A dialogue with the Parish Pastoral Councils of the North City Deanery
FOSTERING FAITH IN THE CITY CENTRE
Speaking Notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin
Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, 27th February 2014
“I am very happy to have this dialogue with the priests and the members of the Parish Pastoral Council of the North City Centre deanery. You will know that we are at the final stages of elaborating a new Framework Document on the place of the Deanery in the diocese today. The deanery is moving from being, as it was in the past and in the framework of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, primarily a gathering of and for priests, into one in which the deanery will become a focal point for the coordination of pastoral initiatives. The deanery is not just about formal deanery meetings, but about the many and varied ways in which pastoral activity can be coordinated in a certain area of the diocese. I am pleased to see that this newer vision has already taken root in this deanery and I congratulate Father Donal Neary in particular for what he has done in animating this change. The Parish Pastoral Councils are set to be a driving force in shaping the new pastoral outreach of the Church in our city centre.
The change in Church structures is taking place within a climate of change in the demographic and social change of Irish society, which is especially evident in this deanery.
This deanery has its own specific characteristics, quite different to that of other deaneries. It is a city centre deanery and city centres the world over are changing quite rapidly. Those of you who grew up in inner city Dublin will recognise the changes that have taken place in your own lifetime. The population mix has changed. People have moved out from the city centre and a new population mix has moved in changing the character of the city.
The old city-centre population was known, even in the times of harsh poverty, for its sense of good neighbourliness, solidarity and care. Today many of those living in the city centre live in single apartments which are not easily accessible. Many of these are occupied from Monday to Friday and people go back to different parts of the country for the weekend. The sense of belonging to a community can easily be weakened and the sense of solidarity is harder to generate. Priests tell me that most of those who come regarding marriage preparation documents, because they physically live in the parish, intend being married elsewhere in the community of their family origin to which they equally belong.
The population of this deanery has grown by well over 15% in the five years between the last two censuses, to over 20,000. In two of the parishes the percentage of Roman Catholics is now below 50% and in 4 other parishes the percentage of Catholics is below 60%. Mass attendance in more than half of the parishes is at 5% and even lower. Other churches like the Pro-Cathedral and Dominick Street have particularly high Mass attendances but not from within parish.
This is not to say that there is no longer any real bond between people and parishes. The level of attendance at funerals shows still how the parish Church and the local priests are still vital elements of the fabric of the community. Similarly the local schools are clear in their Catholic identity and First Communion and Confirmation are community celebrations.
More than half the parishes in the deanery are run by religious Congregations. Some Churches are both parish Churches and Churches linked for many centuries with the specific charism of their congregation, like Dominick Street and Gardiner Street. These Churches have a larger number of priests than other parishes, even though they may be largely elderly.
The general population in the deanery is an ageing one. In two parishes there are more funerals than baptisms. Yet the deanery is also a young one. In three parishes the number of baptisms is considerably higher than funerals. So our pastoral priorities must reach out to a growing elderly population and to an equally growing younger population.
The overall religious culture in the diocese is changing and our pastoral responses must also change. Let me give you an example from one area. A consultation on marriage and family life was carried out in the Archdiocese of Dublin in preparation for the forthcoming Synod of Bishops. The results are not very different to those which emerged in the same consultation process in various other European cities, on such subjects as family planning, per-marital cohabitation, the problems of the divorced and re-married, the attitude to same sex relationships.
The answers do not come as a surprise. What should surprise us is the fact that we have not been developing a strong pastoral response to these questions over the years. We should not have had to wait for a questionnaire from Pope Francis to address these questions.
The general response was that the teaching on marriage and the family is poorly understood and that it was poorly accepted and disconnected from real life experience of families – and not by just younger people. Many said that the teaching appears as not practical in relation to people’s day-to-day struggles, being at best an unrealistic ideal. There appears to be a “theory-practice” gap. One reply noted: ‘A lot of preaching and teaching does not relate to everyday life; it is above the head of struggling and hurt people.’ Another replied: “Church teaching often appears theoretical and remote from an understanding of the real lived experience of couples”.
In the replies, concern was expressed on the high number of those who were living in what the Church regards as irregular situations, whether because they were living together before marriage or because they were divorced and remarried. Many spoke of these people suffering, feeling guilty, feeling marginalised, feeling excluded, feeling hurt, even despised. The strong pattern in the responses was that there should be an attitude of openness and compassion, outreach and welcome to these people, with less judgment and more listening to their experience.
It was stressed that children should never be victimised in such situations and that if parents wish their children to have a religious education they should be welcomed in love.
Regarding same-sex relations some saw the Church’s position as being purely negative and judgemental. Many felt that there should be some way of civilly recognising stable same-sex unions, but there was a clear hesitancy, uneasiness and opposition with regard to marriage for same sex unions.
What interests me this evening is to look at what was said about the Church’s pastoral care of marriage and the family and what we should be doing in our parishes. Many of the replies noted that there is little attempt at explaining the teaching. One person responded: “I’ve been a Mass-goer all my life, I am now 51 years, I have never heard a sermon on family’. It was generally thought that there is very little, if any, formation on church teaching. Education was described as ‘inadequate’, taking place mainly at Mass (if at all).
It was remarked that ‘the Church has been silent recently’. It was said repeatedly that teaching tends to be rule-focused, rather than Scriptural or pastoral. Some said that the teaching is relatively inaccessible, that the Church documents are obscure and that the language is not simple. There were a great many references to marriage preparation courses, generally with positive affirmation of their value. There were also references to the need for ongoing formation after marriage which practically does not exist.
People spoke of giving more prominence to marriage and the family at Sunday liturgy, especially at family Masses. The tone should be that of affirmation and encouragement for families.
Where does one begin to respond? The most frequent comments were around strengthening the quality of the environment in the home. Even in the changing culture around marriage and the family, there are values in the Christian teaching which are vital and must be fostered: loving care, kindness, forgiveness, security, unconditional love, and an environment where people can grow and flourish. Many stressed that where there is love, there is God. There are references to parents giving example, to the importance of the parents’ own relationship, and to prayer and sacraments.
This has to take place within an overall context in which love was often rendered banal and where fidelity was looked on as hardly possible. Many families were weakened by domestic violence, infidelity, neglect, abuse and severe economic difficulties. It was stressed that many families found no time to be together; there was too much busy-ness.
On the other hand people spoke of the power of example; of love, unity, spending time together, prayer together, being at Mass together, being at the family mass with other families, living their faith, showing solidarity. Many mentioned the importance of being involved in the parish.
Finally there was a great deal of appreciation expressed that consultation was taking place. One person responded: “It’s refreshing, even at this stage in my life, to be consulted about anything’ and another: ‘It is the first time in my life that the Church has ever consulted me about anything.’
I may seem to have taken up too much of your time looking at the pastoral care of marriage and the family. I do so because the family is vital for the future of the Church and of society. I do so also because married lay men and women can play a vital role in this area. Marriage is not just a personal blessing for a man and his wife. Marriage is a sacrament – like all sacraments – given for the building up of the Church.
I spent some time on this example, because it is something which shows a new way in which we should be directing all our pastoral care and outreach. Our pastoral programmes should be looking at the real life situation, attempting to arrive at a realistic yet balanced but also hope-filled understanding of what is happening and what is at stake.
Our pastoral planning should not get bogged down in the mechanics of consultation and just in structures. We should not become an inward- looking Church, possessed by our problems, but one which draws strength from the person of Jesus Christ and our conviction that his message is vital for the society we live in. An inward-looking Church will not change hearts and will not enthuse people; it will only suck into its introspection others whose fearfulness may well be a sign of lack of faith.
We have to reach out, as Pope Francis says, to those who are living on the margins of our society and on the margins of Church life. What can you as Parish Pastoral Councils do?
Let me give some examples. In recent years some parishes have organised parish visitations, with groups visiting every home in a parish. It is a way to say to people that the parish still cares. It is a way of saying that even if you have only marginal contact with parish life, the parish still thinks of you and cares for you. It is also a manner in which you can build up a mailing list – especially an electronic one – for all those who have some even minimal interest in parish life.
There can be moments in which a parish can invite those on the margins of religious practise to special occasions. There are moment like Christmas and Easter and Lent which still have religious meaning for those who have drifted away from practice. People like to be invited and they like to be welcomed. There are many more resource people within our parishes who could take party in the preparation of such activities if only we asked them.
Mass attendance has gone down dramatically in this deanery. This is partially because of the particular population mix in the parish. We need to reach out to young people. We need to establish better links between school and parish. The natural focal point for preparation for the sacraments is the parish, with the school and parents being fully involved as partners. In the changing religious climate of Ireland religious education cannot be left entirely to the school. More and more children are attending non-Catholic schools. We have also to ensure that our Catholic schools are really Catholic schools. Parents who wish their children to have a different form of education should have other schools amply available to them.
When I talk about diversity of patronage in education and therefore fewer Catholic schools, I am not taking about giving up on Catholic education. I am talking about the opposite. In this deanery over 40% of the population is not Catholic and there is no way in the long run in which one school will provide for the expectations of the entire population.
What is the future of our parishes in this area? The future will inevitably involve a much greater cooperation between parishes with priests and people working in teams. This is not just a sociological answer to the challenge of a changing population. From the very beginnings of the Church, working together was the hall mark of the Christian community. Certainly tensions will emerge, just as they emerged among the early Christian communities. Saint Paul has sharp criticism for those who established themselves as sectarian and “loners”
The early Christians – as we read in the Acts of the Apostles – were marked by the fact that “they gathered”. They gathered for prayer, and study of the scriptures and for the Eucharist and they came to form communities in which they shared everything and cared for all. We have to recreate such a culture in the real world of our times. I am convinced that we can do it and part of my conviction comes from witnessing how our Parish Pastoral Councils have shown that they want to move forward in this way and they want to do what is best for the Church.
It is interesting to note that Pope Francis is careful in his use of the term “lay men and women”. He prefers to speak about “missionary disciples”. All of us are called to be missionary disciples in today’s world. That is the way forward, because it is the way to be authentic followers of Jesus Christ and his Good News.
The mission is urgent. We can easily get caught up in pessimism and in a sort of fear of the fact that many do not understand and accept the message of Jesus. The answers to the consultation on marriage and the family could lead some to throw in the towel and go along with the culture of the moment, rather than courageously witness to that deeper sense of love and faithfulness which Christian are called to bring to that debate, because we believe in a God who is love and has always remained faithful to his people even in their darkest hours. ENDS