Pastoral areas – the possibilities

Notes on the Conference with Pastoral Areas of the Diocese of Ossory

26th October 2019 by Bishop Dermot Farrell 

My first words are one of gratitude for the gathering here this morning to further our discernment about the newly created pastoral areas.  Today is another step or stage on the faith journey of the Diocese. There are as many approaches as there are situations. We are a pilgrim people walking together, trying to find a way by communal discernment.  Our priorities will inform our policy goals.  There are no four ways nor is there any one way. Pastoral areas are about working together in a flexible way. 

We need to make necessary changes for the present time which will strengthen our parishes and diocese for future generations.  Adjustment and change is required to meet the continuing needs and challenges of a changing cultural and religious situation of the present-day Diocese of Ossory.   I have often used the image of pruning for growth. If the rose is not pruned in the spring, we will get a very poor return of blossoms in the summer.  We have to organise the priests and people in the best way possible for the good of the faith life of our Diocese.  For now, it is a sustainable plan.  As circumstances change, however, we must be ready to adapt to them as we are doing now. 

We have to look at the whole diocese as a single Church rather than a parochial approach if we are to continue to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ into every human situation and teach people to pray.  We can longer restrict our decisions to individual parishes. We have to use our God-given gifts to evangelise people, rather than being narrowly focused on territorial boundaries or individual parish buildings.   It is important that we now understand that when the priest in a parish retires, or dies, he may not be replaced by a resident priest.  The Pastoral areas allow for planning and preparation.   By having a plan, we will at least know what is intended to happen as circumstances change.

We need to go beyond the mind that we have. How our minds are conditioned by the past! How our expectations are shaped, stunted by what has gone before. If we live in that sort of enclosed environment we suffocate the work of the Spirit who is at work in the church.   The world of last 60 or 70 years has shaped our religious imagination. It’s time, for a new mind, a new set of eyes, a new kind of expectation. God is acting in our world!  We need to heed the voice of the Spirit of God so as to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

Sometimes parishes need overcome the temptation of any self-referential enclosure, or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few.  Furthermore, we need to rid ourselves of any form of pastoral pessimism, in order to open ourselves to the joyful novelty of the Gospel.  We should not be pessimistic because, in general, there is a vibrant appreciation of the religious dimension of human life, which extends to the life of faith.  This is confirmed most particularly in the local Church by extraordinary commitment to ordinary parish life, and most generally in those Catholics who reside on the borderlands of the Church, with no institutional identification, as an appreciation of ‘spirituality,’ understood as openness to religious values and even experience.  Here one thinks of Pope Francis polyhedral approach to the universality of the Church.  He writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “here our model is… the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness.. it is the sum total of person within a society which pursues the common good, which truly has a place for everyone” (no. 236).   There is much that witnesses to an active, engaged, and creative life of faith in every parish of this Diocese.  This is reflected, for example, in real engagement in parish communities, in activity directed at overcoming social inequality and injustice, and in generous responses to charitable causes on a local and global scale.   

We definitely have less priests than heretofore, but there is also a clear diminution in the numbers, who regularly attend the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, coupled with a not inconsiderable decline in the numbers, who seek baptism, marriage, and ordination, and we have inherited too many churches.  

A central task in this new situation is enabling the increased participation of lay people in the active mission of the Church.  Last Sunday was Mission Sunday.  Mission is vital for the life of the Church. It reminded us that every baptised man and woman is a mission. These words are challenging.  But they are true.  The heightened awareness since Vatican II of the inherent dignity and responsibility of all the baptised means that ordained ministry can be exercised increasingly in a collaborative spirit that enables all members of the Christian community to take their proper place in the life of the Church.

Reading the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the gospel is an essential task for the Church in any Diocese at any particular time (Gaudium et spes, no 4).  Listening to the people is a conviction that the Holy Spirit is at work.  It is not theory or PR.  We are meant to look at the world with clear eyes, to see what is happening, to be attentive. God is present in nature, in history and in human affairs.  These are the things of God and it is there we will see signs of his presence if we are attentive.   We also require patience as the pastoral situation unfolds, waiting for God to come.  Finally, we do need to recognise the precariousness of the situation we find ourselves in at this point in the long history of the Diocese.

Today is about the next steps in the process.

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