Personal reflection of a diocesan bishop by Bishop Christy Jones on the occasion of the Elphin Diocesan Pilgrimage to the Marian Shrine of Knock
I have been invited to share with you some reflections on my life as a Bishop. Of the many rich experiences I could share with you, I have decided to speak about a few: the participation of lay-people in the life of the church; reaching out to our youth; the challenges of rapid social and economic changes and our response to scandals within the church.
I feel very fortunate that as the second youngest of a family of eleven I had, as a child, been formed in a home of love, faith and prayer. I am also always grateful for the quality of education I received in Summerhill College in Sligo. Later, I embarked on discerning God’s call to priesthood in St Patrick’s College Maynooth and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Elphin. Over the years, I worked in parishes, taught in my old alma mater – Summerhill College. I also helped found and manage Sligo Social Services for many years and was administrator of the Cathedral Parish in Sligo before being appointed Bishop in 1994.
On this very day, the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, sixteen years ago, I was ordained bishop. It was a day that in a very real sense was to change my life. During the ceremony, I remember the ordaining bishop addressing me as follows:
As a father and brother love all those whom God places in your care. Love the poor and infirm, the stranger and the homeless. The title of bishop is not one of honour but of function. Therefore a bishop should strive to serve rather than rule.
Then he ended with the words:
Attend to the whole flock in which the Holy Spirit appoints you as overseer of the Church of God in the name of the Son Jesus Christ whose role of teacher, priest and shepherd you undertake and In the name of the Holy Spirit who gives life to the Church of Christ and supports our weakness with His strength.
I remember feeling truly humbled and truly unworthy at that moment. However, at the same time, I did believe that the Lord was calling me and that he would be with me all the way. That is why I chose for my motto: “Fiat Mihi”. Those words were Mary’s response to the Angel Gabrielle: “Be it done unto me according to your word”. I was saying to the Lord: “Yes, if this is your wish … but I will be trusting and depending on you to the end”.
I can honestly say sixteen years later that I have trusted in the God who called me that day, I am still trusting in Him and He has never failed me. The times when I feel fearful or worried are the times when I begin to depend on my own strength and resources. I feel fearful and worried because I know how limited I am, how selfish and indeed how weak and sinful I can be. It is then that I must return to my motto “Fiat Mihi”.
The Second Vatican Council
As I look back I can truly say that I have very happy memories of my years as bishop. I was ordained priest in June 1962 just months before the Second Vatican Council opened in Rome. Therefore the teaching of the Council has been part of my priestly life from the very beginning. My years as a priest working every day in Sligo Social Services Centre with staff and our many hundreds of volunteers gave me a great insight into the gifts, talents, goodness and competence of lay people.
The documents of Vatican II proclaimed the importance for the Church that lay people – men and women, young and old should, because of their baptism, take their rightful role and responsibility in the life of the Church. I believe in my heart that the more lay people participate in the life and ministry of the Church, the more their lives will be enriched and the more energy and dynamism they will bring to the life of the Church generally.
Participation of Laity
From my first days as bishop, with the total support of priests and religious, we endeavoured in every way to prepare the lay people of the diocese for a more active role in the life of the Church. We knew that it would be difficult to change the “mind-set” of centuries. We brought lay people and priests from other dioceses to share their experiences especially of what was succeeding. We set up a group of priests, religious and lay people to establish an office for parish development and renewal and to appoint a full time lay person as its director. A competent married lay man was chosen to head up the venture. In time, the group of people evolved into the Elphin Pastoral Planning Group and to this day they plan, monitor and support our director of Parish Development and Renewal in promoting more active participation of the laity in the life of the church.
It is very difficult to measure results but thank God we now have a Parish Pastoral Council composed of laity working in collaboration with their priests in almost every parish of the diocese. We also have a restructured Diocesan Pastoral Council representative of lay people, priests and religious. In my eyes, this is the most important Council in the diocese. Chaired, by a lay woman, it is the hub of diocesan pastoral listening, planning and activity.
As I look down at our Congregation every Sunday I imagine and dream of what could be achieved if each lay person present took their rightful active part in living and promoting the mission of the Church as a herald of good news for our challenging and changing times. I know people who are praying and back again at Mass because of something a friend said to them at work.
Impact of Economic and Social Change
I have seen huge change in the faith and prayer life of our people during periods of economic boom in our country: firstly in the 1960’s and 1970’s and then in the 1990’s. It was great to see full employment and much prosperity but very rapidly things material preoccupied the minds and hearts of people. God and the good news of the Gospel was often pushed from the centre to the sidelines of life.
Many invested all of their time, effort and energy in their jobs, houses, cars etc. and took their relationships for granted. Yet life itself teaches us that our real happiness and joy comes not from things like jobs, houses or cars, however important they are, but from our happy relationships with each other and with our God. Likewise our greatest suffering and pain comes not from the loss of a job, car or house but from broken and betrayed relationships. Relationships do not happen. Parents and children must make relationships happen. They must work hard to acquire the gifts – the building blocks of all relationships – of acceptance, trust, tolerance, patience, forgiveness and love.
Our heart goes out today to individuals and families who are suffering from unemployment and huge mortgages and we must do everything in our power to help. Maybe in those difficult times our people will rediscover the importance of having time for themselves and for their God once more.
The Challenge of the Young
It truly saddens me to hear that Catholic children are coming to school today who cannot make the sign of the cross or recite any simple prayer. Some children see the inside of the Church for the first time when they come for First Communion. It saddens me also that children do not have that Sunday morning experience of the faith community at Mass in the Church, of the chat with neighbours outside the Church and the only Irish breakfast of the week afterwards. The supermarket seems to have become the place of worship for many families on a Sunday. Again we must try in every way to reach out to those parents and encourage them to take an active part in the evangelization of their children.
From my studies in sociology as a young priest, I learned how Durkheim was one of the first social scientists to carry out a scientific survey. It was on suicide. He found that in times of rapid social change people are isolated from great sources of support e.g. the local community and the family. They are left without any norms or guidelines. They find themselves in a state of “Anomie” which means a normless vacuum. I think many of our young people are in this situation. From my experience as Bishop, I can truly say that the vast majority of young people today are remarkable. They are very honest and have a great concern for justice and for the poor and especially the poor of developing nations.
They have close friends who are important to them – but if friends fail and they may not have family, community or Church support – then they may find themselves in a dark place and often do not even have the support of faith.
Bridging the Gap
Since my teaching days, I miss very much contact with young people. Sadly our current culture with its ever growing generation gaps means that today young people are rarely present where adults are gathered. Sadly commercial interests have succeeded so well in isolating youth from adults so they can target their pockets. Each year our diocese brings between eighty and one hundred wonderful young people with us on our pilgrimage to Lourdes. I always look forward to the opportunity this gives me to sit down and chat over a cup of coffee with the young people present about their lives.
Young people tell me that there, in Lourdes, they see the Church community at its best with beautiful liturgies and caring for the sick and the suffering. They also experience a sense of belonging to their peers in Lourdes, to the adult leaders and indeed to the pilgrimage community. Most of them tell me they wish to return the following year.
Our diocese has built a state of the art youth club at the centre of Sligo City. We have also established a diocesan youth office at St Mary’s, Sligo, and appointed a diocesan youth director. The ongoing challenge is for each parish to find ways and means of involving their young people in the life of the parish community, perhaps as readers in the Church, as Eucharistic Ministers, as Faith Friends, raising money for the poor at home and in the Third World.
Most Enjoyable Experience as Bishop
People often ask me what work as a Bishop I find most enjoyable. I would have to say parish visitation. It is very tiring but most rewarding. Every three years, I try to visit each parish of the diocese.
It gives me a great opportunity to meet with the local priests on their own ground. Thank God to date I have always received a warm welcome. I am always amazed at the knowledge every priest has of his parish, the people and the life story of each person. We should really celebrate and thank God for our priests who continue to minister so joyfully despite what they are suffering in these difficult dark days.
I visit the primary schools before lunch. Today they are places of joy and not of fear as they were in our day. The buildings and facilities are state of the Art and the principal and teachers obviously love the children entrusted to their care. Joy literally radiates from the eyes of the children as you talk to them. It was great to read Sarah Carey in The Irish Times last year saying that our primary schools were the envy of countries in Europe.
After lunch, I bring the Eucharist to those who are sick and housebound. Those people are not thinking about profit or property or power. It is a joy to see how they welcome Jesus into their homes and into their hearts. Your faith is really refreshed and strengthened by the experience.
It is great also to see how many families care for their sick and their aged. Some have to make huge sacrifices to keep their aged parents at home. Then of course our parents made huge sacrifices for us when we were children. They would have died for us.
Reasons for Hope and Joy
Although I may be coming near the end of my time as bishop – the effort of renewal and ministry continues with new and exciting developments. Recently as a diocese we decided to restore the Permanent Diaconate and to introduce dedicated catechists in some of our parishes. I am grateful to God that at this time we have seven men in our diocese preparing for the permanent diaconate. It is astonishing that in such a secular society we still have people in the world of business and in the professions willing to offer themselves as candidates for the permanent diaconate. As you know once they are ordained, deacons, they will preach the Gospel and minister at Baptisms, Marriages and Funerals. This September our first full time catechist – a young married woman will begin work in two of the largest parishes in the diocese. Catechists will help all members of the Christian community discover the richness of their faith and help them to share it with others Please pray for them. I am certain that as deacons and Catechists they will enrich the ministry of the Church in our diocese and be a real bond between priests and lay people.
Reasons for Sadness
I hope, in the light of what I have said, that you get some small idea of what my life has been like as bishop! It has been hard work every day all the way but very gratifying work. With the support and guidance of priests, religious and lay people it is truly amazing what a diocese can achieve.
Throughout the sixteen years a dark heavy cloud of regret embarrassment and shame has engulfed the Catholic Church in Ireland. Nothing deliberately designed by individuals or a group of individuals could have caused such suffering to children and could have so undermined the trust of people in their Church as the scandals of child sexual abuse by priests and religious.
Our greatest anxiety and care has to be for the victims – the children who have suffered so much hurt and pain. As Church we must never cease to express our sincere regret, our apology, our shame and our horror at what has been done to children so loved by Jesus Christ. Indeed Jesus continues to suffer in the children abused. We must do everything possible as a Church through counselling and therapy to help the healing of victims and their return to health. In every parish of the country we are putting in place policies and procedures that will prevent children from ever again being abused by bishops, priests, religious or indeed any lay people who work as volunteers with the Church. And we must do everything in our power to help with the spiritual hurts and needs of victims wherever they seek such help.
The Church Continues
Anyone who knows anything about the history of the Catholic Church knows that through the centuries the Church has been failed by popes, bishops, priests and religious. Yes all of us fail the Church from time to time because we are sinners. However through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus continues to live in the Church and, through the Church, He continues to preach and teach to heal and forgive in our day.
The Church will survive because Christ has promised to remain with us forever. The Church was here before we came along. It will be here long after we are gone. Every generation including our own is called through prayer and care of our neighbour to help people discover Jesus in their hearts and homes and in every person they meet every day.
Notes for Editors
- Bishop Christopher Jones is Bishop of the Diocese of Elphin. Bishop Jones was ordained a priest on 21 June 1962 and ordained bishop on this day, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, 15 August 1994. Many bishops lead their dioceses on pilgrimage to Ireland’s Marian Shrine during August.
- The Diocese of Elphin includes portions of counties Roscommon, Sligo, Westmeath and Galway. The Cathedral Church for the diocese is the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Sligo. The diocese has a Catholic population of about 70,000, 38 parishes and 90 Catholic Churches. The Patrons of the Diocese of Elphin are St Asicus and Immaculate Conception.
- Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin or the taking up of Mary into heaven. The Church has celebrated this feast since about the tenth century. Pope Pius XII proclaimed as a solemn teaching in 1950 that “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul to heavenly glory.”
Martin Long, Director of Communications 086 172 7678