If you find yourself with more questions than answers or are keen for a boost in your life and faith, chances are you’re not alone. Where can you meet others within and beyond parishes who feel likewise and together explore your purpose and relationship with God?
Catholic Outlook spoke to the Institute for Mission, an agency of the Diocese of Parramatta, about its work in adult faith formation and in helping respond to the deeper questions.
It’s a chilly Friday night and the crowd is a mix of professionals, tradies and students in their mid-20s to 40s. Lounge music is playing, $1 beers are behind a bar and bursts of laughter fill the purpose set-up heritage church-cum-hall. This could be a typical trendy bar in Sydney, yet, the people gathered tonight have come to reflect on their lives, faith and sharing of Christ in the world.
Welcome to The FaithFeed, an initiative of the Institute for Mission, an agency of the Diocese of Parramatta. The FaithFeed is just one of a dozen programs offered by the Institute for Mission (IFM) across Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains.
For many Catholics in Australia, learning about the faith follows something of the following pattern: They are baptised into the Catholic Church, then attend a Catholic primary and high school and receive the sacraments of Reconciliation, Communion and Confirmation. And at the Catholic school, they learn of faith during religious education classes and various school activities.
They might attend Mass on weekends, or at Christmas, Easter and special occasions like baptisms and weddings.
But where can Catholics go to be enriched further in faith when they have left school or when the one-hour Sunday Mass raises the next questions? Some turn to their parish priest or do online research. Some join a Bible study or small group. Some feel a bit shy to do anything next.
In the Diocese of Parramatta, the Institute for Mission provides some excellent opportunities.
According to Fr Paul Roberts, the Director of the Institute for Mission, the IFM has been established by the Diocese of Parramatta to help “enrich, enthuse and empower people’s connection to their life and faith. We tap that hunger, the deep sense of yearning that most of us have”.
“We’re here as an experience of community among parish communities and others too. As God became human – became incarnate – we focus on the leadership in the incarnation that we are all called to exercise – God’s mission of being flesh and blood in the world.” he says.
And what is that mission according to Fr Paul?
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son (John 3:16). It’s about how we receive, and be, that love,” he says.
What is the Institute for Mission?
The IFM is not your typical Catholic Church office. Its work is made up of programs and resources, delivered by a group of faithful individuals with a passion for Christ and for enabling people to further live their relationship with Christ in their real lives.
Their work is available direct to individuals and through the parishes, schools, deaneries and other agencies in the Diocese of Parramatta.
The IFM team includes Jill Franco, the Team Assistant; Anthony Costa, the Media Creative; and Sr Grace Roclawska CSFN, Program and Engagement Representative. They work part-time with two full time team members; Donnie Velasco, Assistant Director and Fr Paul Roberts who is also Parish Priest of Our Lady of the Way Emu Plains.
“We’re here to enhance people’s spiritual life, connecting them to a network”, Anthony says. “It’s about helping people further find and unlock their mission and empower them to their next action.”
For Sr Grace the IFM is about helping people on their faith journey.
“We’re an adult formation centre. It’s about faith formation and faith in life,” she says.
“And about meeting like-minded people.”
That partly explains why the IFM’s area of work known as The FaithFeed has an informal structure and is not all delivered by the IFM team. Instead, life story and testimony are shared by everyday people, in ways that evoke the questions of life and connections to God.
“It’s a grassroots approach encouraging people’s witness to the Incarnation; to their being the Body of Christ today,” Fr Paul says.
Drawing on Vatican II, Donnie explains the work of the IFM is ensuring the place of the laity in the Church is fulfilled and providing empowerment to people to carry out the mission.
This work, according to Jill is done with a “warm spirit of welcome” at the IFM. With a “sense of outreach to people about what God is about”.
Jill speaks from personal experience about wanting to inspire others to learn about God.
“Christ has carried me through challenging times,” she says.
In her former role on a parish team and now at the IFM, serving parishes, it is this sustaining love that Jill wants people to know.
Being Incarnational or the living face of Christ to people has been a constant theme of Pope Francis’ papacy.
This echoes strongly in the mission of the IFM of being the living Christ to others.
Sr Grace says that their work is “to be a mission rather than have a mission. To be a mission is to have a personal encounter with God. ‘Follow me’ said Christ”.
Fr Paul emphasises that “the Body of Christ is not a metaphor. You could say that the Church doesn’t have a mission, but rather, the mission has a Church. It’s God’s mission, of liberating love. Our first task is to receive it – and with that, to keep allowing ourselves to be called into God’s mission in the world”.
On a practical level Donnie explains, this is about seeing “Jesus in the lonely place”. God is present with those who feel they’ve been left out, whatever their circumstances. Anthony adds that this is an opportunity for people, as Church, to be “a good family that is available to everyone; a solid and welcoming foundation”.
For Fr Paul, drawing on Pope Paul VI, the “first principle of evangelisation is being evangelised ourselves – not to stop there or because it’s all for us – but so that we can witness to the world as people who are ever changing and growing; people being converted in a curious freedom; people whose lives evoke questions in others”.
Programs and Resources
The work of the IFM is a combination of first-hand testimony delivered at events like the FaithFeed, as well as podcasts, free online library access and workshops run by the IFM team and co-opted experts in various fields.
To extend this work, the IFM has invested heavily in social media, digital output like YouTube videos – “trying to be aware of the demographics” Donnie says – and also offering workshops and experiences at various locations across Western Sydney.
The IFM is trialling some opportunities in Emu Plains, trying to make programs more accessible to people living in greater Penrith and the Blue Mountains.
This work of the IFM also manifests in other areas of the Church like the Plenary Council. In October 2020, the Catholic Church in Australia will gather for the first Plenary Council to be held since the Second Vatican Council to discern the future of the Church in Australia.
Anthony says the IFM is using its resources to help spread the message about the Plenary Council.
Some of its work is addressing, at the parish level, various yearnings expressed by the Plenary reflections so far, Donnie says.
“A key new energy for us in 2020 is what we’re calling The ParishFeed; supporting parishes in their hopes to empower ordinary parishioners with do-able means of evangelisation.”
For Sr Grace, who is also on the Plenary Council Executive Committee, her work at the IFM dovetails with the Council as it is the “hopeful journey of the Plenary Council of discerning how the spiritual becomes our culture. Of listening and discerning to ensure this is disseminated in the wider Church”.
The work of the IFM is also about accompanying people on the journey of finding and knowing God and of furthering their purpose.
“It is about spending time with people; a spirituality of accompaniment, which itself has been a key feature of Catholic teaching about evangelisation since Vatican II,” Fr Paul says.
Pope Francis often talks about accompaniment and in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope said: “The Church will have to initiate everyone—priests, religious and laity—into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (EG 169)”.
The Holy Father went on to say, “Spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God … to accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father (EG, 170)”.
A word that constantly comes up when speaking to the IFM team about their work is witness.
Sr Grace explains that “witness comes from the Greek word marturion, which translates to martyr” and is about “being authentic in this context; being a person of integrity”.
For Fr Paul, witness involves risking a certain level of transparency of one’s relational life with God.
“We’re not a religion just of the book, rather, we’re a religion of relationship with a person. Witness in that kind of religion calls us to see change as normal; to see faith as an ongoing journey of growth” he says.
Donnie agrees, pointing out that for him, “witness is not a belief in an ideology, rather, it’s a relationship in which God is imaged significantly through the people around you”.
“This is the kerygma (proclamation of the Gospel),” he says.
Jill says that for her, giving witness is being able to “relate with people starting at the human level, not about any form of religious elitism. I think it starts in being intentionally present to people,” she said.
Anthony sees it as having a partnership with Jesus.
“Like having a partnership with my wife and a relationship with my work; this is not about me, but it’s about the person I’m responding for, and in the case of Jesus, whose work I’m projecting,” he says.
Easter at the IFM
Looking towards the Lenten season and Easter, the IFM team reflects on what this holy time means for them and their work.
“It’s my favourite time of year” Sr Grace says. “I connect my life to the life of Jesus. I love to celebrate Easter and the leadup to Easter. It is about Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, and where am I at on my faith journey.”
Jill says she uses the time to be “closer to God again, get to know God again and what I’m called to do; to renew my relationship with God”.
For Donnie, the Lenten season and Easter is about changing one’s spiritual life. He reflects on the this “sense of metanoia” or spiritual conversion, as told to him by the late Fr Dave Hume. Donnie says, “Easter is about joy and about being Alleluia people”.
And for Anthony, Lent is a time of focus and preparing for transformation by focusing on how the IFM accompanies people.
“We’re here to serve you on your journey of life and faith whether a teacher, student or parishioner,” he says.
Fr Paul speaks of using Lent as “a time for a review of life, of trying to let go of some of the baggage and make way for surprise.” He says his challenge is to allow Easter “to be not a day, but a way; for some of resurrection’s meaning to be about the surprises and possibilities now, if I can see with the eyes of my heart. I hope that’s what we’re on about with people and parishes through the IFM”.
To engage or sign up with the IFM’s programs and resources visit www.ifm.org.au or call (02) 9296 6369.