On his speech at the end of the Columban centenary Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in June this year the Columban Superior General, Fr Kevin O’Neill, said: “Like St Columban, in our lives as missionaries we have learned the truth of his words: ‘A life unlike your own can be your teacher.’ The many different nationalities and cultures we have been blessed to serve and to live among have become our teachers.”
In July I helped co-ordinate an Acculturation programme with Sr Anne Bond RSJ in Sydney for 24 priests and women religious who have recently been missioned to work in Australia. All of us are enculturated into the first culture we are born into and acculturation is the process of adapting to a new culture, it could be a second or third culture we have entered or encountered. Speakers addressed topics such as Aboriginal history and church, Mission Spirituality, Women in the Church, National Professional Standards, World View and Cultural Understandings, Leadership models, Social Justice from an Australian perspective, Transitions and Australian Culture and Church, including visits to the Catholic Parramatta and Sydney Cathedrals as well as St Mary Mackillop Memorial chapel and museum.
One of the interesting exchanges the participants had was with a panel of lay people who stressed that in today’s Australian Church it is very important to listen to lay people and to value their opinions. The lay people were from different generations and spoke with enthusiasm and from experience. They stressed the importance of developing healthy relationships with parishioners, especially the youth, and to offer leadership through those relationships.
Priest participants who are based in offices were encouraged to be present to parishioners through regular visitation to the elderly and seek out places to meet young Catholics. Venturing out into a new cultural environment entails risk and courage. If one is going through culture shock there can be long periods of insecurity. Today’s church is in a time of major transition and has been humbled by the many cases of clergy sexual abuse. The continual emphasis on this issue has been a major shock for many of the recent arrivals and the criticism of clericalism and the demands for new church models is a challenge for all of us to work through but weighs heavily on the perceptions of the new arrivals.
One advice we gave to the participants was to find a good mentor from the local parish community to go to for advice and encouragement. Loneliness can be a challenge for ministers in a new environment and a welcoming and hospitable mentor can be invaluable in setting a new arrival off on their journey into the unknown of a new culture and Church. It is often stressed that in today’s world we all have to respect difference but it can take some time to appreciate and value difference rather than rail against it. It requires an openness of mind which we all have to work on in our world of rapid change. It is often in times of transition that we are opened to discovering new insights into who God is and a mentor can also learn much from the dialogue and conversations with new missionaries. If you are able to offer yourself as a mentor I would encourage you to begin what could be an invaluable service to these new missionaries in your parish and it may open you up to a new world also.
There was a good spirit and camaraderie amongst the Acculturation programme’s participants and they continue to keep in touch with each other through social media. That support could be invaluable. I am always learning about the world of social media for young people and their ease in communicating in that medium. It brings a different sense of presence. Different cultural understandings and different models of church presented challenges to the participants but there was a strong sense that the same Spirit was alive in the group across many different ethnic backgrounds. Our final liturgy was a wonderful expression of Eucharist through song, dance and prayer from many different cultural expressions of Church. It is not always comfortable being a learner but at different times in our lives God offers us all a life unlike our own which can be our teacher.
Fr Brian Vale