Are you struggling to get young people to Mass let alone participate in the life of the parish? Many parish priests and parish councils struggle with that very issue. A group of around twelve young people, who believe in God, have been meeting for the past eight years to attempt to find answers for themselves. Here is how their parish helped to get young people involved and lit a flame of faith that is still burning.
The First Steps
MIX Lane Cove started in January 1994. It was promoted by the parish priest of the time, Fr Les Cashen, as a meeting place for young Catholics in their twenties and thirties. The name ‘MIX’ is a play on the word ‘Micks’ used to describe Irish Catholics and ‘mix’-mixing up and meeting. Our first meeting took place in the back of the parish hall after 6.00 pm Mass on Sunday night. This was traditionally the youth Mass.
We were a motley crew that first night. As with most first meetings, the night was mostly dedicated to introductions and discussion as to what the group might want to achieve. There was a young New Zealand guy with long hair and a guitar who was returning to his faith after a time away. He serenaded us with his original compositions at the end of the night. This helped to break the ice. There was a guy from Singapore via Perth who was new to Sydney. There were a couple of guys who grew up in Lane Cove. None of the girls had grown up in Lane Cove. They all came from outside Sydney from such places as, Brisbane, Lithgow, Nelson Bay and Wingham.
There was also a Marist priest there. The Marist Fathers had a place down the road in Lane Cove. One of them joined us most nights for a while.
To meet the needs of the group we decided on a broad program of activities and topics for discussion. Sometimes it would be an analysis of and reflection on a bible reading. Then there were times when we would discuss an article of faith such as reconciliation, or more contentious issues facing the Church. At times we would say the rosary or sing Taize style prayers
Sometimes we had a guest speaker. Guest speakers were as diverse as a local nun involved in Taize to an aboriginal woman involved in social work for her community in the inner city.
We always finished with supper. Space became available for our meetings in a place called ‘the cottage’. This was a more welcoming space than the church hall.
The format evolved over time. People came and went. The average age of the group has increased. Those that stayed were from out of town. It seemed they needed a network of friends and social interaction more than did those who grew up in Lane Cove and were well connected locally from school and university. The group wasn’t restricted to singles. Couples joined and couples formed in the group.
Father Les kept a watchful eye on the group, providing scholarly input and moral guidance. He joined in celebrating the main events. He held home Masses for some of us. He even invited us to the presbytery on occasion for dinner to celebrate personal, career or educational successes. He coaxed a couple of MIX members onto the Parish Council and trained a couple of members to be acolytes. Our musician played guitar at 6.00 pm Mass. Many of us became more involved in the life of the parish.
When Father Les left the parish four years ago the group had settled into a core group of friends. Some of them no longer lived in the parish. We took the opportunity to review the group’s existence. Did we want it to continue? What purpose did it serve in our lives? If it continued how often did we want to meet? Where did we want to meet? What did we want to discuss? Who would coordinate it? Would the next parish priest join us?
The group decided to continue meeting, but on a monthly basis, rotating through the homes of group members rather than in the cottage. We set up some dates, topics and venues in advance. Someone sent out a notice to remind everyone. Today, many of the members don’t live in Lane Cove. So Lane Cove MIX group meets in Quaker’s Hill, Petersham, Erskineville, Surry Hills, and Ryde.
We decided to follow a basic theme and program for the year. We used a bible study guide for small groups such as the Introduction to Matthew’s Gospel or more recently Inform from the Catholic Adult Education Centre as the basis for discussion. Inform has lead us through the big issues of life, money, sex, marriage, divorce and death. We don’t all agree but the discussions help us all to reflect on our lives as Catholics and grow in our understanding of faith in some way.
We agreed to make Lent and Advent a time of special focus and we still meet weekly during these times to follow the programmes supported by the Archdiocese. At these times we extend an invitation to others in Lane Cove parish to join us.
We always start Lent with a Pancake Night on Shrove Tuesday and cook up pancakes with sweet and savoury fillings until we can’t eat any more. In all the time we have been meeting, we haven’t yet acquired an Advent Wreath between us to have as the focus of the advent meetings. Nor for that matter have we ever acquired a second pancake pan to speed up production for the hungry hordes on Shrove Tuesday.
We have endeavoured to have a priest attend. Father Les Cashen still joins us for special occasions. We would love to have the current parish priest of Lane Cove attend some of our meetings but the reduction in resources and the demands of a large parish mean that he doesn’t have time to attend. We’ve had a priest from the Cathedral, and on another occasion the parish priest from Erskineville, join us but there is no longer a spiritual guide for us. We have come to rely on the catechism and keep it on hand most of the time.
Purpose of the Group
Because of the shift in the original dynamic of the group, I wondered why we were continuing to meet. So I went and asked group members: ‘Why do you still come to MIX meetings?’ The diversity of the answers mirrored the diverse nature of the group, but, in the discussions, two basic themes recurred: community and friendship, and search for knowledge of the Catholic faith.
Search for knowledge
There aren’t many outlets available for discussing faith in society today. Faith is a forbidden topic in the secular workplace and with most people outside a church context. Even as regular churchgoers you don’t meet after Mass to discuss your faith. You might exchange a few pleasantries over a cup of tea but you don’t analyse the message in the Gospel you just heard nor relate it to what is going on in your life. The parish itself provides a lot fewer opportunities to study faith than it used to.
MIX gives us a place to discuss our faith, to analyse it, question it and grow it. It is a non-judgemental place to voice concerns and search for more knowledge about our faith. Without the spiritual guidance of a priest I sometimes think we are the blind leading the blind. We do have two members who work in Christian organisations and they have resources to refer to. We often find that hearing some one else voice their faith through anecdotes and reflections can clarify our own.
‘I come to discuss various topics and learn more about my faith and the faith of like-minded adults. It provides fellowship and social interaction. I always get a new/deeper understanding of the topic discussed from the others in the group.’
‘I come to meet with people who have a common desire to grow as adult Christians and who recognise our interdependence in our spiritual journeys. We discuss worldly topics from the Christian viewpoint. This helps define and strengthen my own faith. I get continual confirmation that God exists from the witness of other members of the group. It is a chance to spend time reflecting on the word of God that I otherwise would not have.’
Others come because they are searching for the right path. They feel we are searching together, looking for the way. We learn from each other how to face life from a catholic perspective. This is increasingly important due to the lack of guidance from priests today either from the pulpit or through catholic adult education. There are limited opportunities to learn how to deal with the big issues. What does the church say about stem cell research, asylum seekers and the war on terrorism? What does it have as solutions to all those daily challenges in life?
It allows us to meet with like-minded people who realise there is more to life than just earning enough to pay the mortgage. We can discuss here things you can’t discuss elsewhere. It is a forum to talk about those big issues in life and death. While we are all at different stages of the faith journey that doesn’t stop us from benefiting.
We learn from each other and build on the education we did or didn’t get at catholic schools. Ironically some of us born into Catholic families didn’t go to Catholic schools and some of us not born Catholic went to Catholic schools.
There are some converts among us and their journey is educational for all of us. An example from one of them goes like this:
‘A year after graduating from university in Singapore, I started to get a very strange, gnawing feeling that something was wrong. But I didn’t know what! One day, on the bus, I bumped into a girlfriend from uni, whom I hadn’t seen in ages. During the conversation, these words came out from my mouth ‘Esther, I think I need religion’. At that moment, I thought it was very strange of me to say that. Esther asked me to try the Catholic faith (I didn’t know she was a Catholic) and gave me instructions to the church to start a new programme called the RCIA.
Once a week, for a year, I attended the classes. In the end, I was baptised. At the time, I didn’t even understand the significance of baptism. To me, it was like graduation.
By that time, I was considering taking on a new job or going overseas. Somehow I knew that if I prayed the rosary, I would get an answer. I prayed and I got a clear answer-it was ‘overseas’.
That is how I have come to Australia and it was here that I started discovering the beauty of the Catholic faith.’
Community and friendship
We like each other and meet on an equal supportive and respectful basis. We’ve become a rent-a-crowd for baptisms, weddings, funerals and house warmings. Births, Deaths and Marriages if you will. The group is there to celebrate, commiserate and support each other. We volunteer to make the tea, serve the sandwiches and clean up afterwards. It has become like extended family offering what was perhaps once found in the CYO of our parent’s generation and has more recently been found in Antioch groups for people of school age. These are people you can rely upon to be there through good and bad.
It is also a chance to maintain social contact with a group of people who have become close friends. ‘I get acceptance on all levels whether I laugh, cry, dissent, criticise or celebrate. There is no fear of alienation or reproach.’
The sense of sharing is important too. We always share a meal and wine. We pray that the Lord be with us as he promised ‘Whenever two or three gather in my name…’
We laugh at ourselves and get and give acceptance. No one in here is going to take you down.
For one member this is the real church: in the spirit of the early Christians we come together as they did to eat and share the word of God.
There are two main possibilities. These are staying the same or grow. If we grow we can do that in two ways. These are either by creating new groups in our various localities or by enlarging the existing group.
We don’t really have a consensus on direction. One thing was definite we didn’t want to lose the benefits and the friendships we have created in this group.
Here is a summary of responses.
Stay the same
Some say, ‘Why change at all?’ ‘It ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Why expand the group? Do we have an obligation to share what we have with others? Is that our mission or is that just ambition?
How will we handle the demands of members’ children? At the moment there is only one small child. She attends all the meetings. We are her fan club and when she is tired of her adoring fans she goes to sleep in the spare room of whatever home she happens to be in. This is a perfect existence. There is another couple expecting a child by the end of the year. How will we manage to meet when there are several children to be included? What about when they are ten years old and don’t want to go to their parents’ boring friends?
There are other lifestyle changes such as relocations that will impact upon us. We have so far managed to cater for members’ moves to different suburbs. How long can we keep this up? If we split along location lines to grow how does our core group keep in touch?
How do we invite people in? Do we throw it open by publishing the next meeting date, place and topic in the parish notices? Do we quietly approach people we think might be interested?
There is the opinion that we should invite new people in and grow. This is quite a difficult one. We have such a shared history that it could be difficult for others to feel at ease for a while. There is a limit to how many can comfortably be accommodated in a home. A group of twelve is completely different to a group of twenty-five. Should new members be Catholic or should we invite Christians of other denominations?
There is the opinion that as a group we should have more social events and invite others to those. A picnic in the park is a less threatening way to bring in new people than a meeting to talk about God.
Alternatively we could have discussions along the lines of Inform with newer members and run a more serious session for our existing group on a different night.
Should members seek to build new groups in their new Parishes? One couple already did this when they moved to Quakers Hill. They now attend two monthly meetings of this kind.
There is some fear of change around the question of the group’s future. Fear of losing the group as we know it, fear of setting ourselves up as experts to new members, failing to attract anyone new and fear of the extra work to bring in new members.
One thing we’ve kept in the back of our minds is to perform some sort of community assistance, but we are at varying stages of readiness for any challenging venture. A more feasible suggestion was to visit with the lonely elderly people during the year.
The challenges facing MIX are the challenges facing every young Catholic. These are: finding some way to learn about your faith, share your faith, integrate your faith into everyday living and keeping your friends together as life changes.
The future is something, which we hope God will guide us to, along the right path.
The things that allowed this group to flourish were the timing of initial meetings. It was straight after a Mass. Meetings were held in a location close to the church. It was part of the parish priest’s strategic plan. He made himself available for the group. He was there to nurture it for a couple for years before he moved on. The members decided on topics and the format of interest to them. The group filled more than one need for its members. There was a strong sense of community about it.
The rest has been up to God.