Mission to the Margins, in Service

Sr Bernadette Wallis MSS, 1 December 2022

Today Sr Bernadette Wallis MSS reflects on liturgy on the margins in her own words. Thanks, Bernadette!

The margins, of course, are the centre of the universe for those who live in places or lifestyles that are considered ‘margins’ by others!  However, when we are in those margins, leadership can be supported there within the community. Maybe resources need to be tapped into and opportunities offered. To me it is about accompaniment, listening and allowing the desire for supportive formation at any level and to any depth.  

My background is with the Missionary Sisters of Service and our formation was centred in Tasmania, where we were founded in 1944.  As women religious in Tasmania in the 1960s and 1970s, we were fortunate to have at that time significant theological teachers: Archbishop Guilford Young and Fr John Wallis, our founder. They had lectures and retreats for us and for the people of the Island, and they carried the enthusiasm of the Vatican II Council (1962-1965). We studied the various documents that were promulgated by Vatican II, including The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

It was a very exciting time in the Church. Everything was being examined, reviewed, and turned around. This followed a time when Mass was always celebrated in Latin and the Bible was not familiar to the people. The first edition of the Jerusalem Bible had just been published. There was then such potential. These changes were not always appreciated, and in some areas discouraged.

The early years of my pastoral formation and experience took me to small rural areas and vast outback parishes, where we had been invited by the Diocese and parish to work pastorally for weeks at a time.  While we were in the area, one activity was to gather a few families in one of their homes to pray together. We called them para-liturgies. These were based on the Scriptures and were a format for catechesis. 

In some dioceses, we were given express permission to be leaders of the Liturgy while working in the parish and where the priest could not be present. For example, where a rural parish had four Mass Centres, maybe 100kms or more apart. 

One experience springs to mind from the Easter ceremonies forty and fifty years ago. If we were staying in the area for the week, then we would bring consecrated hosts with us for the time and lead each ceremony of Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil/Easter Day. We were leaders of the Liturgy, Eucharistic ministers, and involved the local people in various ways in the preparation for, and celebration of, the Liturgy. In places where the distances were great, or pastorally it was more suitable, the Liturgy was condensed to celebrate the whole of Holy Week in one flowing ceremony. People felt included in the Church celebration for Easter, making it a festive season. Following the liturgical celebration, there was always a cuppa or a community gathering at the church, local community pub or in their homes. 

As the years progressed, local catechists/leaders were trained to lead the Liturgy and give a reflection. Another way to assist them was through correspondence courses. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Missionary Sisters of Service developed adult religious correspondence courses: one for catechists, others in Scripture, both Old and New Testament, and a Family Correspondence course. These were prepared to suit the people we were serving. 

For years prior to this time, the MSS had hundreds of families from around Australia – and beyond – enrolled for the children’s religious correspondence school. Courses both for preparation of the sacraments and for primary and secondary school students were available. They were directed to the parents with guidance sheets to work with their children for the lessons that month. The religious formation then gave more confidence to parents, some becoming the local catechist or leader in the parish. This also fed into the local Liturgies with lay people becoming more involved as Readers or in liturgical music.  

Briefly, I would like to comment about my hope about the ordained diaconal ministry. It is that the ordained diaconal ministry is not practised on a clerical model, but on an inclusive pastoral model that relates to the community and the realities in the world. In that way, it does not take away the natural leadership in local communities, where the margins are the centre of the universe for them, and allows for Liturgy to be meaningful.   

Unfortunately, marginal communities are not the only ones missing out on good and relevant liturgical ministry today. So many barriers exist for Liturgy to be meaningful. It is one of the reasons people are walking away and have walked away from the Church. Today, in contrast to the 1960s, we have educated readers of the word. It is these and many other lay people who are theologically and pastorally educated (not necessarily with certificates) who have gifts to share with their communities. They could be called forth to reflect on the Scriptures, in light of their lives and their families and the contemporary world. How good it would be to have women reflect publicly and with authority on the Scriptures today!

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