When St Vincent de Paul founded the Congregation of the Mission in 1625, he soon found that being restricted to a particular diocese tended to hinder the work of the Missioners. Accordingly, he managed to obtain Missionary Faculties for his confreres so that they could cross diocesan boundaries for purposes of their work. In our own time, and in Australia, this means that even without leaving the country, a transfer from one work to another for a Vincentian can mean moving to a different world , even while remaining within the Province and the country.
After ten years in Adelaide involved in Seminary Formation and teaching in Catholic Theological College at the Adelaide College of Divinity, a move to the rural Parish of Sarina in the diocese of Rockhampton Queensland for a couple of years meant for me not only a trip of some 3000 kilometres, but also immersion in the sugar cane world of North Queensland.
This article is a brief reflection on my time in this delightful part of Australia.
The Town and District of Sarina
Sarina, located 35 km south of Mackay Qld, is a town of 3000 people, with a shire population of around 10,000. The main industries in the town are the Plane Creek Sugar Mill and the Power Alcohol Distillery. Sugarcane and beef are major primary industries, and a nearby coal loading facility (Hay Point) and associated railway maintenance workshop (Jilalan) provide additional employment. As Sarina is only 12 km inland, there is also an amount of fishing done in the area. A number of people live in Sarina but are employed in the nearby city of Mackay (and vice-versa), and also in the mining industry in the central highlands of Queensland.
The history of the parish (St Michael’s) goes back to 1865 when the settlement was known as Plane Creek. At that time, the priest from Mackay would make a round trip of 640 km to Clermont, Eton, Plane Creek and back to Mackay. However, as time went on, priests became more plentiful, and churches and a parish school were built in the Plane Creek area. Currently the parish has St Michael’s Church at Sarina itself, St Therese’s Church at Alligator Creek and St Joseph’s Church at Carmilla. St Anne’s Parish School has 200 primary school students. The most recent development in the parish was the construction of a new Parish Centre, opened in the middle of 2001. It is an important symbol of hope for the future development of the parish community.
Having spent ten years in South Australia, the driest state of this nation., I wrongly assumed when I arrived in Sarina in January 2002 that the ubiquitous green grass and cane meant plenty of rain. Not so, said the locals. There had been a drought for some three or four years, and no proper wet season for ten years. As it turned out, I did not experience a wet season in the two years I was there, though I sometimes felt that the humidity was enough to make up for the lack of rain. However, the drought was a harsh reality, and many of the canegrowers and beef producers were in dire economic straits on account of the weather. Their situation was compounded by the low price of sugar on the world market. Less money among the farmers meant less money for related industries in the region, and also for the ordinary shopkeepers. The region no longer enjoyed the good times it had experienced in the mid and late twentieth century.
As with Catholic Communities everywhere in Australia, the people are faithful to their religious practice, and enthusiastic in regard to their Church, very much wanting it to continue as an important part of their lives. I was automatically welcomed and accepted as the Parish Priest. The situation was the same with those of the region who did not follow the Catholic Tradition. In an area such as Sarina, members of the community depend on each another, and for the most part respect one another’s beliefs, religious or otherwise. There is a natural community spirit that crosses religious barriers. Ministry and involvement should also transcend denominational boundaries. Church ministers are seen as symbolising certain values in the community, and are welcomed as making an important contribution to the town and district.
As country parishes go, Sarina did not cover a huge area, forming a strip around 50-100 km wide running north and south from the edge of South Mackay to Clairview, a distance of around 130 km. As the cane farms ranged between 50 and 300 hectares in size, the area is reasonably closely settled. However, even in that situation, distances meant that a brief visit down the highway took a full morning or afternoon, and the services that are close at hand in the city are not always readily available locally.
Because of a variety of connections in the community, funerals especially, but weddings and baptisms too, involved people of several religious denominations, even though the main participants were usually (though not always) Catholic. The ecumenical aspect was very often present as a matter of course.
Grieving for the Past and the Future
A significant factor that affected many people in different ways was the issue of grief. The previous parish priest had had to leave the parish on account of ill health, and for two years, the parish had no permanent resident priest. Firstly came a succession of supply priests (including at least one Vincentian) and then the care of the parish was taken over by the priests of the Mackay region. Because their previous resident parish priest had had to leave suddenly, the people had no chance to farewell him, and this was a source of grief.
Aware that I was to be there for only two years, the people continued to grieve for the inevitable time when there would be no resident priest again. They grieved also in connection with the changes in their church – knowing that the number of parishes in the diocese without a resident priest would continue to increase, that things would not in the forseeable future return to what they had once been.
The drought contributed to their grief, bringing a change of lifestyle for many as their economic situation deteriorated. The sugar industry was in the process of change, and change brings grief for whatever has to be let go. For some, the changes consisted of leaving jobs, moving away, etc., and this provided another source of grief.
The diocese was addressing the shortage of priests by ‘clustering’ – sharing resources and ministries among parishes while still retaining the identity of each community. The process was driven principally by the shortage of priests and also financial constraints. An increasing number of parishes would no longer have a resident priest As the process of ‘clustering’ developed, it became clear that no two ‘clusters’ were going to function in the same way. The needs, resources, geography, and culture or ethos of each community would also contribute to the nature of the ‘cluster’.
Initially it seemed that ‘clustering’ might be regarded simply as an administrative process, but the diocese soon became aware that more was required. In the absence of a resident priest, the need began to be felt for the unspoken religous and spiritual leadership that was previously embodied or focussed (though not completely or exclusively) in the resident priest. Who was to fill this role ? How could it be filled ? Could this person or persons come from the local community ? Could someone who had been known in the community all their lives be sufficiently ‘neutral’ or ‘removed’ from the general community that they could provide a spiritual or religious focus of the community as part of their leadership ? The diocese of Rockhampton was endeavouring to address this challenge as I was leaving.
‘Sacraments on Tap’
Attitudes die hard, and while people coped with arrangements such as ‘clustering’, some still expected the same ‘sacramental services to be offered by a decreasing number of clergy. As one parishioner put it to me, it will take a while to get used to not having ‘Sacraments on Tap’.
As priests became responsible for a number of individual community parishes, the role of the priest changed. Responsible for half a dozen mass centres, they might be able to spend time with the community only once a month, and for a short time. They might only have time for administration of the sacraments before moving on to the next community. The role of the priest as pastor could become less obvious.
Where communities shared resources, some kept individual parish groups, and expected the local priest to attend the meetings and functions of more than one community. More pressure!
A New Paradigm ?
A number of dioceses in Australia, including the diocese of Rockhampton, are, in practice, developing new ways of being Church, though not without some pain. The roles and attitudes of many, lay and clerical, are changing – by necessity, if not always by intention and design. While some fear ‘congregationalism’, and some lament the passing of ‘what has always been’, and some even take refuge in a form of ‘doctrinaire fundamentalism’, there are many, possibly the majority, who engage with the changing community and society in which they find themselves and are willing to embrace a new paradigm in order to continue the living Tradition which they recognise in their Church. These latter group bear witness to the hope that has always been an aspect of faithful Christians.
For myself, I appreciated having had the opportunity of spending time with the people of Sarina, Alligator Creek, Carmilla, and Mackay. I am grateful also to have had the opportunity to share Ministry with the Bishop, Clergy and people of the Diocese of Rockhampton. All gave me much more than I was able to give them, and I thank everyone very sincerely.