John Henry Hopkins’ carol We Three Kings of Orient Are (1857) celebrates the magi’s journey to Bethlehem, stirring our souls as we sing: “Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.”
The Bethlehem Star whispers hope to every Christian, enkindling our yearning to attain the light of Christ, yet tasting sweet melancholy, for the Star beckons, “still proceeding” beyond our reach.
Pastoral planning mirrors the disciple’s path, on the one hand growing our faith in the Star of Jesus Christ, and on the other, stumbling along a sometimes painful and risky road as we share our faith, in the life-giving course offered by this same Star.
Our call to follow the Star is the topic of many of the parish pastoral council formation sessions I have facilitated during the year. The same questions arise, again and again. How do we engage more people in our life of faith? How do we reach out to those who are disconnected, seeking, wounded and thirsting in our midst? It is as if our council members are exclaiming: we see the Star that changes our lives, how can we help others experience our journey into its marvellous light?
In my work with our pastoral councils, as we break open Faith in our Future, our Diocesan Pastoral Plan, we invariably agree on a few key points:
- We must keep our gaze fixed on the Star we follow. Our parishes are often distracted by the many demands of serving God’s people, and like the ever-busy Martha, struggle to sit at the feet of Jesus, to abide in his light. Our Pastoral Planning Office has sought to offer formation for new and existing councils to keep them centred on the Star, to aid them and their parishes in forming missionary disciples.
- We cannot do everything on our parish journey. The magi bore gifts to Bethlehem and that was their part in the story. We don’t hear of them later. Through working with councils on their planning, they usually must sacrifice some good ideas in their efforts to achieve a few key goals in our service of Christ’s mission. It reminds us of the lines of the Oscar Romero prayer, penned by Bishop Ken Utener:
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
An opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
- We are called to journey together. Our councils sometimes try to tackle large projects alone. Our pastoral planning office has assisted in inviting others to join in the concerns of our pastoral councils. After all, our Christmas cribs do not only feature the magi! Indeed, they arrived late to a party already being celebrated by the lowly shepherds.
Of course, our magi deserve to be properly resourced. Has anyone else travelled this path? Are there pit stops along the way? What happens if our camels encounter a speed hump? Our pastoral planning office, through the Diocesan Pastoral Plan, offers many resources, often inspired by local faith communities. Our office has also listened to our parishes in 2017 through inviting them to share their strengths, challenges and hopes, coordinated annual attendance counts and assisted with national surveys, all to help us better understand what is needed on the road ahead.
Bishop Vincent Long recently invited more magi to collaborate on our pilgrimage, with his call to establish a diocesan pastoral council and deanery pastoral councils. He invites us to strengthen our mission, as we share the joy of the Star, listen to one another’s wisdom learnt through the struggles of the journey, and work towards renewed ways to share the light of Christ. And we join an even greater pilgrimage, as our Australian Bishops invite us to participate in a National Synod in 2020, to grieve our failings, refocus on the Star of Bethlehem, and revitalise our work of sharing our faith and growing our faith in Christ.
The biblical magi are fortunate enough to reach Bethlehem, but we may take greater comfort from The Story of the Other Wise Man. Henry van Dyke’s novel (1895) tells of a fourth wise man who missed out on meeting the Babe of Bethlehem, because he stopped to serve those he encountered on the way, also at the cost of the treasures he planned to gift to the newborn King.
We too, continue to surrender our planning to the pastoral realities of the “field hospital” church, in the image evoked by Pope Francis. We expend our limited time, talents and treasure in the service of our brothers and sisters encountered amid the battlefields of daily life. And somehow, in our spirit of self-giving, the Star of Bethlehem rises in our midst.
Our Pastoral Planning Office wishes you a peace-filled Season, and invites you to make contact in the New Year to ponder how we may aid you and your community in our quest to follow the Star.