Following on from Bishop Denis’ Pastoral Letter on Good Shepherd Sunday, a diocesan gathering took place in Mt. St. Anne’s last night (Tuesday 20th June). This meeting had an attendance of over 150 people and included priests, permanent deacons, seminarians, religious and lay people.

3 people were invited to address the crowd, Ursula Hayden from Griaguecullen/Killeshin Parish, Fr Willie Byrne, Allen Parish and Bishop Denis Nulty.

Below is the address of Bishop Denis to the crowd:

Welcome:

We gather this evening in great hope. It is the eve of the longest day of the year – June 21st. I warmly welcome all of you – priests, religious, permanent deacons, members of the Faith Development Services and Bishops House, and most importantly you the lay people involved in the heart of the parish mission. St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this morning spoke of “a wealth of generosity”, a beautiful phrase, so many of you tick that box abundantly in your parishes. This date next month (July 21st) we will be returning from our first ever Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes, I thank Fr. Paddy Byrne and all in the planning team behind this pilgrimage and so look forward to spending five grace-filled days together in Lourdes.

I congratulate the many priests who are celebrating significant jubilees at this time: Fr. Jack O’Leary PE (68 years ordained) June 5th; Fr. Tommy O’Reilly 60 years ordained; Fr. Joe Fleming 60 years ordained; Fr. Charlie Byrne 50 years ordained; Fr. Tom Dooley 40 years ordained; Fr. Dan Dunne 40 years ordained; Fr. Pat Hennessy 40 years ordained; Fr. Mark Townsend 25 years ordained; Fr. Brian Kavanagh 25 years ordained; Fr. Rory Nolan 20 years ordained; Fr. Sean Maher 20 years ordained; Fr. Paul Dempsey 20 years ordained; Fr. Brendan Howard 20 years ordained and Fr. Michael Cudzilo 10 years ordained. Of course, I include the many religious and laity who have significant jubilees this year.

Acknowledging the Journey to Date:

I am very aware many of you have been here before:

  • Challenging Times 1998 – 1999
  • Called to Witness / Called to Serve 2008
  • Choosing our Future 2009
  • Sharing the Lord’s Mission 2010 – 2011

There can sometimes be a tiredness around conclusions in the past that were perhaps not followed through. Maybe even a certain frustration are we back to where we started, “here we go again” mantra! The fear of failure is very acute, if we get it wrong, what are we left with? What’s different this time? I very much appreciate the deliberations and discussions of the past around clustering and reorganisation, but perhaps those discussions were then that bit more removed from the urgency of the present.

Let’s take a moment to recognise the many positive encouraging signs we see all around us in the diocese. David Vard’s ordination in Newbridge next Sunday offers great hope, as does Fr. Joseph Yang Shuai SVD in Portlaoise in July, but of course even if we were guaranteed an ordination every year for the foreseeable future, we would still be playing catch-up! Tonight’s conversation is all the more essential, so that David and Joseph and those who come after them, will understand and appreciate the support that is there in every parish community. The involvement of a very large number of lay people who are so actively engaged in the life of their parish and their Diocese offers more hope. Kildare & Leighlin has a proud tradition of lay ministry – lay people, women and men who step up to the plate in the delivery of services through their various liturgical, educational, social and administrative involvement. The introduction of the Permanent Diaconate has been a very positive step in the last few years. The recent increase in the number of seminarians offers also great encouragement, we must at parish level and in our prayer groups continue to keep vocations to the priesthood to the forefront of our prayer.

Lumen Gentium:

Lumen Gentium offered a powerful vision of Church, a vision that has been built on since by successive Popes and none more so than Pope Francis. Lumen Gentium opens with the reflection on the nature of the Church with an important emphasis that the nature of the Church is to be both a sign and a means of communion with God and unity among people. This is not an incidental but a radical call to discipleship, a radical reappraisal of the notion until then of church. This vision of Church is achieved through making sense of the universal call to holiness – each person will find a pathway to holiness, that is for every person, personal and unique.

As the Bishop of Évreux told the Limerick priests on a visit a short time ago: “It is not the church that is dying, it is the model of church”. Regarding this new model, I had invited a priest from Leuven in Belgium, Fr. Dirk de Gendt – he is parish priest of 60 parishes, he was to tell us his story of how it works, how it remains gospel centred and how it is administered. Unfortunately the death of the auxiliary Bishop in his diocese put an end to his visit tonight to Mount St. Anne’s, we will hear from him at another time.

The Parameters of Possibility – the Code of Canon Law:

The present situation of the shortage of vocations, the age profile of the priests and the stress associated with such realities need serious reflection. The reality of a shortage of priests in a diocese was pre-empted by the 1983 Code of Canon Law and also in the Vatican II document Ministry and Life of Priests. Canon 517 of the 1983 Code addresses the possibility and reality for some dioceses of the shortage of priests:

  • Paragraph 1speaks about the pastoral care of a number of parishes been given to a Moderator assisted by other priests: “Where circumstances so require, the pastoral care of a parish, or of a number of parishes together, can be entrusted to several priests jointly, but with the stipulation that one of the priests is to be the moderator of the pastoral care to be exercised.  This moderator is to direct the joint action and to be responsible for it to the Bishop”.
  • Paragraph 2 goes even further and states that “if, because of a shortage of priests, the diocesan Bishop has judged that a deacon, or some other person who is not a priest, or a community of persons, should be entrusted with a share in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish, he is to appoint some priest who, with the powers and faculties of a parish priest will direct the pastoral care”.

Why this time?

August 4th 2017 marks the fourth anniversary of my Ordination as Bishop of Kildare & Leighlin. I look back with a great sense of joy to that celebration on the Feast of St. John Vianney on August 4th 2013. Just after the Renewal of Priestly Promises in our Annual Chrism Mass, now every year on the Monday of Holy Week, there is a very powerful prayer, which I continue to find humbling and challenging, each time I turn to the people and pray: “And pray also for me, that I may be faithful to the apostolic office entrusted to me in my lowliness and that in your midst I may be made day by day a living and more perfect image of Christ, the Priest, the Good Shepherd, the Teacher and Servant of all”. And the prayer concludes “May the Lord keep us all in his charity and lead all of us, shepherd and flock to eternal life”. The very last line of the gospel of Ascension Sunday speaks volumes to me: “And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time[1], and has to remind us no matter how broken or bruised we may feel, it is His Church, we are merely His instruments in time. This shouldn’t make us complacent but offer us great comfort.

A reminder of the Pastoral Letter:

The Pastoral Letter I wrote for Good Shepherd Sunday gave a context for parish ministry in 2017, it also gave some stats to flesh out the narrative. A few quotes: “the average age of those in ordained ministry continues to rise and the demands on lay people, religious and priests who care deeply about their parish, incrementally increase” … “the level of volunteerism in so many aspects of parish life continues to be staggering” … “there are 90 priests ministering in our diocese, 27 of them are over 75, 12 of them over 80”.

It was at that stage in the letter I mentioned “unless there is a radical reappraisal of what a parish community should be, how it should be organised, co-ordinated, funded and ministered, there can be no real progress” … “work remains to be done to reach out to the 78% (who see themselves as Roman Catholic in the 2016 Census), and beyond that percentage” … the word ‘voice’ figured prominently in the gospel for Good Shepherd Sunday and so I wrote towards the end of the letter: “in facing the changes and challenges I need to hear your voice”. This night is a clear recognition that your voice is being heard.

I am not afraid of following through recommendations and resolutions, but I do feel we need a diocesan consultation to ensure what we are embarking upon is the best for our parish, our deanery, our diocese. I want to endeavour that every parish engages in this process, not just a handful. We can’t be going at different speeds on this discernment journey, we need an element of patience to at times bring priest and people with us.

Some Tentative First Steps:

  1. That as on from the summer of 2019, that is two years-time – every priest who has reached the age of 75 can stand down from all parish administration work. He obviously is most welcome to continue celebrating Masses, working as chaplains in schools and hospitals, pastorally ministering in the parish but not carrying the burden of administration – it’s simply not fair. The reason I’m suggesting a two-year lead in to this recommendation is that it will allow lay people to be trained up in all aspects of parish administration.

 

  1. That leads me neatly to my second recommendation that every parish have a team of lay people working towards the shared goal of collaborative leadership by the autumn of 2018. There are Parish Pastoral Councils in many parishes, but not in every parish and even in those where they exist, they differ hugely from parish to parish. It would be a big mistake simply to pigeon hole lay people into an existing clerical model of leadership, to the neglect of new possibilities in the areas of teaching, catechesis, contemplation and evangelisation.

 

  1. The opportunity to take a sabbatical is an important aspect of a priest’s ministry and should be viewed as a normal feature of diocesan life. A sabbatical reenergises not only the priest who takes it but the whole diocese. I am afraid that the tight situation regarding cover for sabbatical leave has had the consequent effect that priests might not be applying for a sabbatical. I want to state clearly that I welcome, in fact encourage applications, once the sabbatical is well planned and seen as necessary ongoing formation.

 

  1. It is not my intention to close any Churches, but there may in some areas of the diocese have to be a reappraisal of Mass times in conjunction with neighbouring parishes or cluster groups. The areas of the least population are the areas of the greater number of churches. A statistic from the Pastoral: In total we have 56 parishes with 117 churches: 48 churches in the Southern Deanery (21 parishes); 31 churches in the Northern Deanery (17 parishes) and 38 churches in the Western Deanery (18 parishes).

Conclusion:

The story of a parish in another Diocese which in the past had two priests, the week after the changes were announced the remaining priest announced “there are 50% less priests in your parish, I can’t do the work of two men”. In the Diocese of Kerry where four parishes are grouped or clustered, and one of them loses their priest, the three remaining priests work in the pastoral area – each priest can only be ¾ time in his base parish, he can’t be full-time, as there is a fourth parish to cover.

Since my appointment as Bishop I often hear people refer to ‘the diocese’ as if it were something and not someone. The reality is we are the diocese. The diocese is you and me. All 256,213 of us according to our most recent statistical report! We are 56 parishes who have distinct unique identities, no parish is the same. I’m probably in a different one every day! Each one has its strength. Parish boundaries define rigidity but they don’t cut you off from your neighbours! Tonight is about engaging those strengths to the fullest, talking to our neighbours so that we can in Kildare & Leighlin enjoy the fullness of parish life in an era of fewer priests. Tonight is about beginning that process to flesh out this new reality. Thank you very much.

[1] Mt.28:20