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Australia’s Church owes its existence to missionaries and wants to hear their voice

Scalabrinian Father Maurizio Pettena: “Both we who are already in Australia and those who come from overseas need to ask the question: ‘How do we move out of certain comfort zones created by our own culture?’ How do we make that journey together.”

MISSIONARIES – men and women – have always been an important and necessary part of the missionary activity of the Catholic Church in Australia.

“Starting with the Irish, there have been many waves of priests and religious coming from other countries to Australia,” the Canberra-based director of the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office Scalabrinian Father Maurizio Pettena said.

Fr Pettena (pictured) is one of the organisers of the 6th National Conference on Missionary Clergy and Religious in Australia: Challenges and Opportunities – an event being held in Brisbane in August, that promises to explore many fascinating aspects of Catholic missionaries coming to Australia.

“In Australia, there has never been a comprehensive reflection and study on who comes to Australia as a missionary, and where they come from,” Fr Pettena said.

“I do not refer much to their geographical place of origin, though even this is important, but much more from what experience of Church are they coming from? 

“How has their encounter with the Church in Australia happened? 

“Is this an ‘encounter’ or is it merely functional? 

“What fresh perspectives are they gracing us with? 

“What is their contribution to the evengelising mission of the Catholic Church in Australia?”

Fr Pettena is qualified to raise so many questions about the missionary experience – he has spent 25 of the past 30 years in Australia as a “missionary” priest. 

“Both we who are already in Australia and those who come from overseas need to ask the question: ‘How do we move out of certain comfort zones created by our own culture?’ How do we make that journey together,” he said.

“In the last ten years what I’ve seen is the number of priests and sisters coming from overseas is growing and it follows proportionally the number of mainly skilled migrants entering Australia.

“Today the two main groups serving in Australia come from India (particularly Kerala), and from the Philippines; but there are also important numbers from Nigeria and from Central and South America.

The purpose of the conference – from August 5-7 – is to provide delegates with a platform from which to listen attentively to the experience of the missionary men and women who minister in Australia and to provide an insight on the face of the Catholic community in Australia and how we can better become together a Church that witnesses to the presence of the risen Christ. 

The conference will provide delegates also with insights into some of the issues which missionary priests and religious face when ministering in Australia.

The conference will provide a platform for missionary priests and religious to share their experiences in relation to the different cultural expressions of the people they serve and the achievements and difficulties they face in their pastoral work. 

“Hopefully people from the wider community – from the parishes – will come together too, to listen and appreciate the mission of the Catholic Church and these missionaries in the context of evangelisation in Australia at this time,” Fr Pettena said.

“In my experience, I find that there is more focus around questions such as: ‘Is it right to bring in all these people from other countries to minister in Australia?’ or ‘Are they well equipped to minister in Australia?’

“I don’t think we have done well enough to stop and listen to them, their experience, their dreams. I hope this conference will be able to provide opportunities for this.”

The conference takes inspiration from the book International Priests in America: Challenges and Opportunities. 

Co-author Dominican Father Aniedi Okure will be one of the keynote speakers, together with Scalabrinian Father Fabio Baggio, co-under-secretary of the Migrants and Refugee section of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development.

The often-difficult role of being a contemporary missionary was explored in a memoir published last year by Nigerian Fr Emmanuel Aguiyi, who served as parish priest in suburban Brisbane.

Fr Aguiyi described the experience of culture shock and bridging cultural barriers as he worked in Alexandra Hills-Capalaba parish, and as dean of Redland-Bayside Deanery.

He also described the “richness” of his experience.

Fr Pettena said Australia was not the only country to rely heavily on contemporary missionary preaching. 

“These days we can see it happening everywhere in the world,” he said. 

“No local Church has a surplus of clergy. It is a gift of faith for missionaries to come.

“And the question is; Are you willing to journey together? 

“The journey is how we become inter-cultural. In ecclesial terms, how do we become one in Christ?”

Another main speaker to the conference will be director of the National Centre for Pastoral Research of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Dr Trudy Dantis. 

Dr Dantis will help delegates to better understand the cultural, social and personal dimension of the pastoral contribution of missionary men and women ministering in the changing contemporary context that is Australia.

“I look forward to this conference where we can listen to one another and form a wisdom for the ongoing evangelisation in Australia,” Fr Pettena said.

The conference will be held at Rydges South Bank, Brisbane, from August 5-7. To register visit

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