Recently Cardinal Pell invited me to explain why we have had an increase in Mass attendance at St Joseph’s over the last 10 years so that others could learn from our experience. With the Parish Team’s assistance I sent this letter with our reasons
12 November 2010
Dear Cardinal Pell
Thank you for your letter regarding Sunday Mass attendances at St Joseph’s Newtown.
Firstly I will address your question about the accuracy of the survey numbers. The 2006 numbers seem high. This may be because one strategy at Newtown is that all Baptisms are celebrated during the Sunday Mass. If the survey Masses were Masses with Baptisms that would inflate the numbers above the average. Having said this, it is very obvious that the numbers have increased significantly over the last 10 years. Our average numbers now would be around 150 per weekend. When I came to Newtown the numbers would have been more like 80.
You asked us to share how this increase happened. I engaged the Parish Council on this question and below there are a number of strategies they suggest have helped in this respect.
1. Developing an inclusive sense particularly for women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and gay and lesbian people: this is found in our mission statement which appears on our parish bulletin: We acknowledge the Cadigal people of the Eora nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which St Joseph’s stands. St Joseph’s aims to provide a safe place for all people to pray regardless of age, race, creed, gender, cultural background or sexual orientation.
2. Including all parishioners in the various aspects of parish life. For example, all parishioners are welcome to all parish meetings especially the Parish Council. Opinions, ideas and strategies for parish life and liturgy are taken seriously.
3. Simple but effective and wide-ranging liturgical life. We celebrate Mass simply but with a variety of musical styles. There is regular Rosary, Benediction, Reconciliation and children’s Liturgy of the Word. Music is mostly in a modern style but traditional hymns and even a small amount of Latin is sung. This openness to all types of music is appreciated.
4. Good communication through the parish bulletin which is also available electronically each Friday.
5. The parish is theologically inviting – emphasising God’s love and inclusion. Preaching connects the readings to all aspects of life – religious, spiritual, family, Church, social, political and psychological.
6. Women are included in all the ministries in the parish.
7. Community development is a priority. The “cuppa” after Sunday Mass considered important strategy. Regular parish parties develop good relationships. Parish projects such as community garden, Spirituality in the Pub and a public park developed co-operatively with local council has extended good relationships with the broader community.
8. There is a serious commitment to Social Justice. We include social justice at all levels of parish life. The Parish Council includes updates on Social Justice issues at every meeting.
9. Educational opportunities include regular Advent and Lenten Biblical Programs; Forums and other technologies for raising important issues.
10. The Baptism policy is very welcoming and accepting and the preparation program is flexible and simple. We invite all families who have celebrated baptism over the past 12 years to our Christmas children’s Mass with great success. Some join us more regularly because of this simple invitation by mail or email.
11. A Mass specifically inclusive of same-sex attracted Catholics, their families, friends and supporters every Friday night has significantly increased numbers on weekend Masses. Some people who have come to the Friday Mass are now members of the Parish Council, acolytes, readers, cleaners and willing to help with various parish activities.
12. Welcoming the Indonesian Catholic Community in a pro-active way has helped the parish to be more open to people of various cultural and social backgrounds. Celebrating some liturgies together has helped us be a more welcoming community in general (for example, we always join with the Catholic Indonesian Community for the Good Friday Liturgy).
13. My involvement in other ministries has helped increase numbers although maybe only in a small way. Some parishioners come from my involvement in the university chaplaincy ministry and the Rachel’s Vineyard Retreat Ministry. These may be small in number but they contribute greatly to the parish and help the parish develop as an open, thinking, inclusive, caring and socially aware parish that is attractive for many of our parishioners.
These are just some ideas the people of Newtown have identified to explain the increase in Mass attendance in this small inner city parish over the last 10 years. As one person said we are a “modern church in an old building”. The building is deeply loved from the longest serving parishioners to the last person through the door. Personally, I have followed the principle of leaving it much as it was when I came in structure and accessories, despite some keen suggestions to move the altar. I think it has been a significant strategy in maintaining many traditional Catholics here at Newtown. Apart from regular maintenance, I have carpeted and relit the church to great success and approval.
I hope these ideas assist your efforts to encourage greater participation in our parishes as we bring the great Catholic tradition to a new generation in this Archdiocese.
Thanks for the opportunity to contribute to this discussion.
Fr Peter Maher