Diaconal Formation from the Past, for the Future

Sr Patricia Fox RSM has had a lifetime of education, formation and church leadership. Lately she went digging back into her history, to several years running the Adelaide Archdiocese Ministry Formation Program. It was not a long time, she recalls, but very significant both for her personally and for the local church. 

It all started with the Council of Vatican II, from 1962-1965. The Adelaide Archbishops – Matthew Beovich followed by James Gleeson – were “thrilled” by it all and returned from the Council “on fire” with vision. There was a new understanding of the Church as the ‘people of God’ – “a mammoth shift” from what had been. So the new spirit was encouraged in South Australia, alongside a “flourishing of theological thought”. The Church was transforming, with a renewal and rediscovery of its origins, learning, studying and communication between the different churches. 

Archbishop Leonard Faulkner was appointed to the Archdiocese of Adelaide in 1985, and continued to promote the vision of Vatican II. There had recently been a Diocesan Assembly, and he “committed himself to abide by the will of the people of God in South Australia.” He set up a Diocesan Pastoral Council and encouraged the Parish Pastoral Councils in every parish. He also backed the “creative, well-formed” theological faculty at the Catholic Theological College of South Australia. It became part of a consortium, along with the theological colleges of the Anglican and Uniting Churches.

At the time, Pat was immersed in the “huge buzz” around theology and new understandings of religious life. She said it was “like windows opened onto a treasure chest.” One lecturer drew a fat animal on the board and called it ‘POG’ (for People of God). He was “so excited” and sure that it would change absolutely everything. Inspired by this, Pat studied and taught, and went into formation of the Sisters of Mercy at an early age. She was then asked to be part of the Archbishop’s leadership team, which consisted of a priest, a religious Sister and a laywoman. This gave her great experience of Church governance and pastoral care.

Pat was later given charge, with Fr Paul Cashen msc, of developing a ‘Ministry Formation Program’ (MFP). Its mandate was “to form lay ecclesial ministers and permanent deacons for the Archdiocese of Adelaide.”1 It began in 2006 with men and women together, covering all aspects of theological, pastoral, spiritual and personal formation. The program’s premise was that “the people of God are gifted with charisms, which are gifts to the Church and the world”. It was about awakening and educating a broader group than clerics and the ordained, enabling people to receive the richness of the Tradition. 

The candidates on the program studied academic theology for 4 years alongside those at the Catholic, Anglican and Uniting colleges. There was such a “good and talented” faculty, which honoured the particularities of each tradition, yet received the gifts each had to offer. The staff met together regularly and did much concentrated work on discernment. It was a “very privileged time” for Pat; working “wonderfully well” to have people studying together, both women and men, those leading to ordained roles and those leading to other roles within the archdiocese. 

I myself came into this special environment in 2009, taught by Pat, and reaped the benefits of having formation for ministry alongside those preparing for the permanent diaconate, pastoral directors, pastoral associates and chaplains. As I was the sole candidate for the Sisters of Mercy in Adelaide at the time, these mature people with plenty of life experience were my formation peers. What strikes me is that we were taken seriously in our discerned call to minister in the church, and given opportunities to develop the necessary skills. Although our MFP group had more intensive Catholic training and retreats, our theological classmates were also getting ready for ministry as Anglican and Uniting priests, deacons and ministers of the word.  

Pat expresses sorrow that times have changed, and there is no longer a shared campus between the churches. Yet the MFP continues to evolve. She is extremely proud of the graduates, those who went on to be ordained as deacons (and one later became a priest) and those who have done a “fantastic job” in other pastoral ministry roles. She recalls a few people in particular and says they have “done a power of good”. Pat, I would like to thank you for your Vatican II-inspired leadership, and the good you have done in formation for ministry in South Australia.

1 https://adelaide.catholic.org.au/education/ministry-formation-program/history

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