By Roger O’Halloran
Since 1961 Palms has facilitated the response of the Australian Catholic church to global communities who seek mentoring assistance to sustainably build the capacity of their organisations and individuals, and so reduce poverty. While Australian Catholic Bishops oversee the funding of International Development through Caritas Australia, and Catholic Mission is mandated by Rome to support funds for the Pontifical Missions, Palms provides a unique opportunity for Mission and Development led by laity.
For over 50 years the Australian Catholic Bishop’s Conference (ACBC) has paid a small annual gratuity to acknowledge lay missionaries who responded to the call of the poor abroad. This was a simple recognition of service supporting a few personal expenses on return home; much too small to be considered a payment for work. At our meeting with the Archbishop Chair of the Bishop’s Commission for Evangelisation, Laity and Ministry (BCELM) on May 4th, Palms Chair Liz Stone, and I were advised that a restructuring of the ACBC means they will no longer have the capacity to make gratuity payments.
Cancelling gratuity payments will not directly affect Palms income as it was paid specifically to the individual participants. However, the promise of the payment did encourage participation in the program. The ACBC’s inability to continue the gratuity will add to recruitment challenges already exacerbated by post-COVID travel reluctance.
We were advised that it is more appropriate now for individual Bishops to provide funds to support lay missionaries from their diocese. Some dioceses already give financial assistance for the preparation Palms provides to their program participants. However, smaller dioceses are mostly unable to cover the that cost, so clearly they will not be able to pick up the cost of gratuity payments. Indeed it is becoming more difficult for them.
In recent years some Bishops have pointed to the financial burden of sexual abuse as a primary reason for not offering any funds for lay mission efforts. Perhaps now too the reputational damage is contributing further to declining church attendances, and has removed the income that might once have supported the gratuity payment and preparation costs?
After returning to the office from the BCLEM meeting I coincidently opened an email from a Bishop informing me that his diocese was on “life support”. He could no longer commit to financially assist the preparation of those who volunteer to meet the requests of sister church communities abroad. Unfortunately, it becomes harder to offer an opportunity to undertake a global mission to people in such dioceses without resources.
Thankfully, a few dioceses can still prioritise financial support to Mission and Development led by laity. Indeed Palms has expressed our deepest gratitude to Melbourne and Sydney Archdioceses for extra contributions to ensure the Palms program is able to be sustained while COVID concerns still discourage travel. As I write, I must also thank Brisbane and Hobart for immediately endorsing both preparation and gratuity payments for people Palms prepares and supports while on mission abroad.
Perhaps it’s a sad passing, or perhaps the laity are being called again to ‘reach beyond’,“to work with people of all faiths and no faith at all in addressing the social questions”. We will find alternative institutional supporters interested in what Palms brings home from our ongoing learning with the marginalised, who continue to request our commitment to solidarity in mutual development.
The programs of Palms Australia will continue to evolve as they have done since in 1956 when the founding of the Paulian Association anticipated the call of Vatican II (1962-65) for laity to take a lead. READ HERE about how you can help us set up the Reach Beyond Fund that will continue to enable this solidarity to flourish.
 RERUM NOVARUM, ENCYCLICAL OF POPE LEO XIII ON CAPITAL AND LABOR and referenced in papal encyclicals since.