+ Bishop Colm O'Reilly - Easter 2009

A Pastoral Letter.


In 2008 we embarked on a journey which I hope will strengthen the pastoral ministry of the Church in our diocese. You will recall that this began when I wrote a letter which has been described as the Easter Letter of 2008. In it I dealt with facts and figures which called attention to the challenges facing us as a result of declining numbers of priests. The difficulty that this poses in the near future, and much more seriously some years from now, is self-evident from the projections we can make about loss through death and through priests reaching the age of retirement. The vista which lies before us calls for persevering prayer for promotion of vocations in the Church and especially for vocations to the priesthood.

If the scenario for the future of pastoral ministry in our diocese were to be evaluated solely in terms of the contribution of ordained priests, the future would not be bright. But that is not the whole story. Towards the end of my Easter Letter I said the following: "I believe the time has come to build on what we have achieved so far, to take courageous steps towards co-responsibility and to step bravely into a new world so that together we can build the Kingdom of God". I said this in the context of the many steps, each small but all important, towards creating a Church where the laity are able to play a more active role in its spiritual mission.

Stages in the journey to date.

The discussion which was initiated with the Easter Letter has been conducted in different ways and at different levels. The proposal which I made advocating wider adoption of clustering of parishes, a key element of what is now on the table, was well aired at parish level. Pastoral Councils used my document as a guide to discussion.

Stage 1.
In September last deanery meetings attended by priests and laity took the debate forward. There was broad agreement on the fact that creating parish clusters was our only option in order to provide for pastoral care across the diocese. This broad acceptance was qualified by the acknowledgment that preserving the identity of local communities, parishes and their subdivisions, needed to be upheld too. Holding both of these values in balance will remain a real challenge for us all.


One very welcome viewpoint, well expressed by many lay people, indicated that they were willing to take on more responsibility, provided that training for various functions would be offered by the diocese. The fact that much of that is already on offer by the Pastoral Ministry Team should prove to be encouraging for the lay people who have not yet availed of what is being provided.


Looking back on this experiment in dialogue between clergy and laity I believe that the meetings held in September may have pointed the way towards fruitful interchange of ideas in a Church which is becoming more democratic in structure. Laity should have been reassured by the following: some lay people who attended our September meetings were concerned about the possibility that particular clusters would be set up without their agreement. They were given assurances that this would not happen.

Stage 2.
The second phase of our journey in search of new ways of providing pastoral care was specifically for priests who have most to give and to gain by participation in clustering of parishes. We met in October and heard from experience in other dioceses how clustering has been operating. We heard at first hand of the experience of one English Diocese and one Irish Diocese. Each speaker from these places urged us to adopt a model of collaboration which would include regular meetings of priests in their clusters, meetings which would centre on prayer and pastoral planning with time for socialising. Laity will need to be made aware that priests attach importance to these meetings. Ideally, all but urgent pastoral appointments would be deferred in favour of the meeting whenever there are timetabling problems.


The priests considered possible options for cluster groups and spoke of their expectations of how the system would help their lives and ministry. At our October meeting time did not allow for a full analysis of the matter. It was agreed that priests would meet again within a short time and agree more precisely on what they would recommend to their pastoral councils. In accordance with what had been accepted in principle in September, no decisions were taken ahead of further meetings of pastoral councils where these matters would be given another hearing.


Stage 3.
In the last week of March 2009 further meetings of priests and chairmen of pastoral councils were convened. The meetings signed off on the cluster groups with modifications accepted in the light of the discussions which had been taking place over the months between September and March. The agreed clusters must now move forward trusting in the Lord and guided by the Holy Spirit. I would strongly urge that a meeting of each group takes place, with all the priests in the cluster present and the chairman or one other member of each pastoral council, to consider how to progress the system with their members. If such a meeting has not taken place already one should be fixed for a date before the end of June.


Setting the Agenda.

Our discussions and the decisions taken have prepared the way for concerted action by priests and laity. Some of the ways for progress which were identified are already being implemented by priests. It is my hope that all priests will implement the rationalisation of services in ways that will ensure that a good level of pastoral care is provided in all parishes in holiday time and in emergency situations. Lay people are well aware that they have to accept some change in the Mass services to make it possible for the present workforce of priests to meet their needs. Priests should not have more than three masses to celebrate at weekends. All priests should make provision for an annual holiday. Priests' own lives and their ministry should benefit when they work more closely together. Priests are told that: "what we do together is always better than what we do alone".


Our pastoral planning has been based on the assumption that all parishes would have active Pastoral Councils. The need for them is ever more obvious, not least for moving forward the clustering process. It will not be enough for priests to take decisions and make their plans for a cluster. We have heard from lay people that they wish to be involved in a process which will have a big impact on their communities. Besides, priests need to have the active assistance of lay people in many aspects of ministry. In the current year we are asking lay people to play an active role in preparing parents for the baptism of their children. It is the policy of the Diocese to have Baptism Programmes in place everywhere before the end of the current year.


Many of the things we need to do to maintain standards in liturgy are best done by providing training across parish boundaries. Training for the ministry of reading is essential. Eucharistic Ministers will be very aware that they need instruction. Choirs too benefit from assistance. All of these ministries and others will benefit from support from outside the local parishes from time to time.


The time has come for priests and laity to think of themselves as partners in living and handing on the faith. This is the day also for laity to think of all the priests in their cluster as their priests, their partners in the work of the Church. We cannot afford to live in our own small 'comfort zone' where each priest has his parish and where people have their priest as in the past. This is not to say that we should have less loyalty to our community or our local church but we do belong in a deanery and a diocese. We belong also to the Christ's Church where no one "is an island".

Starting time.

The beginning of September is the time when we have traditionally launched new initiatives. That is what I am setting down as the starting time for the various meetings and programmes that I have spoken about. I see this as the time to put into action all the changes that we have agreed. It is time that we began to feel that we belong in a particular way within our local cluster group. We do not need to be apologetic about the help that we seek from our partners, be they priests or lay people. We are here for each other ready to share our gifts for the good of all.


Cluster groups cannot be expected to function smoothly immediately they have been launched. Indeed there will most likely be need for good management of planning meetings which will call for particular guidance. The help of the Pastoral Ministry Team will be available as needed. Some groups may seek out a particular person who has the kind of management skills which can be used to steer the process, at least in its initial stages. The Diocesan Office may be able to assist in identifying the kind of person who could be of help.


In a well known hymn, Lead Kindly Light, Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote: "I do not wish to see the distant scene, one step enough for me". We could take these words and make them our own at this time in history. Our world has been in financial turmoil for many months and there seems to be little sign of stability as yet in spite of all the efforts of people in high places. We are all distressed by the upheaval, largely because so much decision making is out of our hands. In matters of faith we should never feel this kind of pressure, in spite of uncertainty. The Lord is with us and will be with his Church until the end of time. May the light of our faith burn strongly as we move forward in love for the Lord who beckons us ever upwards and who bids us not to fear.

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