The religious profile of Australia has changed enormously over the past few decades. According to census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 1991, 74% of people declared themselves Christian, 2.6% belonged to another faith group and about 13% stated that they had no religious affiliation. By the time of the 2016 census 52% were Christian, 8.2% belonged to other faith groups and 30% had no religion.
In 1991, Catholics made up 27.3% of Australia’s population, by 2016 that had declined to 22.6%. Of course, there are many complex reasons for these declines:
the culture of the western world has changed dramatically and is more secular;
the terrible scandal of institutional child hood sexual abuse and the subsequent cover-ups;
changes to migration patterns and the cultural background of many Australians as well as a host of other factors.
The interesting questions for us as a Catholic community today:
How do we engage with the wider community?
Do we retreat into an ever-diminishing remnant of pure Catholics, convinced that we have all the right answers to the entire world’s problems- our way or the highway?
Do we, on the other hand, water down all that we hold in faith and tradition and just try to fit in with the rest of the world?
At St Mary’s, through our school and through our other key parish activities we are attempting to walk a very different path to either of the options outlined above. We do not accept that we have the answers to all the world’s problems but we do believe that we have a tradition that, in dialogue with all people of good will, from whatever faith group or none, can shed some light on the mystery of human existence and the flourishing of human communities.
In his recent publication, “Engaging with the Hopes of Parishes”, Melbourne Priest, Dr Brendan Reed, presents an argument that Catholic engagement with our pluralist culture is a challenge that also provides a tremendous opportunity. “Being confronted with another position, whether Buddhist, Hindu or atheist does not only challenge the Christian to inquiry and into dialogue, at the same time, it invites the Christian to rediscover his or her own position and distinct features.” It is this same spirit of inquiry and dialogue that we are seeking to promote throughout our parish and in a very particular way through St Mary’s school.
There is nothing surer than change in our life and in our world. This of course applies to our mission as a church. How do we bring the good news of Jesus, his healing and teaching mission to life in the world today? Of course we cannot do it the same as we did it yesterday and in the future we will need to change again in order to continue to speak with the women and men of the day. A consideration of Catholic Education in our parish is a good illustration of the need to continue to develop and change in response to a changing world. When St Mary’s school opened in 1854 it was for forty students and it was run from a tent. In the 1870s there were big changes when public funding of Catholic education was disallowed and so we saw the emergence of religious teaching orders who ran our schools. It was during this period that the Presentation Sisters and Christian Brothers arrived in Windsor and St Kilda East. They did a mighty job ensuring high quality Catholic education to all, especially those who could least afford it. Roll on another hundred years to the 1970s and we see there are fewer religious but also a new openness to the public funding of Catholic education. This was a time of great change that saw our schools become increasingly lay led. This brought new strengths and a different type of professional learning environment.
Now in 2020 our schools are facing new challenges, this time in relation to effective governance. In an increasingly complex environment of workplace health and safety and industrial relations, safeguarding young people and other complex reporting arrangements it has become clear that the model of Parish Priest as employer and sole governor of parish schools is no longer adequate. While it has served us well in the past there is a compelling case for a more robust governance model for Catholic Schools. To that end the Archdiocese with Catholic Education Melbourne is currently exploring new corporate structures to govern our schools. Currently a consultation is taking place with parish priests and principals and it is expected that the new arrangements will be in place in 2021. While we are still uncertain what the final corporate structure will be, it is safe to say that the school will remain as vital and central to the mission of the parish as it was when it made its humble beginnings in that tent in 1854.
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