Innovative partnership spearheads a new, whole-of-diocese formation program

The Faculty of Theology and Philosophy and the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle have forged an innovative partnership that responds to the multiple challenges confronting faith-based organisations. Anchored by ACU's Graduate Certificate in Mission and Culture, this unified formation program equips participants with the capabilities required to think critically, creatively, and theologically around their participation in the Catholic character and ethos of their diocese.

Approximately four years ago in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, a program of change was conceived under the banner of Many parts, one body, one mission. It was a process intended to encourage everyone to “sing from the one hymn sheet”. Or simply put, to focus on the one mission. For Rev Andrew Doohan VG, Vicar General of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, this process (which involved the restructuring of the curia, and emphasised the need to remove silos across the different organisational structures within the diocese) formed the genesis of the emerging partnership today with the ACU Faculty of Theology and Philosophy and its Xavier Centre for Theological Formation.

The history and trajectory of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle is perhaps familiar to others across the country. In recent times, they have confronted the realities of a difficult Royal Commission, a special commission of their own, as well the challenges that come through operating a disparate and diverse group of Catholic sector organisations. One specific challenge they have encountered is the need for each organisation to provide formation that allows it staff to understand, what Fr Doohan describes as, “Why we exist and why we do what we do.”

A partnership and process underpinned by dialogue

When members of the Diocesan Leadership Group, including Fr Doohan and Ms Teresa Brierley, Director of Pastoral Ministries, met with the Xavier Centre (represented by Professor Dermot Nestor, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, Dr Maeve Louise Heaney, Director of the Xavier Centre, and Associate Professor Rev Jamie Calder, ACU Academic Coordinator of Catholic Programs), underpinning many of their conversations was how they could address the question of how their community might understand, live and give voice to the mission.

“The wonderful thing is that we didn’t quite know what we wanted when we first engaged with ACU. We knew we wanted something, and we wanted to do it together as a whole of diocese,” said Fr Doohan.

“ACU came to us and didn’t say, ‘well here it is: this is the solution, the plan.’ The conversation took a good couple of years to get to the point where we were ready to kick off and launch.”

“In the process, the diocese got a chance to refine what we thought we were doing and ACU helped us to realise that some of the things we were thought we were doing, we didn’t actually need to be doing in the first place. Together we fine-tuned, and they helped us to develop a solution drawing on what they had available, as well as the other things that we will be able to access because we are in a partnership [for example, short courses and access to international guest speakers].”

The process of dialogue with the Xavier Centre helped the members of Diocesan Leadership Group to articulate their specific needs.

“They asked the questions that allowed us to provide answers that then helped us to go in the right direction together. It developed naturally, almost organically, [so that] when were ready to finalise things, we knew we were happy with it and the way it was going to go,” said Fr Doohan.

The way forward came in the form of the Graduate Certificate in Mission and Culture (GCMC) – a formal award program structured around two core units (units one and four, the latter of which is designed as a capstone unit). Through the GCMC’s structured activities and resources, participants are invited to talk about Catholic mission. But importantly, they are asked to engage and reflect on their own sense of what that mission is, and from within their own context.

For the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, the GCMC will provide the opportunity for staff across all of their agencies – from the deanery, to education, to social services, Catholic care and pastoral ministries – to access a program of formation that allows them to better understand their mission.

A cohering narrative of identity and a common language

Who are we? What is our why? One familiar example is the “why” of Catholic schooling? What makes a Catholic school different to a local state school? Fr Doohan suggests that the answer to this question lies in something more profound than just teaching scripture and celebrating the sacraments. Within his own diocese, he emphasises the need to explore and develop a language that helps people to articulate some of these ideas, unique to their own context. Not just in the context of Catholic education, but equally within and across all Catholic organisations.

Fr Doohan explains, “the reality of the Church” or diocesan community, is not limited to Sunday worship. Rather, he argues it is evidenced across the broad range of activities, organisations and its people engaging in and with the community. This also includes at times, helping those in need. A common language is about reflecting the process of people connecting to their sense of purpose, and how they live and tell the story of “the Church”.

From an organisational perspective, Fr Jamie Calder says, “Today more and more Catholic organisations are recognising the importance of beginning the mission literacy conversation with the lived experience of their personnel. It is the starting point from which a fruitful mission formation dialogue and mission alignment can take place, setting the foundation for the mission question: What will we do together and in whose name will we do this?”

A cohering narrative of identity. And one that is centred on the value of the human person.

The GCMC provides the resources (including through the ACU online learning platform, LEO) and the structured activities to guide participants through the process of “re-establishing and reaffirming what it is that connects us”, says Fr Calder. It is a process whereby participants explore their own values and connect that deeply with their sense of purpose.

The formal units provide a space for these conversations to take place. Importantly, the program is designed so that dialogue can reach across organisations. For the Diocesan of Maitland-Newcastle, the hope is that a common language to talk about what their people do, even if they work in different parts of the organisation, can emerge.

Looking to the future

A diverse group of 20 people spanning the breath of Catholic organisations across the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle – including teachers, parts of the curia, Catholic Care agencies, parishes, clergy, and four members of the senior leadership group – will comprise the first cohort of participants in the GCMC. After postponing the start of the program as a result of the face-to-face restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 will see the commencement of its inaugural iteration.

Fr Doohan is optimistic about the endless possibilities for the diocese that he hopes can emerge through the formation process envisioned through the GCMC, and the process of working together with ACU.

Contact us for more information about this program or to discuss how your organisation can partner with the Xavier Centre to address a challenge, meet a need, or explore an opportunity.

Return to the Xavier Centre home page


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