I am very pleased that we are gathered here today, reliving the memory of our Synod experience, reviewing the work that has gone on over the past few months and writing together our Diocesan plan. I thank all involved in preparing this day.
I want to say straightaway that both at the Synod and since, I have been very grateful for what we experienced and what the Synod produced. I very much look forward to doing my part as we take the steps outlined in the Diocesan plan that we are working on today.
Now that some months have passed since our amazing gathering in April, I would like to share a little of how I view the Synod. There are four aspects that I would like briefly to highlight.
The Synod as Event of the Holy Spirit
The first thing that strikes me about the Synod is the Synod itself! It was an event of the Holy Spirit. The image I keep is one on our website – the hall in Mary Immaculate College full of circles of people, lay, priests, single and married, young and older, working hard but joyfully at discerning what God was calling us to as a diocese. We were learning together to be “synodal”. And it’s something we can’t take for granted. We are all in this together, learning a way of synodality. It’s a theme Pope Francis emphasises a lot.
We gathered in April in the company of the representatives of other churches and other religions along with representatives of the civic and social agencies of the City and County Council. I felt it was a glimpse of a church that we want to be – a community of communities with Jesus among us, serving the society of Limerick at all levels, offering it a soul, wanting to give our spiritual and social contribution that builds up the fabric of society.
I recall more than one person saying to me how moved they were to find themselves sitting side by side with priests, chatting about future directions of the Church. It was something new and they were delighted. Some young people said to be – I’m sure if other young people could see this, they would be hugely impressed and really begin to understand more about the Church.
So I thank God for the Synod. It has given us an experience, an image, a benchmark that remains in our hearts and minds for the future.
The Synod as an Event of Looking at Reality with New Eyes
A second point that struck is that the Synod provided us with an opportunity to look around us with new eyes. Pope Francis often invites us today to have what he calls a “contemplative gaze”, that is, we need to look around us in our home, our streets, our village, our town, our city and discover God dwelling among us, “fostering solidarity, fraternity, and the desire for goodness, truth and justice”. Perhaps those around us aren’t coming to Church but they are searching for meaning in their lives. And even in the negatives and apparent rejections that we find, something of God’s work can be uncovered.
Our Synod journey has been a time of looking at the reality around us with eyes of hope and, in this Year of Mercy, we could also say, with eyes of mercy and tenderness, one of the great themes of our times. We made a realistic assessment. The proposals we’ll be looking at today reflect our assessment. There are less priests and we need new models of leadership; young people find it hard to connect, we need to find new ways to be with the young church; families need support in handing on the faith and in facing difficulties as a family, liturgy today is being called to link more with life, and, above all, as a Church community we recognise our desire to reach out much more beyond the sacristy, beyond the church, beyond the usual structures that we are used to.
The Synod as an Event that calls us Forward to a Community of Communities with Jesus among Us
It seems to me the Synod has called us to a more Mission-shaped Church, less relying on the priest-on-his-own, and indeed not just a parish council and a priest. Let me offer some images to share what I mean.
Diagram One. The priest at the centre of everything. All depended only on him. We’ve clearly seen and stated that is not what God wants of us as a Diocese.
Diagram Two. The priest with collaborators, people “helping” the priest. This is a step forward and we have indicated some steps in this direction at the Synod – the appointment of administrative assistants.
Diagram Three. The Parish Pastoral Council and the Priest working together with collaborators “serving” the parish. Our Synod has said clearly that we need to have a parish pastoral council in each parish. We have indicated some initiatives for the Parish Council to consider. I should note that we need to be careful that we aren’t working with this model but actually still half-having diagram one or two in our head – it ends up with the priest having to implement the ideas!
Diagram Four. A Community of Communities reaching out to work for the common good. I believe the tone of our proposals move us in this direction.
Two points to mention here. Pope Francis has written that, “in virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (cf. Mt 28:19). All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients. The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized.” Just as it’s not enough to have a priest on his own, it’s not enough for priest with collaborators and indeed it’s not enough for a parish pastoral council with the priest. Something more is needed. The parish is a community of communities. The proposals help us move in this direction. I am keen to see the development of various communities of sharing of faith for all ages. And this would also mean groups of encounter with members of other churches and other religions as highlighted by the Synod.
There is another point to be mentioned here – the need to go out, creating a culture of encounter. The last sentence Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous theologian and martyr killed during World War II wrote was that the Church is only Church if is there for others. Pope Francis too often encourages us to go out of ourselves, outside our comfort zones, enter into encounter with others around us. It is healthy for us. It is poisonous to be closed in on ourselves. The Church can’t just be concerned about formation in schools, youth ministry, liturgy, structures and models of leadership. The Church has to be focussed on going out to serve.
Pope Francis: “many are now involved in the lay ministries, this involvement is not reflected in a greater penetration of Christian values in the social, political and economic sectors. It often remains tied to tasks within the Church, without a real commitment to applying the Gospel to the transformation of society.” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 102). We could add the environment to this list. I am happy to see our outreach to various agencies like Bedford Row, Children’s Grief, Compassionate Communities etc.
An Event that will Unfold in Time
Our Synod took place last April but it is an event that unfolds in time. The journey of the Synod now continues in the normal life of the Church. The next two or three years we will be busy implementing what we’ve heard the Spirit say to the Church so that there can be mature fruits from the Synod in the years to come.
Three documents will come out of the Synod – a post-Synod Exhortation, a Pastoral plan and Diocesan Statutes. I will be writing my report to Rome updating, as I promised, on what emerged in our Synod.
I should note, however that the Synod has already has had its impact. Significant developments have already taken place. With the clerical appointments this summer, we have moved more clearly towards a team model for priests. This will develop further. Of course, there will be teething problems and much learning on all our parts but it is the direction indicated by the Synod and I am grateful to the priests for responding to it with generosity.
I am particularly pleased that I have been able to appoint Catherine Kelly as our Diocesan Secretary/General Manager, the first lay person to hold that position.
In terms of formation in the faith and family ministry, I am grateful that Lorraine Buckley is working full-time with us with a specific role in these areas. Again in responding to the Synod I have appointed Fr. Frank O’Connor and Noirin Lynch to undertake post-graduate studies in the area of liturgy, keeping an eye on the recommendations that came from the Synod.
I know that Fr. Chris and Aoife Walsh are exploring the youth ministry training programme for volunteer youth ministry leaders. A pilot project of the John Paul II awards has begun in one parish.
I will be distributing next week a discussion and guidelines document on how better to link parish, school and parents in regard to the preparation of children for the reception of First Communion and Reconciliation for the first time. Just this week we had a very successful in-service day for religion teachers and chaplains at second-level schools.
I have said that I intend to establish a Family Forum, also in preparation for the 2018 World Meeting of Families that will be launched next Saturday in Dublin (anyone interested, please let me know!).
You might know that we have four new energetic religious sisters, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia who have arrived in the Diocese.
In sharing these good developments, I need to acknowledge that there are financial implications. Currently, we have spent some 300.000 euro on the Synod process and the work of the Synod will now be subsumed into the mainstream of the life of the Diocese. I will be meeting with the priests of the Diocese in Ballykisteen later in the week to review some of the issues raised at the Synod. Among our considerations will be the topic of finance! In due course, we will be gathering Finance Committees to look at issues around funding and the financing of initiatives suggested by the Synod.
Yes, there have been developments. I think we should also say to ourselves that a Synod isn’t about a letter of the law. Pope Francis has a mysterious saying that “time is greater than space”. He means we mustn’t try to hold on to things, possess them, but rather begin processes that start a dynamic. That is what we’ll be doing in the coming years. I know several parishes have already begun to reflect on what the Synod means for their parish and how they might take inspiration from the Synod.
An Event with No Going Back!
The Prophet Isaiah (Is 43: 18) presents the words of God: “Behold I am doing something new. Look, do you not see it?”. I have been increasingly struck a word that is associated with Pope Francis – “Reform”. We need a reform of the way we go about shaping our Christian life in parishes, among parishes, in our outreach to other agencies in society. But not just parishes. There are groups, associations, movement, councils, committees, social and spiritual initiatives of all sorts in the Diocese. All of these expressions of Church need the spirit of Reform that our Diocesan Synod has also indicated. All the while the focus has to be mission. That also means, living a certain poverty. In some ways, we won’t have the institutional or society-based supports of the past. That’s a form of poverty. But there’s also the poverty of heart and mind that St Francis spoke about, knowing how to set aside our own riches of traditions, ways of doing things, personal likes and dislikes, opening to new ways.
Pope Francis: ‘The Church which “goes forth” is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step… An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative, he has loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19), and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others… (EG, 24)… I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are. “Mere administration” can no longer be enough. Throughout the world, let us be “permanently in a state of mission” (EG, 25).’