More power to laity, less focus on priesthood, says Cork Bishop

"The local community and the faith community used to be one and the same. Going to Mass was where you met everyone, young and old." 
More power to laity, less focus on priesthood, says Cork Bishop

Bishop Fintan Gavin, Bishop of Cork and Ross. Picture Denis Minihane.

BISHOP Fintan Gavin has said the Catholic Church will have to be less focused around the priesthood if it is to renew itself.

The Bishop of Cork and Ross said an ageing clergy, combined with declining vocations, would necessitate a greater role for lay Catholics in the work of spreading the Gospel.

He told The Echo the Catholic Church in Ireland was now paying the price for its past dominance, which, he said, had led to its corruption.

“Power corrupts, and the abuse of children, the abuse of women, the abuse of power, all of those things happened when power corrupted,” he said.

Bishop Gavin said his own work with abuse survivors had given him a sense of the reality of their experiences, describing one such meeting as “a game-changer”.

The Bishop said he would support survivors and relatives calling for an investigation into the former mother and baby institution at Bessborough.

He likened community leaders like the Life Centre’s Don O’Leary and Penny Dinners’ Caitriona Twomey to “prophets”, saying their work was inspired by Christianity.

Bishop Gavin was speaking ahead of the publication of this pastoral letter, which will be read at all Masses throughout the diocese, outlining a re-organisation of parish structures.

A summary of the Pastoral Letter from Bishop Fintan Gavin Diocese of Cork and Ross, August 2022

I’M grateful for this opportunity to address the people of the diocese.

My hope is to ask you to join me in reflection and prayer on two related themes: Firstly, issues arising in our diocese at the present time, and secondly, how we will respond to these challenges and opportunities in the light of faith, especially in our parishes.

Every one of us is aware that the faith community we call the Church is not static. This is true of the universal Church as well as our local diocesan Church and indeed in each of the parishes. In the short time I have been bishop of this diocese, I am constantly reminded of how much people’s experience of the Church has changed.

The local community and the faith community used to be one and the same. Going to Mass was where you met everyone, young and old. 

Many people today lament the fact that large numbers of our young people are not present in our churches on Sundays. The loudest message from young people at a recent gathering in Cork was how alone they feel at Sunday Mass, because most of the people there are “much older”.

The link between parish schools and our parish faith community is weaker than in the past. This was highlighted in our submission to the Synod, where concern was raised about how we prepare children for the most important sacraments.

It is disheartening that so few participate in the local faith community afterwards.

There is also an awareness that our priests are getting older and fewer young men are choosing to become priests. This was expressed in a gathering with priests last year when we reflected on what was described as the “predictable future” as priests get fewer, older, and over-worked.

In September, our diocese will give thanks for the ordination to priesthood of one young man who will serve in our diocese. However, during the summer, 12 of our priests step aside from their former responsibilities. In addition, a number of religious orders have indicated that they will be recalling priests this summer and will not be able to replace them.

Every crisis, every change, also brings an opportunity for new possibilities. When we allow ourselves to dream, we can recover hope and the sense of opportunity.

The submission from our diocese to the Synod in Rome next year contains a call for a local Church where people are invited to engage and participate in parish and Church life. People asked for more lay involvement in leadership and decision-making. There was also a call to reinvigorate and provide training and support for parish councils/assemblies. People desire a Church that reaches out and connects with those who have left or who no longer engage with us.

People’s hope is that the experience of strong teamwork, with clergy and lay people working together in the ongoing pastoral and liturgical life of the community, would be experienced in all parishes.

I want to outline how we will respond to these challenges and opportunities in the light of faith, especially in our parishes.

Our parish faith communities cannot stand still. Neither can we go back. The Holy Spirit is calling all of us to go forward with an active hope, not a defeatist resignation.

Walking together as a Church means we need to discern together our priorities for these times, how the Holy Spirit is calling us to be the Church in this new reality.

How can we proclaim the Gospel today and respond to the great commissioning of the early Church to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)?

There isn’t an instant solution to the challenges. But we do need to let go of some of the familiar so that we can make room for new seeds to flourish.

The scriptural passage that comes to mind is in St Luke’s Gospel where Jesus challenges his fishermen- disciples (Luke 5:1-11).

In that episode, he said to Peter and his friends: “Put out into deep water and pay out your nets for a catch.”

Just as he invited them to put out into deep water, Jesus also invites us to go out into new, uncharted waters.

This summer, we are changing the relationship between parishes which will allow us to organise ourselves differently.

It is an invitation to our parishes to work as families of parishes. In the families of parishes, the priests and deacons work as part of a team across all the parishes.

With the recent changes to priest appointments, 12 of the 16 families of parishes have been established but this is only their beginning.

In the family of parishes there will be a team of priests with a moderator and co-parish priests who will work together with a small number of curates, assistant priests, and deacons. Each priest is appointed to minister across all the parishes in the family of parishes and will reside in one of the parishes.

At the start, teams will consist just of priests, but over time lay leadership will develop; deacons will be involved in these new groupings too.

Masses will be scheduled so that a priest does not have to rush between churches and parishes. This will mean that we will not have as many Masses as we have now. Some churches may not have a weekend Mass. People ask for liturgies that are enriching and life-giving and a revised schedule should help to make this possible.

Because the number of priests is reducing this summer, some parishes will no longer have a resident priest. This is one of the most significant challenges we face.

This change will have the greatest effect locally. However, the hope is that with the priests working as a team across the family of parishes, each parish will be included equally in everything that’s planned.

The collaboration in families of parishes presents many opportunities. It will allow greater co- ordination in the preparation and the celebration of sacraments.

There can be shared preparation for Baptism, Reconciliation, First Communion, Confirmation, and Marriage. Together, parishes can reach out to young people. In time, funeral teams can also work together across each family of parishes.

In conclusion, the families of parishes will give the people of Cork and Ross an opportunity to work together, united for mission, enhancing our own strengths collaboratively to build up our local Church.

These are just first steps; exactly how they develop and emerge will depend on us all, as we listen to the Holy Spirit calling us to be faith communities in a different way.

Fundamentally, the Church is about helping people to encounter Christ personally, to become missionary disciples. I believe that the “family of parishes” model will allow us to do this in a new way. It will mean we can respond to our present reality in a way that will help us to build the Church we dream of.

It is not going to be easy and there will be all kinds of challenges and teething problems but together, if we listen to the Holy Spirit working through us, I believe that we can build this Church together.

May the same Holy Spirit guide us, every step of the way.

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