John and Uta France, 25 May 2023
John and Uta France have been empowered by a Church prepared to be creative, in order to respond to the needs for ministry in the world. In the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese in 2014, Bishop Bill Wright commissioned them to be leaders, and they have received and grown in this responsibility. In fact, their unpaid ministry seems to be more than full-time. While we speak in their small window of free time (on a ‘clergy day off’ Monday), phones continue to buzz with requests for help.
Not everyone understands John and Uta’s passion for church ministry. To them, however, it makes perfect sense. What they do is a “blessing” and a “vocation”. They met in a youth group in a presbytery in the 1970s, and got married. Uta was born in Germany then grew up in Australia, and John in Australia, but they shared a desire to become more involved in their faith. Although they knew of the inspiring theology coming from Vatican II, they found it hard to “break in” to the church model of the times. Instead of being encouraged to “minister to others in encountering God”, they helped to resettle refugees from Vietnam and Central America.
At the same time, Uta and John had professional careers. John worked in engineering in the mining sector, which he explains in an apologetic manner. Uta was a bank officer, an integrative aid in the school system, a carer and then, finally, the parish secretary of St John Vianney in Morisset. They were also learning more and more about their faith; as John assures me, “you can never do too much formation.”
Their movement towards church ministry accelerated 30 years ago. Uta started working with their priest in preparing and leading funerals. After 10 years of “learning the ropes, acting as an assistant”, she found herself in a new position. The priest was sick and they could get no other priests to Morisset. Uta led the funeral and she has continued leading, being trained and training others in the ministry ever since. In the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese, there were good formation programs being offered. Both John and Uta completed the Christian Formation Course over several years.
About 10 years ago, the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese was facing their reality with courage. There was a shortage of priests and no new seminarians for some years. The area had been a hotspot of clergy sexual abuse, leading to much hurt and disenchantment with the Church. However, Bishop Bill Wright was “open to new ways of trying to do things.” The Diocesan Pastoral Plan named five foundations of diocesan life:
- Identity and community
- Worship and prayer
- Mission and outreach
- Leadership and structure,
and the faithful were encouraged to ask, “What would best serve our parish and how can the people best fulfil that?”
In the St John Vianney Parish, seven people were commissioned by Bishop Bill to lead the parish in addressing these foundations. They were appointed under Canon 517 §2 to administer a parish without a resident priest. At the time, John was given ‘Leadership and structure’ and Uta ‘Worship and prayer’. However, due to various attritions, they are the last two still in these roles, and fulfil all the foundations between them. Uta and John have not only kept the parish going through the ups and downs of COVID, but have brought fresh ideas and approaches. They feel privileged to work with a sacramental priest, who is very supportive of their initiatives.
In terms of liturgy, John and Uta seek to meet people where they are, and reach out to the margins around them. One of those margins is young families, and they have developed a sacramental process that includes family Masses, home work-books, flexible preparation for sacraments and parish accompaniment.
Another marginal area is people approaching the parish for funerals. Often in the local area, many families are uncertain about their participation in church, and opt for a funeral without Mass. Both Uta and John have faculties for performing funerals, and they try to reach out with compassion. Uta has led a number of Vigils, which are more flexible, yet still approved Catholic liturgy. Otherwise, she says, people will go to civil celebrants. “We are ministering to people who need help, who are at their most vulnerable. We are called to be the light of God, not forcing them into something they can’t handle.”
We conclude with a story from Uta’s native Germany. After the war, many refugees were starving as they left concentration camps. But when well-meaning people tried to give them food, their bodies weren’t ready and they died. Instead, very small increments were needed. John and Uta explain that there are many steps in the evangelising process before people are ready for full communion. So rather than “force-feeding”, they explore many other avenues for prayer and worship from our liturgical documents. Then, when people come together for Eucharist, it is “not me and God, but us together.” From there, we are commissioned to go out to use our gifts. Which is exactly what Uta and John are doing so well.
 Canon 517 §2. If, because of a lack of priests, the diocesan bishop has decided that participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish is to be entrusted to a deacon, to another person who is not a priest, or to a community of persons, he is to appoint some priest who, provided with the powers and faculties of a pastor, is to direct the pastoral care.