Praying for convergence?

People are now finding ways to nourish their Catholic spirituality outside of formal devotional practice.

Oct 21, 2022

(Image:Chris Johnston illustration)

By Tracey Edstein
Many years ago now, I was given a gift by dear friends. It was a hard copy edition of John O’Donohue’s Benedictus: A Book of Blessings. I was, at the time, unfamiliar with O’Donohue’s profoundly spiritual, Celtic-infused writings, underlined by a deep theological understanding. Since receiving the book, and acquiring others, I have become a committed O’Donohue-phile.

While I was working in the diocesan offices, the book lived in my office. Colleagues looking for some comfort or a reflection for a particular occasion would say, ‘Tracey, can I borrow that book — you know the one I mean?’

In May, Benedictine Sr Joan Chittister visited Australia, not for the first time. Sr Joan is 86, and 800 people came out to hear her speak on a cold night in Sydney — at a venue with no parking! I imagine the response was similar in other cities. This is not, however, a paean to John O’Donohue or Joan Chittister. These are just two examples of a phenomenon I have observed in recent years and which I want to call the ‘parallel Catholic Church’.

As people seek to engage with their beliefs and live their lives of faith more deeply, many have come to embrace a spirituality which, framed by authentic Catholic tradition, encompasses an expanded array of practices and literatures.

There is no doubt that the institutional Catholic Church has lost ground in the last few decades. People in Australia who identify as Catholic dropped from 27 per cent of the population in 1996 to 20 per cent in the most recent census. We all know that traditional observance, notably participation at Mass, is declining. In 1996, the number of people at Mass in Australia on a typical weekend was around 864,000, or 18 per cent of the Catholic population. By 2016, that percentage had dropped by a third. And of course, the Mass-going population is ageing significantly, with a median age in 2016 of 63 years compared with 45–49 years just 20 years earlier.

Even without the COVID-19 effect, any social imperative to attend Mass is long gone, secularisation is relentless and demands on people’s time are legion.

A parallel church?
But unlike the institutional Catholic Church, the parallel church is thriving! It’s a cliché to assert that ‘observance is waning but spirituality is alive and well’ — but clichés are often true.

In my community, which spans many parishes and is firmly founded on Catholicism, I am more and more aware of ‘cradle Catholics’ whose attachment to the Church, if not completely lost, has significantly diminished. I feel confident that many of these people would have imagined themselves ‘in the pews’ until ‘death do us part’. What happened? I don’t believe it’s just one thing, and I’m thinking of people who wouldn’t hesitate to call themselves Catholic or to tick the Catholic box on the census form.

Most importantly, they carry all that being Catholic has meant throughout their lives: deep belief in the gospel of Jesus, prayer, kindness, a clear moral compass, a strong commitment to social justice and an abiding interest in what ‘the Church’ is doing and saying. Many of these people are now finding ways to nourish their Catholic spirituality outside of formal devotional practice. The phenomenon of the parallel Church is not really about what is not happening but rather, about what is happening. And so much is happening!

Pope Francis’ fresh, humble, Gospel-focused, and sometimes provocative, leadership style has brought hope, and there have been changes, but for those of us ‘on the ground’, Catholic life feels much the same.
It seems to me that over time, many previously assiduous Catholics have not so much ‘left the Church’ as changed lanes. They haven’t walked too far and they’re keeping an eye on the lane beside them, hoping, perhaps, for convergence.

A challenge to our bishops is that of acknowledgement — not that people have stopped going to Mass but that, in many cases, they have taken more responsibility for their own spiritual nourishment.

Surely this means that they have much to offer the diminishing Catholic community? I believe this is a development to be lauded and learned from, not lamented. The Gospel flourishes in a Church that is truly adult and Catholic. --LCI (

Total Comments:2

Patricia Byrnes [email protected]
I am one of those in the parrell lane.I’m 75 .I attended Catholic schools grades 1-12 and than went to a Catholic Nursing School.I became less and less envolved with Catholic rules as I aged.I belong to a weekly Benedictine prayer and discussion group and a monthly Catholic womens book club.I’m a regular CAC and Monastarie of the Heart Reader.I rarely attend Mass and meditate and pray daily.I love what Francis is trying to do.I have tried in my parish to have open discussions after mass re the scripture readings with only a few women joining in(mostly my co-book club people).I pray daily about the belief of the Eucharist.Is it the real presence or a symbol.So far I only think it is a symbol .I am in that other lane but keeping a close eye on the other lane
Claudia Duffee[email protected]
Please continue this discussion with concrete examples of resources and ministry sources that are flowing out of and that support Catholic spirituality. I know there are many from which to choose. May have to become a series of articles. You may start with the obalate members of monasteries and continue outward. I am a member of The Comming Home Network, an online forum of numerous resources that support non Catholics and non practicing Catholics to discuss and research and bring understanding to Catholic Theology. We also support one another in intercessory prayer as we also discuss the numerous Catholic prayer practices.