Bishop Noel Treanor’s Pastoral Letter for Easter 2014

19 Apr 2014

The Lights of Heaven Our Parishioners, Priests and Parishes, Easter Pastoral Letter 2014

Easter Greetings

With this Pastoral Letter I wish to greet parishioners and readers in this Easter season.

The liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday lead us to encounter and celebrate the saving mystery of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. As we take part in the ceremonies of these great days, we re-live the drama of the salvation of mankind.

The Easter fire revives our memory of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The Paschal candle and its flame signal the mission we have as parishes, parishioners and individual Christians who make up the Church:

Therefore, O Lord,

we pray you that this candle

hallowed to the honour of your name

may persevere undimmed,

to overcome the darkness of this night.

Receive it as a pleasing fragrance

and let it mingle with the lights of heaven

(Easter Proclamation, Exultet)

We are Easter people: each year we receive in our parish Churches the Easter candle. We salute the Paschal candle, representing the light of the Risen Christ, as the great Easter hymn, the Exultet, is proclaimed. As the Paschal candle burns throughout the year, it guides us with the light of the risen Christ in our prayer, liturgies, work and charity. It throws the light of Christ over the mission of our parishes which is to make the love of God, made known to us in Christ, present in our world through living and welcoming Church parishes and communities.

The Listening Process, the Diocesan Congress in September 2013 and the current Diocesan Review are ways of holding the Easter candle high. With these events we turn our eyes and minds to the “lights of heaven” so that we may “see into the life of things” here on earth!

Christ yesterday, today and forever

Each generation inherits the task of evangelising and re-evangelising its own age. Each individual is called by baptism to come to know Jesus Christ as Son of God, as the historical person who enables us to glimpse and see godliness. On the pages and scenes of the New Testament we meet the person of Jesus. His words and actions speak to us of his Father. In their letters St Paul, St John and St James spell out the spiritual and social import of the Good News proclaimed by Jesus and recalled in the gospels.

It is up to each local Church to play its part actively in proclaiming and living out this Good News in its time and place. How are we to do this in the diocese of Down and Connor and in each one of its parishes in this second decade of the twenty-first century? How are we to follow in the footsteps of our parents and grandparents who handed on knowledge of Jesus Christ to us and knew the irreplaceable value of the Christian way of life? How do we exercise responsibility for appreciating, knowing, celebrating and living the Christian life in the circumstances of our times?

These issues and questions are pertinent and pressing, for our generation has seen many and profound changes that affect the way we live, communicate, understand and relate to each other. And significant changes have taken place in how we experience the life and work of the Church.

The Listening Process and the Living Church project have set us on the way to working with these issues which are determinative for the life of our local Church in the coming decades. In order to know more about pastoral practice and needs throughout our parishes and to base planning for the future on facts, in the first three weeks of Lent we conducted a Pastoral Review in every parish in the diocese. We wanted to have a good solid statistical basis to help plan for the future.

I was told that someone was overheard saying; ‘This is just to get us ready for when they close our church.’ People will have many different ideas, hopes and fears about the future but I can say honestly that we have no preconceived ideas about what is going to happen. What I do know is that we, all of us who love the Church, have a duty to ponder deeply, speak honestly and pray for wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Our time – a turning point towards renewal?

We are living at a great time in the history of the Church not only in our own diocese, but also in the universal Church. None of us who were present at the Diocesan Congress last September could have missed the experience of consolation, encouragement and enthusiasm that was the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Gathering together as committed Catholics generated an energy among us that took many of us by surprise. That was equally true for the 1,700 adults who gathered on Saturday, 28th September and the 1,700 Year 8 pupils who enjoyed their own programme the previous day. The Congress was a staging post along the journey of the Living Church in the diocese, a process in which we are being slowly but surely called into a new era of co-responsibility, of openness and welcome and of missionary commitment to pass on the great and living gift of our faith in Jesus Christ.

At the level of the Universal Church Pope Francis is calling us all to a radical renewal of our understanding of the Church (“a poor Church for the poor”) and to a fresh sense of ourselves as missionaries sent to preach the Gospel especially to people on the outer edges of the Church and of society. ‘Christians have the duty,’ he says, ‘to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction.’ Pope Francis wants us to see our faith as radical and dynamic, but at the same time as a way of life that is possible and attainable with the help of the Holy Spirit.

A constant theme of Pope Francis is his conviction that a Church that is constantly turned in on itself becomes unhealthy. For that reason the guiding principle of the Review and of our diocesan forward planning must be outward looking and missionary. If we are excessively turned in on the needs of our own parish or of our own diocese, we will have missed the lesson of this moment which God is inviting us to live through.

Flame still burning

It is vital to remind ourselves that the Church is something much deeper and much more resilient that we could imagine. ‘The Church is a kind of sacrament, alive with an inner life given by God, and this is expressed concretely in a community of people who strive to be the contemporary disciples of Jesus.’ Since our Church is indeed a living organism with the Spirit of God at its core, like any organism it will be able to adapt to the needs and challenges of the different periods of history through which it passes. The times in which we are living are presenting us with new and exciting possibilities as well as great challenges.

My experience in these last six years as Bishop of Down and Connor fills me with hope when I think of the great numbers of our lay faithful who are coming forward and expressing a desire to serve the Lord in his Church. I think first of the vast numbers of the faithful who all through the years have worked to pass on the faith, care for the poor and the sick, build and care for our churches, foster community and give generously to worthwhile causes at home and overseas. In these last few years, all across the diocese many people are responding enthusiastically as the Holy Spirit moves us into a new era of ‘co-responsibility’ involving priests and parishioners in new ventures for the life of the Church. People are striving to make our parishes places of welcome and there is a new sense of urgency about fostering the faith among our children and young people. In recent years we have ordained a number of young men to the priesthood and others are offering themselves for priestly service in our diocese. It is literally a wonderful – indeed awesome – thing that so many of us of all ages want to love God, delight in the gift of the faith and are eager to find ways to build God’s kingdom and reveal the Living Church. The present is full of promise as well as trials and the future is rich with possibilities.

Present Challenges: imagining some responses in our parishes and vicariates

There are of course massive challenges to be addressed. Some of them come readily to mind:

We all know that the numbers of young men and women coming forward for service in the priesthood and in the consecrated life are drastically fewer than they were in previous decades. In time this will impact heavily on the deployment of priests in parishes. Already priests know the pressure of dwindling numbers of clergy. Within a very short time parishioners will become keenly, if not painfully, aware of the impact of the shortage of priests.

The numbers of people who share regularly in our worship and in parish life has equally fallen significantly. Living liturgy, prayer and devotion express, nourish and refresh our faith in Jesus Christ. At Mass we re-live and encounter the saving mysteries of our salvation and we are bonded as a people of faith in the Word of God, the sacrament of the Eucharist and in being sent out to live the Christian life in our lives and in society.

Whilst many of our teenagers and young adults give powerful and selfless witness to Christian charity and enterprise for the poor and underdeveloped countries, we and they have work to do to build up our knowledge and appreciation of the content of the Christian faith. Whilst our schools produce highly educated and informed young students in the natural sciences, a commensurate knowledge of the Christian tradition, the scriptures and the sacraments is not achieved. Teaching and nourishing the vocabulary and grammar of the Christian faith for our times constitutes a core challenge for the Catholic family and home, for the Catholic school and for third level Catholic colleges. We need to address this issue at parish level and not just leave it to teachers and Catholic educationalists as if they alone carry responsibility in this field of handing on knowledge of the Christian faith.

In the shadow of the financial and banking crisis which has given rise to immense suffering for many, to much debate about governance of the economy as a public good, to discussion about justice and ethics in finance and banking, we have been re-awakened to the great, yet little known tradition of Catholic Social Thought and Teaching. Our youth, our trainee teachers, our university students who will shape the institutions of tomorrow’s economy, society and states deserve inspirational guidance to discover this long tradition of the application of the gospel message to the local, national and global economy and their governance. Something of this great tradition must be made available through new and imaginative initiatives at parish, or more probably, at vicariate level.

We live on the north-eastern corner of the island of Ireland. The figure of St Columbanus, who sailed from Bangor at the end of the sixth century to establish monasteries and re-evangelise areas of Europe, proclaims the vibrant link of our local Church with the wider universal Church. With our children and youth we need to re-discover our local, rich Christian heritage. In century after century it has enriched life here and world-wide.

Inspired by Columbanus and missionary religious of our own times we need to take stock of global Christianity and especially of the vitality of the young Churches in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Religious faith is not dead or dying. The secularist narrative has not delivered fruit. This does not mean that Christians may resort to simply repeating trite formulae to give an account of the faith that is within us. More is needed in our time. Our parishes and vicariates need to devise ways of offering parishioners and interested persons ways of growing in awareness and knowledge of Christian thought and reflection on the content of the faith.

Great efforts are needed in catechesis for children, youth and for all phases of adulthood because of the profound and interdependent cultural, scientific, technological and social changes that have occurred in recent decades. These changes have impacted on our way of living, on our way of being human, on how we organise our lives as individuals and families, on how we experience and contribute to society and on our expectations in regard to society, the state, politics and even the Church. These changes impact on our sense of personhood. They have immense implications in terms of how we foster, promote, protect and respect our personal dignity as individual persons in all circumstances in time, place and in cyber space. The parish community is well placed to provide spaces and contexts for exploring and addressing such issues.

In our info-tech global village peoples, races and nations are now more inter-dependent than ever before. It is vital that at each stage of our personal development we continue to build an informed understanding and appreciation of the uniqueness of the Christian vision of God, of the Christian understanding of the human person and of the biblical and Christian insight into the human condition. Our parish liturgies celebrate our universal brotherhood and sisterhood with all in Christ. Our parishes, many of which reflect the presence of numerous cultures and ethnicities in our neighbourhoods, are called to become places of open and warm welcome to all without exception. The faith-inspired dynamic at the heart of our parishes lubricates and deepens the quality of our citizenship of local, national and global society.

The current Diocesan Review

It is against this background of great possibility and serious challenge that we have conducted our Diocesan Pastoral Review. We all recognise that we are going to have to do things differently in the future. As we digest the findings of the review in the coming weeks and months please God some clear indicators of the way forward will become clear to us.

I do not want our choices to be understood as nothing more than the expediency of dealing with the falling number of priests. That is part of it and indeed the care of our clergy is one of the priorities of our Diocesan Pastoral Plan. Therefore where our priests are burdened beyond what is good for their spiritual, emotional and physical health, we must look for new ways of proceeding.

The other side of the picture tells us that we have great gifts and charisms within our communities and we must look for ways to release these gifts and allow them to flourish in the service of all. It is my hope that we will become more adept at recognising the talents and the generosity within our parishes and across parish boundaries. In other parts of the world and, indeed, in other dioceses in Ireland, the situation where it is not possible to provide a resident priest in every parish has already been faced and dealt with in a variety of different ways.

Grouping Parishes in Pastoral Areas for Mission

In a booklet published by the Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development of the Irish Episcopal Conference in 2011 there is an account of the different approaches possible in accordance with Canon Law. There are a variety of different models.

The standard model for local church organisation is the situation where every parish is entrusted to the care of its own parish priest by the diocesan Bishop. (Canon 515) That has been the experience everywhere in Ireland for almost two hundred years. Before that, of course, Catholics lived in less settled times and circumstances.

 A second model is where a number of parishes share one Parish Priest. It is estimated that nearly half of the parishes and missions in the United States of America share their Parish Priest with a neighbouring parish or parishes. This works well when priests and people are well supported to manage the process, where there is clarity about the role of the Parish Priest and where the lay faithful are empowered to play their proper and essential part in caring for the life and mission of the parish. There must be ongoing care for the relationships between the Parish Priest and those engaged in pastoral work. (Canon 526.1)

A third model involves Team Ministry where a group of priests work together in the leadership of a cluster of parishes with one of them acting as ‘Moderator’ of the team and he is responsible to the Bishop. The Archdiocese of Dublin and the Diocese of Killaloe have both implemented this model in some areas and their various experiences can offer us models and pointers to consider. This model only works well when all those involved are willing to cooperate together; decisions are best reached through prayerful discernment rather than notions of parliamentary democracy; All the participants, clerical and lay, need to be ‘team players’. (Canons 517.1, 542, 543)

Other models envisage a situation in which a deacon, a layperson, a religious or a group of laypersons/religious (Canon 517.2) can share in the pastoral leadership of a parish under the direction of a Parish Priest.

 As we look towards a future marked by greater cooperation all across the diocese we can learn from the experience of other dioceses and develop models and approaches that best suit our circumstances.

The Diaconate

After consultation with the Council of Priests I have decided to introduce the Permanent Diaconate into the diocese. A number of men will, please God, begin formation in September of this year and others in the coming years. The diaconate, with its roots in the church of the Apostles, is a very particular ministry with an emphasis on service, particularly of the poor. I am very confident that Deacons will play their distinctive role in our planning and building for the future. It is my hope that as men grounded in the worlds of work and family they will be particularly well placed to facilitate and encourage an ever fuller participation in the Church’s mission of all the lay faithful. It is to be hoped that deacons in their work of service will contribute to promoting initiatives such as those alluded to above at parish and vicariate level.

Our parishes today and into the future

This is a time for us all to consider deeply how we live together as fellow believers. What does membership of a Catholic parish mean to me? Pope John Paul ll once wrote that the parish is, ‘not principally a structure, a territory, or a building, but rather the family of God, a fellowship afire with a unifying spirit, a familial and welcoming home.’ He sees our parish life as a fellowship on fire with the Holy Spirit. That fire is already lit in our parishes where people gather faithfully to worship, to organise groups for prayer and study, to care for the poor and visit the sick, the elderly and the housebound. The fire burns more brightly when we reach out to reconcile with old enemies and when we provide a welcome to those who are estranged from us or feel excluded.

The fire will burn brightest when it overflows in the joyful proclamation of the Good News about Jesus to those who have drifted away from him or to those who have never heard of him. It is my prayer that the beginning, middle and end of all our planning will be guided by the Holy Spirit who is that fire.

In the words and spirit of the Easter Hymn, the Exultet, let us receive anew this year the Easter candle, “ a fire in so many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light”. In each parish and vicariate of our diocese :

May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star : the one Morning Star who never sets Christ your Son, who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity and lives and reigns for ever and ever

It is for each one of us to discern what role we can play to help and support the work of Christ in our parishes at this point on our life’s path. It may be by being an active, prayerful and responsible parent. It may be by resuming regular Sunday practice again, by re-discovering the beauty and spiritual energy of the Christian lifestyle and in due course by helping others to do the same. Or it may be by offering generously of your talents and time as a couple, or as a married or a single person, to support one of the numerous Church agencies or organisations which give irreplaceable service to promoting the common good of humanity. By our baptism we are called and commissioned to be active members of the body of Christ, made present in time and in the world by our active membership of the Church. This Easter time I invite each one of us to pray and think about how we are living out our baptism in Christ in our parish community.

May the risen Christ enlighten us and energise us with the fire of the Holy Spirit.

+ Noel Treanor

Bishop of Down and Connor, Easter 2014