Reflections on the recent meetings on pastoral planning and financial support in the Archdiocese of Dublin

30 Nov 2011



Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin

Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland

In the months of November and December we held meetings in each of the five pastoral areas of the Archdiocese of Dublin looking at some aspects of future pastoral planning and at the financial situation in parishes and in the diocese.

Priests, members of Parish Pastoral Councils and Parish Finance Committees were invited to these meetings.   As I said at each of the meetings, the work of Parish Finance Committees has effected a real change in the life of the Church in Dublin. Slowly and quietly they have been carrying on a quiet revolution in the way in which Parish Finances are monitored and managed.  I look now to that expertise to help us to see how we can use our resources most effectively to ensure that, in times which are difficult for all, we can maintain the highest quality pastoral services for the people of the diocese.

Every parish is obliged to have its own Finance Committee which is separate from the Parish Pastoral Council.  The two, of course, should work together.

The five meetings showed that ministry in our diocese today is very much based on a collaborative model.  Our parishes are staffed by diocesan priests and priests from religious congregations.  Parish Pastoral Councils have enriched parish life.  Parish Sisters and now full time lay Parish Pastoral Workers contribute to the work of faith formation and evangelization in our parishes. Parish secretaries provide vital support, along with sacristans and a wide variety of men and women who give their services on a voluntary basis.

At these area meetings I spoke about the future.  The future will bring with it difficult and changing times.  But that does not mean that I am not confident that we can and will be able to address the challenges of the future effectively.   The challenges – pastoral and financial – are uncharted territory and will require:

* lucid analysis of the current situation and future trends;
* the courage to address the real issues;
* the courage to set aside things to which we may have become attached but which are no longer possible or desirable;
* the courage to cast out into the deep in new ways, knowing that the Lord will always be present with us.

Each of us knows that the world of 2020 will be a very different one to the one in which we live today.  Each of the five pastoral areas in the Archdiocese has in its own way experienced great change over recent years.  The demographics of many parts of the diocese have changed.  The change that will take place between now and the year 2020 – just eight years away – will be enormous. I am more and more convinced that they will be the most challenging years that the diocese has had to face since Catholic Emancipation.

There is a real change in the religious culture of this Diocese.  There is a tendency in all our Western societies to reduce religious faith to being a purely private matter and Ireland has not escaped this tendency.  We live today in a society which is clearly much more pluralist than that of past years.  This does not mean that religious faith has no relevance for the society in which we live.  Pluralism is not the same as secularism, but in today’s Ireland we live our faith in a society where pluralism involves a real encounter and at times even confrontation with secularism.

Societies like our own where faith and the Christian life once flourished and faith communities were strong are now undergoing a far-reaching transformation.   Today we encounter not so much a situation in which people are torn between two realities, one God’s and the other Caesar’s, but a world in which in many ways the reality of God is slowly being eclipsed and men and women live their lives as if God does not exist.  It is not so much an atmosphere of hostility towards faith, but an attitude of indifference or one which tolerates a presence for God in the private lives of individuals but much less within the realities of our society.

Our Western societies are marked by a growing loss of the sense of God and of the sacred. At times this loss of the sacred encroaches also into the life of the Church and of our faith.  Some of the very foundations of our faith are challenged: the existence of a God who cares for us; the realization that Jesus Christ is the one Saviour; a common understanding of what it is to be a human person and of the fundamental common ethical principles which should guide our coexistence.  Even the self-understanding of the faith of many believers has often been almost unbeknown to ourselves affected by – and maybe even distorted by – a secularised mind set.

More and more people are coming to a decision that they can live without any direct reference to God.  Many of them will still turn to the Church in special moments in their lives.  But the numbers of the un-churched is growing with each generation and their affection for the Church and their knowledge of its message will be lessened as the years pass.

In such a situation there is the danger that men and women of faith also develop a fear of witnessing to their faith in the structures of society, a fear of somehow offending others or of offending pluralism and thus in their own way they contribute to the privatisation of faith.

We in Ireland have to face these questions in the light of the particular situation of Irish religious culture. The Church in the Archdiocese of Dublin has had to address a sad and indeed humiliating chapter of its past in which the most innocent were abused within our Church community.  Renewal must travel a penitential path.

For so long we considered that the strength of our Irish Catholicism was in our numbers.  The dominant presence of Christian belief in Irish society meant that Irish society itself was a valid instrument for passing on the faith from one generation to the next.  But we failed to notice the change that was taking place

The cultural infrastructure which for decades supported belief and the transmission of the faith began slowly to show signs of wear and tear but we failed to realise just how widespread the damage to that structure had become. People began to drift away from Church practice.  For many the recent sexual abuse scandals – and the mismanagement of the response to them – were the final disillusionment with the Church and from indifference they moved to anger at the Church.

We are going down a road which is uncharted.  That can be un-nerving and we can be tempted to retreat into the comfort zone of the familiar.  We have to journey together; we have to journey in a spirit of hope; we have to recognise clearly where things have changed for the better and very much for the better. We have to look at the challenges we face but we should not overlook the signs of hope that are present within the Church in Dublin.  Numbers attending Church may be down, but there are parishes which have never been as vibrant in their history as they are today.

When we reflect on our working together for the mission of the Church we have to remember that our call to mission does not come from me as Archbishop or from your parish leadership.    It is the Lord who calls us, each of us.  Our answer cannot be just one of conformism with the past, much less negativity.  The Lord himself inspires creativity and newness in our hearts if we open them to him.

Everywhere I go in these weeks I am asking people the same question:  “Do you really know Jesus?”    It is a question which surprises people to be asked at Church gatherings.  You can see on their faces that they seem to be saying “we would not be here if we did not know Jesus Christ; that is why we come to Church”.  At the same time I can see that people are slightly stopped in their tracks and they begin to ask themselves: “what is the Archbishop really saying to me?

* Am I clear in my own mind about who Jesus is and what Jesus Christ really means to me in my life?
*  How do I come to know Jesus Christ?
* What do I do to deepen my knowledge of Jesus Christ and my relationship with him?
* Do I really know the scriptures?
* How does my knowledge of Jesus and my relationship with him become an adult relationship, different to that which I learned at school?
*  Am I prepared to share something of that adult relationship with Jesus with others, especially those who have drifted away from faith and practice?”

We cannot meekly accept that a continual decline in numbers talking part in Church life is just something we take for granted.  We have to reach out to win people back.  We do that in the first place by renewing the way we live our own faith.

The individualism of our culture can lead us to have a totally individualistic spirituality and an individualistic notion of what being a follower of Jesus means.  Jesus is not an idea, but a person.  Jesus is to be found not in books, but within a faith community and in a tradition and a history which is relevant for our times.

We have started on our path to renewal.  But there is no doubt that we do not have in place the type of structures that we need today for on-going religious education for people of all ages.  The new National Directory for Catechesis Sharing the Good News illustrates something of the new way in which the parish must become the focal point of faith formation for the men and women of tomorrow.   The task of evangelization is the most challenging we have to face.  It will require new approaches.

* I ask all parishes to reflect on how we can enhance our programmes of evangelization.

Religious education can no longer be considered just a matter for the school.  With the on-going secularisation of society even Catholic schools will no longer be able on their own to provide for the religious education of young people and their insertion into the life of the Church.   I am not playing down the role of schools.  I have, if anything, been heartened over the past months to encounter a number of schools which are actually making that breakthrough from formal education in religious knowledge into willingness on the part of young people to deepen their faith and to live out their faith.

The “John Paul II Awards” project which has been launched recently in this diocese is a very simple programme which encourages young people to become involved in their parishes.  I have asked Catholic Youth Care to spread the programme more extensively.   One of the reasons why young people do not become more involved in the work of their parishes is that they feel very much left on their own.  Parents know well how difficult it is to pass the faith from one generation to the next.  Parents know the alienation from the Church that many young people experience or their indifference or indeed their anger at what happened in the Church.  But often in our parishes we do not reach out to our young people.

* Each parish and group of parishes should be actively re-examining how it can reach out to and welcome young people into parish life and give young people responsibility in parish life.

All of this change takes place in a situation in which the number of priests is going down.  Priests are getting older and priests are under pressure from an increased workload and a changing culture. Questions must inevitably be asked about how we can continue to provide the levels of service to which we have been accustomed.

We need to work together to establishing a culture of the Church as family in which we all support one another and work together.  We need to reflect what the diocesan family means and what the parish family means and what parish networking as an extended family means in working together for mission.  We need to be looking towards a vision of collaborative ministry.  Faith is not a private possession to be kept for ourselves.  No priest, no parish, no bishop can today just think about themselves and their own needs and overlook what is happening next door to them and  around them.

  * I ask each parish and grouping of parishes to reflect on what collaborative ministry means in its particular situation.  How can parishes together form teams of catechists to lead parish programmes of religious formation?

The changing religious culture in our diocese has repercussions on the finances of the diocese.  The Diocesan Council of Priests has begun to address the question and with these Area gatherings that dialogue now begins to reach out further.

Our finances come almost exclusively from the generous offering of our people.  We have very few other sources of income.  Smaller attendance at Mass inevitably has an effect on the contributions that come from the faithful.  This occurs at a time in which many people have lost their jobs and in which there is less disposable income for all and where there is an increasing need of support for a wide range of voluntary charities as government support for social services will inevitably shrink. We have to think in terms of financial sustainability, but also about moderation in all our spending at this moment when so many families are facing harsh economic challenges.

Kieran O’Farrell, the Diocesan Financial Administrator, has provided an overview about the state of parish and diocesan finances.  It is a complex picture and I hope that the information which is now available on the Diocesan Web-site will help the priests and the people of the diocese to understand better where exactly we are.

I am concerned about the decrease in contributions to the First collection at our Sunday Masses which constitutes the primary basis for the remuneration of priests throughout the diocese.  If the current situation endures the fall in priests’ salaries is likely to go substantially beyond the general drop in income among the population.

It is generally agreed that we need to augment the work of priests by some paid lay pastoral workers.  The experiment which we have launched in Dublin is pioneering.  We also need parish catechists to lead in the faith formation of our communities and in the sacramental preparation of children, especially where increasing numbers will be attending other than Catholic schools.  Some of this work can be done by voluntary effort, but volunteers have to be trained and formed and coordinated.

Some parishes or groupings of parishes may have the ability to provide such services themselves.  As Archbishop, I have the responsibility to ensure as far as possible that all parishes – and especially those in economically deprived areas – receive the same quality of service from the diocese and are offered the same opportunity to deepen and pass on the faith.

I am now asking parishes to reflect on the information that has been provided.  If the information made available is not clear or is not sufficient, please do not hesitate to come back to the Financial Administrator.  Early in the New Year we will begin the process of taking these first reflections a step further.

The situation in the Archdiocese of Dublin is not dissimilar to that in other dioceses across the world.  Sunday Mass attendance has gone down noticeably in the past years.  On any given Sunday about 18% of the Catholic population will attend Mass.  Some will come to Mass regularly but not on a weekly basis. The drop in Mass attendance among young people is particularly worrying.

As in other parts of the world, we need a radical renewal of how we evangelize, that is how we win men and women of all ages for the person of Jesus Christ.  This evangelization must take place within every community in the Church, looking back to the model illustrated in the Acts of the Apostles: gathering to listen to the word of God and the teaching of the Apostles, for prayer and for the breaking of the bread in the Eucharist and then through the special sharing and care of the needy which should be a mark of each community.

    * I wish to thank all those who took part in our five area meetings.  I thank you for your frankness and I repeat that I look forward to realistic and creative answers to the questions that were presented.  

We have begun our preparation for Christmas.  This Christmas will be a difficult one for many in our society.  The people of the Archdiocese have an extraordinary record for generosity to those less fortunate than themselves.  I know that that generosity will be evident once again this year.

May all of us experience joy in our celebration of the birth of Jesus and learn from it as a time to rediscover the joy that comes from simplicity and generosity of life.