Cathblog - Building a truly multicultural, Australian Church


This Easter, I did not have any lecturing commitments or a supply so I went to the local parish for all the major ceremonies of Holy Week.

The ceremonies were good: prayerful, beautiful and spiritually nourishing.

Sitting in the pews, I could not help noticing how many of my neighbours were Asian migrants.

I was reminded of a statement from the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants published a document entitled, The love of Christ towards migrants [2004] in which it claimed that we are in the midst of ‘the birth pangs of a new humanity’ because of unprecedented levels of migration.

We are clearly in the birth pangs of a new and much more multicultural Australian Church.

Recent Australian Censuses have shown that the Catholic Church has been the major religious beneficiary of migration.

In 2011 we made up 25.3% of the Australian population but we would have dropped if it had not been for the 300,000 Catholics who came to Australia between 2001 and 2011.

Migrants make up a large percentage of our Catholic population and especially our regularly attending Catholics. Around 40% of Mass attenders aged less than 65 were born overseas.

Of the total number of Australian Catholics, only 52.2% were born in Australia and 25.3% are migrants and 21.6% are children of migrants.

The Australian Bishops’ Commission for Migrants and Refugees in Graced by Migration revealed that based on 2001 Census figures four Dioceses: Sydney, Perth, Parramatta and Melbourne had one third or more of their Catholics born overseas.

As well, a significant number of our priests and religious are migrants. It is difficult to get accurate figures, but overseas born priests would make up more than 20% of the active priests in a number of Dioceses. And finally some of the most vibrant parishes in Australia today are ethnic parishes.

This is both a gift and a challenge for the Australian Church. Research and experience show that migrants are better Mass attenders; more traditional in their devotions; more accepting of authority; and better educated. Also ethnic communities seem to be an important source of vocations.

Migrants are not only going to change the face, life and practices of the Catholic Church in Australia but they could be a considerable force for mission, especially if we learn how to welcome, enable, support and encourage them.

But this will not happen automatically. There are too many possibilities for misunderstanding, hurt, isolation, neglect, discrimination and cultural imposition, if we do not reflect on our multicultural future and prepare and plan for it. If we do not prepare many Catholic migrants, who on arrival naturally look to their “mother” Church for welcome and support, may be disappointed and we as a Church may also miss out on the resources and richness they bring us.

It is my experience that one of the first steps in understanding new social situations is to see them in their historical context.

We westerners, with our emphasis on the individual and on psychology and personal story, neglect history and sociology at our peril. While our emphasis remains solely on the personal, the tendency is to praise or blame ourselves or others excessively.

What is happening in Australia today in the product of centuries of movement. From the beginning of the Sixteenth Century till the middle of last century we had the Great European Migration.

Between 1800 and 1925, 50-60 million Europeans migrated to the “New World”. On the strength of this migration Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada were developed, Latin America was “Europeanised”, slavery grew, India was colonised and indentured labour flourished. This migration was the foundation of Europe’s economy and hegemony.

But since the 1960s, the movement has reversed. Europe and the West are now the destination of migration and not the point of origin. Because global capital now resides in the West or ‘North’ migration flows in that direction as people seek jobs and security.

Non-Western migration to Australia between 1960 and 1990 grew from 12-52%. At least 47% of Australians were born overseas or had a parent born overseas. The Church is mirroring Australian society and Australia is only part of or an unprecedented worldwide movement of migrants. In 2005 there were 191 million international migrants, 2.5% of the world’s population or 1 in every 34 people lived as a migrant.

‘The future isn’t what it used to be.’ We are at the birth pangs of a new multicultural Australian Church and there will be some pain but a lot of possibilities in that.

The pain will be less and the possibilities greater if we can welcome, support and integrate our migrant priests, religious and lay people into our Church, if we can enable them to settle in and to contribute their gifts then we have a rich future. Many come from vibrant Churches with much to share. But more importantly their experience of crossing cultural boundaries has given them insights and sensitivities that people who have never lived outside their own culture cannot have. These insights and sensitivities are vital for the growth of our Church.

Fr Noel Connolly is a Columban missionary priest. He is a member of the Columban Mission Institute, Strathfield, in Sydney, and of the Broken Bay Institute. He also lectures in mission at the Catholic Institute of Sydney.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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