+ Bishop Colm O'Reilly - Easter 2008

A letter to the priests, Pastoral Councils and all the faithful in Ardagh and Clonmacnois. Easter 2008.

Dear Fellow Workers for the Kingdom,


I write this letter as I reach a milestone in my own life, the twenty-fifth year of my ministry as Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois. Jubilees are joyful occasions but, in the oldest tradition of the Jewish/Christian faith, also times of opportunity and new beginnings. This letter is an attempt to open up for wider consideration the situation in which we find ourselves in our Diocese at this time so that we may explore a way forward together.

Surely the most serious issue facing us at the present time is the looming shortage of priests. I am not at all sure that we have even now taken on board the seriousness of the situation; so I am writing this letter as a discussion document. I want to share my own thoughts about how we might address the problem of providing pastoral care with a much smaller number of priests available. I would like to seek the help of anyone who may read this letter, especially members of Parish Pastoral Councils, by asking all to share with me their views about this matter.

Present Situation :


Firstly, let me put some facts before you.


· We have now just over sixty active priests in the Diocese. When I was ordained Bishop in 1983 there were one hundred.


· At that time we had fifteen seminarians. We have now two, both of whom are currently in their first year.


· We have no priest under thirty, only five under forty and about ten will reach retirement age in the next ten years, presuming all of us live until retirement age.


The facts, the statistics, are stark. They clearly tell us that change is inevitable. So what do we do? Do we remain passive hoping that, despite the evidence to the contrary, something will turn up which will preserve the status quo? On the other hand, we can be active in trying to plan for the future realistically and constructively, within the constraints of decreased availability of ordained priests. The latter is surely the route that we must follow.

Year of Vocation :
We must, of course, not give up on fostering vocations. The Year of Vocation provides us with a good opportunity to do all we can in this regard. I am asking every community and every individual to pray for this intention. We need to keep the subject of vocations to the fore by disseminating the literature which is being produced by the Diocese at the moment to promote vocations. We also need to try to identify in our parish communities potential candidates for the priesthood. We should not be afraid to suggest the possibility of a vocation to priesthood to young people and even to people who are no longer young. But even if we do all of that and there is an upward turn in the number of seminarians for our Diocese we are still faced with a shortage in the coming decades. It is for this reality that we need to plan.


To come to the main point of this letter: I want to put some ideas before you about how we might best plan for the future. I want you to think about these, to discuss them and to refine and develop them with a view to implementation of them.


So let me put before you some principal ideas and suggestions.


· Firstly, I am reluctant to see any church closed as long as the community that worships there is able to maintain the church in reasonably good condition. I would like to see every church continue to be available for baptisms, marriages and funerals, insofar as people wish to use them. It may be possible to provide at least one weekday Mass in most churches and certainly masses for special occasions.

· It will clearly not be possible for a diminished number of priests to provide a Mass every weekend in every church. The quality of the celebration of the Sunday Mass is more important than actual numbers of celebrations. The Parish Church is well equal to meeting the needs of many parishes where there are more than one church.

· It is my hope that decisions about weekend masses can be agreed at local level. I hope that individual parishes and clusters of adjoining parishes can work out a realistic rota which is flexible enough to allow for the possibility of a priest being unwell or on holiday. Priests and Pastoral Councils from adjoining parishes should work towards agreement on these matters, working always on the assumption that further adjustment is needed as the number of priests in individual clusters diminishes.

· One of the great strengths of the Church is the loyalty that people have for their own local church. The smaller the community the stronger the loyalty can be. It is something precious and should not be lost. So I wonder if that loyalty can be channelled to providing services in churches which do not require the presence of an ordained priest. A considerable number of people in the Diocese have been improving their knowledge of Scripture and numbers of people have been trained and commissioned as Eucharistic Ministers for various parishes in recent times. With proper training provided by the Diocese more people could take greater responsibility for various services in their own local church.

· I take hope from the fact that many people are taking more responsibility for various aspects of administration and faith sharing. The "Do this in Memory" programme for First Holy Communion and preparation for Confirmation has drawn in parents and others in a way which is highly appropriate for preparation for these sacraments. There is a very strong tradition in Ireland of supporting people at times of bereavement and this could prove to be another ministry which could be developed with the help of lay people. For example, leading prayers at removal of remains and at gravesides does not require the services of an ordained priest.

· The Church in Ireland at the moment is looking at the possibility of training people to act as pastoral leaders who would be employed and paid on a full-time or part-time basis. A training programme is already in place for this in Maynooth. There is also now the possibility of promoting Permanent Diaconate, an ordained ministry which is open to married men. Many aspects of the work which is carried out by deacons is already being filled by lay people. In Ireland plans are afoot for the development of a training programme for deacons, a programme which will be initiated this year.

Time for Change :
Everything that I have been saying points in one direction: change is inevitable. Of course, change is always difficult. People have to make sacrifices when change is demanded. Communities will have to accept lesser services of ordained priests because there are less of us around and the average age of priests goes up all the time. I would like, at this stage, to call attention to one mindset which would make change even more difficult than it has to be. If a community is determined to fight for its own rights and does not take into account the needs of others, then it will be very difficult to achieve rationalisation. I am also very conscious that parishes which are adjacent to each other have their own rivalries. Some of these may have much more to do with playing pitches than with Church buildings! Let me say that at this time in our history and in this time of need in the Church, Christian faith demands that we move outside a narrow interest and move towards a greater generosity of spirit. A Christian community which is inward-looking lacks a very important aspect of true discipleship. In the Church caring does not admit of boundaries.


Way Forward
After twenty-five years in ministry as Bishop during which I have seen how resilient we can be, I am confident that the challenge we are facing will be met and the difficulties overcome. In these past twenty-five years we have moved more towards becoming a truly people's Church than we realise. I believe the time has come now to build on what we have achieved so far, to take new and courageous steps towards co-responsibility and to step bravely into a new world so that together we will build the Kingdom of God.
I am putting forward these thoughts for consideration over the coming few months. While it is mainly to priests and Pastoral Councils that I am turning, I also want people generally to apply their minds to these issues. I want everybody in fact who reads this letter to feel free to put forward ideas about how we can address the issues that I have outlined. It is probably best that you bring these to the attention of your local Parish Pastoral Council but I would be quite willing, and happy indeed, to hear from people directly who may wish to convey their ideas to me. You can write by letter to the Diocesan Office or communicate by e-mail to ardaghdi@iol.ie.

As a focus for discussion I would suggest the following questions :


(1) How urgent is the need to address the problems of fewer priests in our parish and diocese? How willing are we to face the need for change to address these problems?


(2) What changes do we need to take in our local parish community in the light of the falling number of priests?


(3) At the heart of my proposal for addressing the current situation is the suggestion that the needs of parishes are addressed as clusters rather than individual parishes. Is this the best way forward? If not, what other suggestion are there?


(4) The role of lay people in the Church is seen as very important for the future. How can lay people be equipped to take greater responsibility and how can the Diocese help to promote this?


(5) What are the main difficulties that are foreseen if we follow the lines indicated and how can these be avoided or minimised?

I want to make one final point before leaving the general subject matter addressed. I believe the only practical way in which we can move forward is by staying within current Church teaching and practice about ordination to the priesthood. To widen the discussion to include other solutions not in keeping with current church teaching and practice would end in frustration. And let me add that I believe that at the present time we should seek solutions within our own community rather than put forward the idea of importing personnel from other countries and other cultures.

My hope is that each parish and Pastoral Council will give consideration to these points before the end of September next. It is my hope that in the month of October we will examine what has come in from the different parish communities and see if we can find consensus among priests and people regarding how best we can move forward together in addressing this urgent and challenging situation. In the meantime I would ask you to pray that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit we may seek to do the will of God and promote the spread of his Kingdom.



Archived References  
Bishop Colm's Christmas Message 2010
Statement by Bishop Colm O'Reilly on the Dublin Report
Bishop Colm O'Reilly video interview for Mission Sunday 2009
Message on Diocesan Pilgrimage to Knock 2009
Homily by Bishop Colm for Trinity Sunday, on 150 years of SVP in Longford.
Bishop Colm's Pastoral Letter Easter 2009
Bishop Colm's Christmas Message 2008
Bishop's Letter to the Diocese, Easter 2008, 'on the way forward'.
Bishop's Message for the Year of Vocation
Bishop's Homily at Diocesan Pilgrimage to Knock, Sept 2007
Message from Bishop Colm on Ferns Report
Message from Bishop Colm on the death of Pope John Paul II
Homily by Bishop Colm at Requiem Mass for Pope John Paul II in St. Mel's Cathedral, 7th April
Statement from the Bishop, 27th May 2006
Homily at Clonmacnois Pattern Day, 2006
Bishop's Christmas Message 2005
Message from Bishop Colm for Vocations Sunday 2005