation, which appears to have been designed as a sort of 'super-ministry' for 'priests, pastoral associates, lay ministers, diocesan offices, parishes, communities and the faithful'.

However, although this new Office was announced last August to open in September 2004, its Director, Fr Greg Bennett, has been occupied with other roles and some extended time overseas ever since. According to the lone administrative assistant at the Office spoken to by Online Catholics some two months ago, no work would be undertaken by the Office for Evangelisation until February 2005 at the earliest.

The Evangelisation Office is regarded with suspicion as a result. "If the Office of Evangelisation had been mooted over an extended time and run past people in the field more fully, it would be given its rightful backing," Frs Thomas and Foley say. The Committee for Mission, which recommended its establishment, lacked sufficient involvement from priests, pastoral councils and theologians. Again this lack of consultation from key stakeholders in the Melbourne church had the effect of undermining the integrity of the Committee for Mission, led by Bishop Christopher Prowse. "The Committee for Mission was seen as a committee for maintaining the status quo, or going back to the past," Fr Thomas says.

Fr Foley and Fr Thomas believe that the extremely conservative environment in Melbourne has, ironically, resulting in high levels of individual decision-making in parishes. "Many Catholic middle management people prefer to do their own thing, acting in effect as congregationalists do," said Fr Foley.

The Church requires fewer tacticians and strategists, more proper planning and real consultation and no more reliance on merely 'managing the crisis'.

"Jesus, in Luke 16-18, clearly shows the radical mind and heart that Christians need to produce," the priests say. "In practice, Melbourne Church structures and top level governance need to listen to the grassroots. They need to take a look at people who live like Jesus - if the Church's integrity is to be restored in the minds and hearts of the people."


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