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Tomorrow's Parish

Presentation of a new edition of the book of Donal Harrington

Speaking notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin

Holy Cross Diocesan Centre, 8th February 2018


"If I were to ask the question, "What will tomorrow's Parish look like?" I think that there would be 100% agreement on one answer: "It will be different".

If I were to then ask ‘how' it would be different, then the level of agreement would sink dramatically. That lack of agreement could be judged in two ways: "the Archbishop has no coordinated plan" or "maybe that lack of agreement is not a bad situation at all". The first way in which the parish of tomorrow will be different, is that it will be marked by differences. There will be no simple strategy in terms of uniformity.

I remember, when I was working in the Vatican, presenting a plan for a particular programme to my office and I enthusiastically set out a short-term strategy that I thought was wonderful. The response I got from my superior was very simple but far from enthusiastic: "Jesus never used the word strategy".

When I am asked about the pastoral situation in Dublin, I consistently respond that there are parishes in Dublin that have never been so filled with vitality at any moment in their history as they are today. Obviously, I have to look also at the challenges and the negatives but I have consistently drawn attention to the fact that most of the parishes in the Archdiocese have undergone remarkable change for the good over the years.

It is so encouraging to see a wide range of lay people emerging as co-workers in pastoral care willingly, generously and with competence. I know that there are many who are only waiting to have the opportunity to do more and do things differently. In this, I discern the Lord speaking to us and challenging all of us.

There is room – indeed need – for further change and of renewal. Parishes have to face stark choices about their future. Indeed one can legitimately ask if in some situations the parish as we know it is the best structure to address the challenges of a society within which mobility is a characteristic dimension of modern life. In a society which is changing we have to address new realities. Our parish boundaries do not always reflect the current demographic reality of the diocese.

The parish of the future being different involves living with differences. Another key theme I use in looking to the future is "working together for mission". Some have badly mistranslated that phrase as "clustering". Yes it does involve parishes working more closely together, but it also means that the parish itself must be a place where people work together, respecting and indeed celebrating differences of role and capacity and talents and holiness.

Our plans for working together in mission will only work when they are rooted in an understanding of the calling of all Christians to the ministry of witness to their faith within the ecclesial community and in the world.

What might be the characteristics of a new and more intimate and integrated pastoral practice? They must establish in a realistic manner some form of community of faith, in a supportive manner but also as a counter-witness to the dominant individualism in our society. Such a community must be visible also as an ecclesial reality, a community linked with the sacraments and above all to the Eucharist.

We find the best description of such a community curiously in the early Church.
"Those who welcomed the message of Jesus… devoted themselves to the apostle's teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need. Day by say they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved."

The early Christians still frequented the temple and felt themselves fully Jewish. But they had begun to develop as a community with practices and prayers of their own and a body of reflection and teaching about Jesus and his identity. The parish of tomorrow must be more clearly the place where people are led to a real sense of faith in Jesus Christ.

The Church is a sign of the unity of all humankind. The sign is not about numbers but about the quality of commitment and witness. This is not to say that the Church is a sect of the self-minded who does not care about others. The Church is not the Church of the perfect. It is the Church of Saints who fight against their sinfulness, of saints who fall and experience the healing and reconciling power of Jesus. It is the Church where God's mercy is encountered in a society which despite all its talk of tolerance can at times be ruthlessly un-merciful.

What was it about these early Christian families which made them such a dynamic part of the expansion of the early Church? Perhaps it is to be found in that strange paradox whereby Jesus had told his disciples to leave their families, to turn away from father and mother, brothers and sisters and children for the sake of the kingdom. The early Christian family was a strong nucleus and resource for spreading the Gospel, but never one closed in on itself.

This leads me to another characteristic of the early Church. It was outgoing. It was missionary. It was missionary both in the manner in which it won new converts but also in the manner in which it quickly left its mark on the society in which it lived. The description in Acts is beautiful. It says that the Christians "had the goodwill of all the people". The Christian community will evangelize not through polemics and denunciations, but through living its life in a way which wins the respect, the goodwill and the confidence of "all the people".

What then are the factors that alienate people from the Church structures of today? Probably the most significant negative factor that influences attitudes to the Church in today's Ireland is the place of women in the Church. I am not saying that just because of the comments in these days by President McAleese. Indeed I was happy to note that President McAleese quoted that exact phrase of mine in her speech today. Her challenge to the internal culture of the Church today was brutally stark. Some may find it unpleasant or unwelcome. I must accept the challenge with the humility of one who recognises her alienation.

A second challenge is the situation of young people. A survey of young people's attitude to parish was carried out in the Dublin diocese as part of the preparation for the upcoming Synod of Bishops called by Pope Francis. The report was one of the most disappointing documents that I read since becoming Archbishop. Young people felt unwelcome in their parishes. I quote, without any comment and leave judgement to yourselves: "A number of young people noted that it was people in parishes (priests and parishioners) who were the greatest obstacles for young people getting involved".

Where does the Church find itself in the midst of rapid cultural change in Ireland? Faith involves a different way of living within any culture. What is involved is not a negative reaction or simple rejection of a changing world.

In the past the Church and the Irish Church in particular was a highly moralising Church. Jesus did not write an arid rulebook as an inspiration for his followers. Jesus did not think that belief in him could be attained through imposition. Faith in Jesus is no ideology. It is about a faith which enables each individual to attain robust gospel wisdom, a freedom to renounce security for ourselves in order to live for others as Jesus did and then finding joy and fulfilment in living the Gospel.

Ministry in the Church in the years to come will have much less to do with management and structures. It will be about men and women who have the ability to speak the language of faith authentically in a world where that language may be alien and to speak in a way that attracts.

The fellowship of the early Church was more radical than most of us would envisage for ourselves today. It was marked by a spirit of sharing of all goods by all in order to ensure that no one was left in need. That is a real challenge to a wealthy Church living in a wealthy world surrounded by so many on the margins.