The following pastoral letter written by Bishop Dermot Farrell, Bishop of Ossory, will be made available at the celebration of Sunday Mass throughout the Diocese of Ossory this weekend.
The mission of the Church in changing times
The mission of the Church is to communicate to everyone the Gospel of Jesus Christ. From very hopeful beginnings with Saint Patrick and Saint Kieran, the people, priests and religious of the Diocese of Ossory have responded to this call to make God’s loving mercy known. While circumstances change and the way we communicate continues to evolve, women and men of faith have witnessed the Good News and have put flesh on their faith in their families and in their communities, in difficult times and in better times. Today, more than ever, we need to know Jesus Christ and to experience his power in our lives. When Christ is the rock on which our lives are built, we are permitted to face and withstand life’s storms in new ways (see Matt 7:24–25). By praying and celebrating the Sacraments together, and by reaching out in faith, with concern for all, the Church—the people of God—becomes the sign and instrument of God’s presence among us. This mission is entrusted to all the baptised. This is the right of each person, not a concession born out of a new necessity.
When we hear the Word of God proclaimed and preached, when we receive the Body of Christ at Mass, and when we come together to pray, we are sustained and encouraged to be the Body of Christ in and for the world. Prayer is the lifeblood of the Church’s ministry. Through prayer, which reaches its high point in the Sunday Mass, our concern and faith flows gently into the communities in which we live and beyond. These are the sources where we get strength to undertake the many important ministries and apostolates that are essential to our lives together, and to our witness to Christ.
Reading and responding to ‘the signs of the times’
The Second Vatican Council reminds us that to preach the Gospel effectively, every generation needs to read and respond to the “signs of the times”. After two centuries of flourishing, the Catholic Church in Ireland has come into different times. In 2019, 86,000 people live in the Diocese of Ossory; spread over 42 parishes, they gather in 89 churches especially for the Sunday Mass. A recent survey has shown that 24% of our people attend Mass each weekend. For these approximately 18,500 people, there are 142 Masses; some are attended by several hundred people, others attended by just a few. Today our diocese has 40 diocesan priests under the age of 75; age alone will see that number halved to 20 in the next ten years. This changing reality presents a challenge that cannot be ignored. It will entail change for our parishes. We need to consider how we can serve our parishes in the best way possible, taking into account the new situation in which we find ourselves.
Ensuring a worthy celebration of the Sunday Eucharist
Those who now come to Church come more and more out of a sense of faithfulness; they also come in the hope of receiving from the Lord. We are all grateful when we are touched by the Word of God, by a homily, or when we receive the Body of Christ. Nourished by the beauty of the Liturgy, we are drawn to Christ. We are called to allow the beauty and the power of the Liturgy to shine forth. Care must be taken to ensure that as we give praise and thanks to God, it is possible to do so in a worthy celebration where each one plays their part. The Church has always striven to foster the worthy and life-giving celebration of the Mass. It may surprise you to discover that only for very specific pastoral needs are priests permitted to celebrate more than one Mass in a day (see Can 905 §1). The Mass calls for the full and active participation of all: servers, readers, singers, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, young and old, male and female, clergy and lay. This is not always possible in many of the smaller Sunday gatherings in our churches. We have a responsibility therefore to pool our talents and resources, in order to strengthen and encourage, and to console our sisters and brothers.
Responding to a changing pastoral situation
During the past year, a group of priests and laity working with me have formulated options which are being proposed to the Parish Pastoral Councils, the Parish Finance Committees and to the people and priests. This involves creatively exploring and embracing new models to sustain a viable and vibrant future for the parishes of our diocese. It will involve new ways of looking at our parishes. It will call for a new awareness of the missionary mandate of Jesus Christ (see Matt 28:18–20). It will call for a sense of a parish that is missionary in its vision and structure. It calls for institutional reform as well as a sharing of authority at all levels.
This will involve the reorganisation of parishes and collaboration among groups of parishes. It foresees new ways of looking at parish; I want to be clear: it is not about the suppression or amalgamation of parishes. However, it will involve parishes working together in new ways. It will inevitably lead to a change in the number and times of Masses. This cannot happen without consultation; it takes time to discover the changing needs of local faith communities and to match these with the available resources to permit a better celebration of the Eucharist.
Change is never easy, but we must face the challenge together. I recognise that there may be a certain loss in these necessary changes, but there is also a gain. What we grew up with exists no more; we mourn that loss. However, we are asked to find new ways to permit the Church to live in new times. In the past God gave strength and courage to our parents and grandparents who struggled to build and sustain their parish communities. Today, as we welcome the new opportunities in this time of transition, God will be with us too. One of the more striking and plaintive statements of Jesus in the Gospels is: “Can you not read the signs of the times?” (Matt 16:3). As the Bishop of the diocese, I invite you to look honestly and prayerfully at the situation in the diocese and at this creative pastoral plan to provide for the celebration of the Sacraments in our parishes in the short to medium term. These changes are a continuation of the Church’s response to new and emerging needs.
Walking and talking together on the way forward
A living parish is a community that walks and talks together. This is what Pope Francis means when he speaks about the Church as synod. “Synod” means walking and talking to each other. In its essence Church is a people who walk together (Saint John Chrysostom). Good things happen when people walk and talk together. We inspire each other, we carry each other’s burdens. We shorten the journey: gioríonn beirt bóthar as the Irish proverb says.
We have a wonderful example of this in the Gospel story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). Their hope had died when Jesus was crucified; they thought they were left with nothing. To the stranger who comes alongside them and walks with them they tell their story. “Our own hope had been”, they said, as they walked and talked with him (Luke 24:21). “Our own hope had been” are words that are on our lips as we face an uncertain future. The stranger listens to them, and he tells them another story. His story changes their perspective. They move beyond their own self-interest and invite the stranger to stay with them. When the stranger takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them, they recognise him. Their eyes are opened, their hearts burned within them and they begin to see a future beyond their expectations. At every Mass, we repeat these actions of the Lord: we take bread, we bless it, we break it and we give it to each other. At every Mass we are called to recognise Him in the world around us, to let our fears be transformed (see Luke 24:32–35), to let our spirits be raised, to receive the courage to face new realities, and find new heart for the road ahead.
Change is always difficult. It inevitably involves uncertainty and fear is a natural response. However, the story of our Christian lives is filled with beginnings. We move forward in the firm belief that the Lord is with his people (Matt 18:20, 28:20), that the Holy Spirit guides and directs us in this endeavour (see Gal 4:6–7). We invoke in particular the intercession of Saints Kieran, Canice, Fergal, Fiacre and Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice. As we walk together we are assured that the Risen Lord engages us in our talking and opens new pathways of faith, hope and love for the people of the Diocese of Ossory.
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