Welcome and thanks for coming to this conference today. I wish to situate briefly the work we are doing today in a context. What has traditionally been a priests’ conference is now inclusive of lay people. I am inviting people and priests into a process with the Bishop in order to create a culture where laity are encouraged and empowered for ministry. Clergy and laity will have to walk together if we are to face the challenges facing the life of the Church.
I hope this conference will contribute to raising awareness of what is involved, to teasing out what the Diocesan Pastoral Council is proposing, and assessing its suitability for the Diocese of Ossory. We need to raise awareness of the inadequacy of the current situation and to encourage a participatory institutional model of Church with a leadership of service. Putting all our eggs in the ‘priest or vocations’ basket’ is like going around wearing a blindfold. We have a very clerical Church. This is not a new phenomenon. It is linked with the “professionalisation” of many aspects of life that is evident in contemporary culture. While the church has been priest-centred, it cannot continue to be structured solely around priests. If the clergy are too self-referential nothing will ever change in terms of how we operate pastorally.
The Church is the People of God. This is sometimes forgotten by the clergy. The laity comprise 99.9999% of the Church’s members. When this is grasped all else changes. Then it is a question of what we do. Recognising this fact will require institutional reform, and a sharing of authority at all levels. We need to put in place practical arrangements that shape our response to the pastoral, spiritual and evangelising needs of the parishes in the Diocese where the liturgy maintains and nourishes the Christian life. A service model will not sustain the Christian life in the parish.
Transition is always difficult. It is not good enough to think only in terms of juridical entities – parish, diocese. We have to consider the mission of the church, the pastoral needs and the value of team ministry. This requires a paradigm shift on the part of priests and laity. Pope Francis is constantly putting his synodal vision of the church before us. The question he is asking, and that we should ask ourselves, is what kind of church is God calling the priests and all Catholics to be in the longer term – perhaps less self-referential and more a community of missionary disciples, less clerical and more synodical, to use the language and categories of Pope Francis. The issue facing the church today is not merely the more limited, although more urgent, issue of coping with declining numbers of ordained ministers.
The mission of the church, the work of God, is not just the work of a group of professionals, it is the call and the responsibility of all the baptised. There is little sense of mission within the Catholic Church in Ireland, and there is no sense of what that mission should be. We need to recover the missionary mandate of Jesus Christ.
Consequently, evangelisation is reduced to catechetics, and gospel is reduced to ideology, and the Christian life (“Life to the full” John 10:10) is perceived and preached as conformity to a set of norms which have little resonance in the real lives of ordinary people!
There is a profound lack of faith, or death of faith; this can be seen in the lack of any real interior life in a significant number of the faithful and, particularly in the lack of any serious interior journey or endeavour on the part of some of those who are in priesthood and in ministry. Surely, a church that would seek to be alive to Christ and alive to the life that God gives us would seek to foster that which permits the Spirit, who is “Lord and Giver of Life,” to well up within us crying, “Abba, Father” (see Romans 8, Galatians 6, and Jesus in Gethsemane – Mark 14).
Spiritual malnourishment is perhaps the number one problem facing our Church. So surely a priority of the Church is a rediscovery of Christ. And Christ is only to be discovered in seeking to follow him (You seek Jesus the Nazarene, the Crucified One: He has been raised; he is not here. See! The place where they put him! [Mark 16:6; cf. John 20:13])
Is part of the difficulty in the Church that Christ is no longer where he had been put? He is on the move… and nobody is calling us to follow him.
The Church does has something to offer. Bringing people to Christ is not one work among many; rather it is the central work of the Church, that around which everything else that we do revolves. In this important work of evangelisation, of guiding people towards a life closer to the word of Christ, we can get trapped in isolation and indifference.
We are a missionary Church; we are sent by the Lord to spread his word and do his work (Lk 10:1). The Church has customarily done its work through hospitals, schools etc. The Church also serves through its sacraments (apostolic dimension). It would not be Church without this particular dimension.
The whole purpose of the Church — the priesthood, the Mass, the sacraments, good preaching, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, great Christian art, liturgical music, the architecture of our cathedrals and churches – is to make us holy. This is the heart of church for everybody; it is also what the work of Trocaire, Vincent de Paul etc is about. Give us this day our daily bread and bread for souls are inextricably linked. In the words of the acclaimed Portuguese priest and poet José Tolentino Mendonça “Jesus is our bread, and when we pray ‘give us this day our daily bread’, we are asking the Father who gave us Jesus, to bring us Jesus” (Our Father, Who Art in Heaven, p 79). God created us not condemn us, but to share God’s life with us. That’s why we share life with children.
After the Ascension, Jesus leaves that we might act in his name and in accord with his spirit. Saint Luke’s chapter 15, The two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, is a story of the Church and its mission.
Prayer is not incidental to ministry. It is not decorative. It is the lifeblood of the Church’s efforts. Without it, nothing will succeed; without it, no ministers will come forward. At all times pray.
The Church’s mission carries forward the mission of Christ. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you (John 20:21). This is a community mission – an ecclesial activity. The Church receives the strength it needs to accomplish its perpetual mission from the Eucharist, linked to the sacrifice of the cross. Presence, sacrifice, and communion: the Eucharist is the source and summit of all evangelisation, because its goal is the communion of human beings with Christ, with the Father and Holy Spirit.
We have an aging population of priests; there are already some parishes in the Diocese that do not have a resident priest. We have fallen off a cliff edge in regard to vocations to the priesthood. Many speak of a crisis in this regard. While I believe this situation will not change quickly, we cannot remedy this crucial issue for the future of the Church by clericalising good lay people. Crisis demands creativity. This time of reduced numbers may well afford us an opportunity to be creative and to reimagine the institutional church. We have not been abandoned by God; God’s will is to be found in this situation. Let us not look back to our own experience of the Church of our youth, but look ahead to the Church in which we will minister and worship in the years ahead.
The Catholic Church in Ireland is in the maelstrom of its gravest crisis in centuries. Here it is worth remembering that the current crisis in the Church, not only in Ireland, is from within, in contrast to our perception of previous crises which were from outside, and certainly perceived as such. The Church is dealing with the past, and endeavouring to find a relevant role in modern Ireland. Our society has changed. It is now more diverse, secular, ethnically diverse, pluralist and somewhat religiously indifferent. Despite these changes there is still a significant critical mass of believers in our parishes who are committed to the regular practice of their faith.
In 1994, Grace Davie, a sociologist, advanced the concept of “believing without belonging.”[i] More recently she has updated this model and prefers the concept of “vicarious religion”, where an active minority maintains the faith for the occasional use of the many.[ii] We are very familiar with this scenario from our parishes. The resilience and size of that active minority in our parishes depends on effective Church leadership which must do much more than simply manage decline. We need to revitalise our participation in mission of our parishes and in the liturgy.
The institutional church is not just dealing with the practical aspects of the situation, but with visibility, promoting laity and transition. Priests have a lot to give, but are we the givers that pretend that we have all the answers, and that we cannot anymore learn from others? Are we operating from that standpoint where the rest of the world will receive from us, but we have nothing to gain from others. Mutuality is crucial. But it comes with humility.
“I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for self-preservation” (Evangelii gaudium, 27).
If the diocese seeks to do everything all at once, it will do nothing. Today is about focusing, hearing, planning, another step on the road, not forgetting that the Lord calls. In the end the true direction is determined by him. Thus, the decision-making process undertaken should be reflective of our trust that the Holy Spirit will guide and confirm our decision making. In order to ensure that we are attentive to the Spirit outlined in the seven ‘Principles’ already circulated what we have today is process of communal/ecclesial discernment. Out of our discernment today, certain directions and priorities will emerge.
An important dimension of the next stage (or even a later stage) will be the vocational and charismatic aspect of ministry within the local church: i.e, God calls us and God calls us in a way that makes the most of the gifts (charisms) he had given us. Both dimensions involve discernment — we have to “hear” and heed God’s call, and we have to discern our true gifts. Neither task is “easy” but each one leads to joy (cf Erik Varden OCSO) and peace (Voluntas tua pax nostra — a favourite saying of John XXIII, from St Gregory Nazianzen).