The following letter is being circulated among the clergy of the Melbourne Archdiocese and reveals the brewing discontent regarding Archbishop Comensoli’s plan to restructure his territory. While priests and parishioners are being assured that this is not an amalgamation process, there really is no other way to describe it.
DEFEND OUR PARISHES
Dear Brother Priest Do you share my concern at the Archbishop’s newly announced plan to divide up the parishes?
The propaganda. The first thing that smells is the massive propaganda effort underway to sell it. It’s led by “Ron Huntly Leadership Coaching” (Sounds like something from California.) People are being trained up to spread the good news by reading prescribed hand-outs. The ones I’ve heard sound like scripts from The People’s republic of North Korea. Clearly, it’s the best thing to hit us since the Ascension. Even the name of the programme is a propaganda steal – ‘The Way of the Gospel’ (The WOG). I’m glad I’ve finally found the way of the Gospel. My days are running out so its just in time.
The first part of the plan is to make the parishes more missionary in focus and not rely on maintenance. Nothing wrong with that. Although where parishes have strong congregations, mainly in the outer suburbs, some maintenance is in order. If we don’t help these people keep the faith, Catholicism in Australia is finished.
The second part of the plan is to divide the diocese into zones comprising three of four parishes joined together in one big parish called a ‘mission’. One priest will be in charge of each big parish, he will be called a ‘moderator’. He has all the authority and power over the ‘mission’ district. The other priests, known as Priests in Solidum (PIS), are from the other three parishes in the zone. What happens to them? What is their status?
What’s the problem? We are running out of priests and people. Something has to be done.
The Diocese of Melbourne is somewhat schizo. In the older parts, closer to the city, the Faith is dying. The upper middle class areas, The Camberwells, the Kews, and along the beachfront from Mentone to Gardenvale, once thriving parishes are now largely empty. Likewise, the inner city or yuppie areas. On the other hand, in the outer suburbs, in mainly immigrant areas, the parishes are thriving with viable congregations. The solution for the inner suburbs has been to put one priest in charge of half a dozen parishes. The Archbishop says these experiments are going well. (Not what I’ve heard.) But now, the Archbishop has decided to extend this experiment to the whole of the diocese, willy-nilly. That’s the problem. The parishes have been divided up, into threes or fours, and a priest, a Moderator, put in charge of each conglomerate. Parish priests will become helicopter priests, boundary riders, or fly-in-fly-out priests – whatever metaphor you use, it’s clearly a betrayal of the diocesan priesthood and the deep bond such priests develop with the people of the parish where they live. The laity in these parishes, great Mass-goers still, are seething because they see the spectre of priest-less parishes. They’re not wrong.
The consequences of the Comensoli plan
Short term What happens to the other parish priests in the mission zone? They are to be called Priests in Solidum (PIS priests) and as such they will be subordinate to the Moderator (If this is not the case, the Comensoli plan is no different to the old, deanery boundaries. And it is clearly meant to be more than that.) For centuries the basic structure has been the parish priest and his bishop. Now, under the new plan, it will be parish priest, Moderator, and bishop. Three our of every four parish priests have been demoted, made second class parish priests and indeed, redundant – solemn guarantees about us being parish priest(s) “in law with the same rights, responsibilities, and stability” notwithstanding.
Long term In time, when the PIS parish priests retire, die, or move on they will not be replaced. The Moderator priest will become the only parish priest in the missionary zone as was intended from the beginning.
Longer term The question will arise as to who looks after the parish with the PIS parish priest gone. Who will administer the place, and give day to day pastoral care? Obviously, lay people will be appointed. Mr and Mrs, or perhaps just Mrs “parish priest” in the presbytery. A Melbourne-produced video on Youtube (since taken down) admonishes Catholics to pay them a decent salary so they “can feed their family”. Fair enough; it’s basic social justice. There’s just one question – is the Comensoli plan Catholic?
Why was this decision taken?
Property. Perhaps we have to sell lots of property. This plan is just a long way of freeing up property for sale. There should be a discussion about it. Catholic schools no longer serve to hand on the Faith to our children. Sell them, not the parishes.
Shortage of priests. The probable reason. This plan will only make it worse. The helicopter priest will inspire no one. We used to bring in priests from overseas and were doing so until recently. A great success. They are wonderful priests, loved by our people. We have depended on overseas priests for most of our time in Australia. At the very beginning it was the English Benedictines. Then for the next 150 years it was the Irish. Now it’s the Indians. Glory be to God.
Extremist theology. Some extremist theological views have long advocated priest-less parishes.
What can we do?
We must do all we can to fight back. Make sure our people hear the other side to the issue, not just the propaganda version. Archbishop Comensoli says he has the Canon Law aspect all tied up and so is impervious to pleas and petitions. I saw on the internet a video about the diocese of Detroit (if not that, a major diocese in the US). There they introduced the same plan, calling the new divisions not zones but ‘families of parishes’. The priests fought back fiercely for their rights, appealed to Rome. They won. I am old enough to have known the great priests of the past here in Melbourne. What marvellous men. What holy men. They would have fought this new plan of Dr Comensoli with every fibre of their pastoral souls. Let’s follow suit. These men fought the introduction of modern catechetics into our schools in the 60s and 70s. They lost that battle. We know the result – generations of young Catholics totally ignorant of the Catholic Faith, the practice of which they continue to abandon in droves. Don’t let us lose this current battle. Pray, Protest, Publicise. It’s a fight to save the Church.A Melbourne priest.
The laity have also begun to push back against Comensoli’s plans, organising a group involving dozens of parishioners from various parishes. That group recently held a meeting which came to the conclusion – one which is obviously not lost on the clergy – that the Archbishop has provided a flawed solution without examining the fundamental question.
That question is: precisely WHY are parishes dying??
(HINT: the Bishops have not been doing their job. For quite some time.)
However, all that can be whitewashed by throwing around a few catch-all words like Discernment and Mission. As almost everyone outside of the Archdiocese machine knows well, ‘discernment’ is only valid if the pathway discerned is in the line with an Archbishop’s own proposal!
As an aside, a quick search of Ron Huntley Leadership Coaching unearthed a few interesting tidbits. Ron Huntley hails from Canada – not a bad guess on the part of our anonymous priest above. He has been involved in the Divine Renovation movement, promoting Alpha, which is either good or bad, depending where you sit on the tradition scale. (If you’re a charismatic Modernist, then that would be a ten. If you’re a TLM attendee, that would be a score of -1.)
Huntley’s first job was as a sales rep for PFizer (!!!!) but I suppose we shouldn’t hold that against him. You can check out his LinkedIn profile here. It seems that Ron Huntley is currently holding Zoom conferences with selected members of the Archdiocesan clergy, training them for their role in Comensoli’s Brave New Archdiocese.
According to the CAM website, the Archbishop began consultation with his clergy about the ‘Way of the Gospel’ in March and April 2021. But here is part of a talk given by Ron Huntley in Melbourne in 2018, the topic of which was “Developing a healthy parish culture”. Perhaps Archbishop Comensoli’s plans have actually been in the pipeline far longer than he is letting on?
(And by the way, Your Grace, “consultation” usually involves ASKING people for their opinions, not TELLING them what you have decided to do to their beloved parishes.)
Just one more thing about Ron Huntley: he says he can detect the toxicity-level of a parish culture very quickly and presumably, he can do the same with dioceses. Maybe it’s time he paid another visit to the Archdiocese of Melbourne; it wouldn’t take him long to see that the toxicity-levels are off the charts.