Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Keynote address at the Catholic Schools Parramatta Diocese (CSPD) 2023 System Leaders’ Day
‘Building a synodal culture of collaboration’
25 January 2023
Dear colleagues in ministry,
On behalf of the Church in Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains, I welcome you to this System Leaders’ Day and give thanks for your ministry of leadership. In particular, I welcome the new Executive Director, Jack De Groot. He is the first Executive Director to work within the newly created Catholic Schools Parramatta Diocese Limited – a new incorporated entity and governance structure, which commences from this very new school year 2023. This is a significant milestone in the life of the Diocese as we move decisively towards a synodal way of governance, decision making and mission.
It has been an eventful month in the life of the Church, both universally and locally. Firstly, we had an unprecedented funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who is remembered for his great intellect, discipline, gentleness and most of all, for his resignation which paved the way for the election of Pope Francis. Then, just as we were still in grief, the sudden death of our Cardinal George Pell came as a shock to us all. He has been a larger-than-life figure for the Church in Australia in many a decade. His leadership and his influence have had a lasting and at times polarising effect on rank-and-file Catholics.
The death of these two leaders, coupled with the diminishing status of the Church within society and the increasing internal divisions, make us wonder about its future going forward. Let us not, however, forget that the Holy Spirit is with us. For me, it is the journey towards a synodal Church that God is calling us to walk. Pope Francis’ decisive embrace of the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council, and particularly his emphasis on synodality, has given the new lease of life to the Church and its mission.
We are living in a time that requires radical shift from the “business as usual” approach. It is time to embrace a new paradigm of equitable, sustainable, harmonious, shared life with and for all. I believe that as educators, we have the opportunity to form a new generation that values the common good more than individual success. Just as the Pope calls for a new politics of inclusion in the light of the systemic inequalities in the world, we also need an education that forms young people into men and women of deep empathy, solidarity and communion as opposed to individualism and self-interest which is at the core of our Christian tradition.
For Pope Francis, what we have done wrong in the socio-political sphere is the narrow paradigm of self-interest. The COVID crisis, the Pope says, has exposed our vulnerability. It has revealed the fallacy of individualism as the organising principle of our Western society. It has given the lie to a myth of self-sufficiency that sanctions rampant inequalities and frays the ties that bind societies together. If we want a different world, we must become a different people.
In the light of this systemic flaw, we are not called simply “to restart” or to treat this wake-up call as an aberration. The narratives of the restart are harmful because they naturally tend to restore balances and systemic injustices that must change. We cannot continue to maintain the status quo when it undermines the planet’s sustainability and endangers the lives of the poor. We need a new beginning.
Pope Francis said poignantly that we are not living in an era of change but change of era. In other words, what we need is the cultural shift and the conversion of minds and hearts to be a truly humble, listening, inclusive and synodal Church. We don’t just need do the old things better. Carrying on former practices, agendas and priorities without acknowledging the need to change course can be at best futile and at worst defiant against the movement of the Holy Spirit.
We must humbly and boldly address the biggest challenge of our time and build a healthier Church for future generations. This disruption calls for deep discernment and courageous action rather than fear, intransigence and defense of status quo. Like the ancient disruption, this unprecedented crisis can catalyse the Church into a new era of hope and possibility. Out of our “ground zero”, like a phoenix, the Church can rise again with a new life from the ashes of its old shell.
The Church has entered a new era that is characterised by a crisis of a top-down centralised ecclesiology. With Vatican II, the ressourcement and aggiornamento led to a more biblical paradigm of a pilgrim People of God, called to be the sacrament of the Kingdom and the prophetic witness in the world. The emphasis on the superiority of the ordained gave way to an ecclesial communion based on common baptism.
Pope Francis took a step further with regard to the interpretation of the ecclesiology of the People of God. He expanded the notion of a collegial discernment to involve all of the baptised. Collegiality is at the service of synodality and, therefore, it must give voice to the entire People of God. Synodality has emerged as a fresh way to reimagine the future of Christianity.
I am proud to say that the Diocese of Parramatta is solidly on its way to becoming a synodal Church that Pope Francis is calling us to. Two years ago, we undertook the most comprehensive, professional and timely governance review ever taken among the dioceses in Australia. It provided the impetus and a launching pad for a root and branch reform of how the Church in Parramatta should conduct its mission. I am particularly pleased that the reviewers recognise that a culture of synodality already exists in the diocese, which they call the ‘Parramatta Way’
Synodality is the way of being Church and doing mission in our diocese. We have espoused the Parramatta Way which consists in the active collaboration between clergy and laity, the diversity of membership in governance structures and emphasises accountability, transparency and inclusivity. Our ‘Parramatta Way’ is lived out the many ecclesial structures including those committees and councils that you are a part of. It is this inclusive approach that has enabled us to achieve greater communion, participation and mission.
If synodality is constitutive of the Church as it seeks to journey together and enable its members to exercise greater communion, participation and mission, then it is necessary for Catholic education to be in line with the ecclesiology of Vatican II. Synodality is about agency and discipleship. Synodality is premised on this core notion that we have equal dignity and equal right to participate in the mission of the Church by virtue of our baptism.
The time has come for us to reconfigure our structures and relationships in such a way that they embody the lifegiving, circular, symbiotic and cooperative relational God. The time has come for us to apply across our system the core principles of Catholic social teaching of subsidiarity, solidarity, equity and preferential option for the poor. Let us reflect the values we espouse in the mission we profess and the governance that frames our decision-making processes.
Our Parramatta Catholic education system has been outstanding in doing just that: as it has built on the work of many religious and lay people over the decades. We are known to be at the cutting edge of innovative, inquiry-based, technology-oriented and above all Gospel-grounded education.
Ours is a Christ-centred community that fosters not only on intellectual growth, but just as importantly, young people’s emotional and spiritual growth. And if we are to continue to build on the magnificent legacy we have, we will all need much creativity and imagination in the task still ahead of us.
The new culture of collaboration, partnership and participation that we called to live and to signal to the world of the new social ordering is not merely a rejection of individualism. It is about a way of life that is based on reciprocal and interconnected relationships. It is inherent in the indigenous wisdom which acknowledges the radical independence and reciprocity within diverse webs of life. Thus, we are called to live a new paradigm not of top-down linear thinking, and competition, but that of shared purpose, diversity, inclusion and agency.
We live in uncertain and challenging times. We may be returning to the earlier times in terms of being a marginalised or even unpopular minority. But if we follow the example of our ancestors and the early Church in being an alternative society, a community of justice, inclusivity, solidarity, prayer and support, then it is the future worth dedicating our lives to.
May we grow in our authentic discipleship, in our service and in our capacity to be the kingdom builders. We are privileged to be partners with God’s plan for a shared destiny of hope, communion and life for all. We are proud to continue the ethos of inclusivity and offer Catholic education for all, especially the disadvantaged. May your service as empowering leaders be a source of blessing for many.