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Address by Bishop Denis to Focolare Gathering

Priorities for the Church a Year on from the World Meeting of Families

Focolare Centre, Curryhills, Prosperous 11am – 4pm: 05 June 2019

As always, I am delighted to be with you, the Focolare family of priests and lay couples here in Curryhills in Prosperous. Thanks to Fr. Terry Toner who contacted me about three months ago, putting today’s date in my diary and to Fr. Michael O’Kelly who was on email and phone contact with me, in the lead up to today.

Terry’s topic suggestion was ‘My experience of the WMOF’; he did add “or something else would be welcome”. Michael pitched my input as what I saw “as the priorities for the Church in Ireland today?”. A broad canvass. I have endeavoured to combine both with a loose working title: “Priorities for the Irish Church a Year on from the World Meeting of Families”.

Let’s begin with the song that celebrates the period between Ascension and Pentecost:

Come, O Creator, Spirit blest,

And in our souls take up thy rest;

Come with thy grace and heavenly aid,

To fill the hearts which thou hast made”.

This very day last year, June 5th 2018, I was at a Press Launch in the grounds of Carlow College, St. Patricks for our Family Fun Day taking place two weeks later. It was our second sojourn as a Diocese into this ‘picnic concept’. Our first one was in August 2017 when we gathered as a Diocesan family for our ‘Picnic in Punchestown’. A picnic I find is less cumbersome than the formality of a sit down dinner or luncheon. These picnics in their unthreatening way were to offer some kind of preparation or at least some element of consciousness for the World Meeting of Families. With a picnic, anyone can turn up with a basket, no one asks who you are, or where you’re coming from, geographically or metaphorically.

Just over nine months ago, what impact has the so-called ‘Francis Effect’ had on the wider Irish Church? Where are we today, compared to this very time, a year ago? A few facts might help to contextualise our reflection. Facts obtained from a survey conducted for Queens University, Belfast by Amárach Research[1]. A survey that was conducted a few weeks after the papal visit, which in effect became an unofficial referendum on how Pope Francis responded to abuse. The survey was an online sample of 840 people, with quotas set on gender, age, social class and region. Remember for a moment the context of the Papal Visit, the release of the Pennsylvania Report on Clerical Sexual Abuse and the former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Vigano’s letter accusing Pope Francis of being slow to take action to deal with the abuse.

And now to some of the findings of that research:

  • 30% of Irish people believed Pope Francis had done enough to address abuse during his visit. (that suggests 70% thought he didn’t do enough).
  • Of practising Catholics, 50% thought he had done enough, and remembering these are ‘practising Catholics.

80% did not attend events.

  • For practising Catholics 39% did not attend because of the travel/walk/distance factor.
  • For practising Catholics 22% were not interested in attending.
  • For practising Catholics 18% did not attend because of how the Church dealt with abuse.
  • 48% of those surveyed thought the visit was good for Ireland as a nation.
  • 75% of practising Catholics thought so.
  • 50% of those surveyed thought the visit was good for the Catholic Church in Ireland.
  • 73% of practising Catholics thought so.

If priests were surveyed all over the country, I get the sense that we would find it very difficult to come up with a figure of 73% feeling the World Meeting and Papal visit was good for the Church. Most will mention the apparent ticket fiasco that saw parts of Croke Park completely empty for the Festival of Families. More will highlight the health and safety concerns around transport that put the Phoenix Park Mass beyond the accessibility of the age profile of many of our regular weekly parish congregations. While most will comment favourably on the World Meeting of Families Congress in the RDS, many will speak about the deficit that remains, particularly from the facilities and infrastructure around the Phoenix Park Papal Mass on the wettest Sunday in an historically dry Irish summer! It seemed as if the Gods were against us!

In Kildare & Leighlin we contributed through five Parish Collections the sum total of €269K; we have paid the first half of the deficit accruing to the Diocese per head of population €82,374. That’s a total to date of just over €351K, with the remaining €82,374 still to be paid. When that’s paid and when I factor in costs at a local diocesan level of picnics, courses, programmes and personnel, there won’t be much loose change out of half a million euro. I wonder what other benefits might such a cash injection offer the Irish church, the diocesan church, indeed the local parish?

Great Paraclete, to thee we cry,

O highest gift of God most high,

O Fount of life, O Fire of Love,

And sweet anointing from above!

So what anointing, what injection are we left with nine months on? Coupled with the World Meeting of Families, we must include the three most recent referenda on ethical / moral issues – Same Sex Marriage (2015), the Repeal of the Eighth (2018) and the Liberalisation of Divorce (2019). The case we as church promulgated, each time on the ‘No’ side, lost by an ever-increasing magnitude as each referendum was carried.

  • Same Sex Marriage: 62% / 38%
  • Repeal of the Eighth: 67% / 33%
  • Liberalisation of Divorce: 82% / 18%

It leaves us now in a difficult space. One of my former lecturers from Maynooth days, Fr. Pat Hannon asked a similar question in The Furrow (November 2018) in an article entitled “What Now?” He used the lens of his article to explore the Repeal of the Eighth Referendum result and the aftermath of the Papal visit “shadowed by clouds that won’t easily dissipate[2]. He was conscious of the danger of labels, the danger of boxing people or groups in. He concluded his article seeing the outcome of the Referendum as not a disaster but a kairos moment: “a moment of opportunity in the work of witnessing to the gospel and its values, in which Irish Catholics are moved to look at how best now to contribute to the creation of a culture of life[3].

It is widely acknowledged by us, church people, that we no longer need to occupy the whole space. Pope Emeritus Benedict often described the church as a creative minority. We have to become accustomed to this new space we occupy. A space that no longer dominates, but one, of in the words of An Taoiseach in his Dublin Castle address: “in which religion is no longer at the centre of our society, but in which it still has an important place[4].

We are the creators of this new space, and if we don’t create it, we will be discarded to the wastelands, on the edges. Pope Francis often challenges us, it’s there on those very edges we need to be, but with a legitimate message, a profound truth. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin asks us where are the points of contact between the church in Ireland and the society within which we work? Christian faith is not just a faith about doctrines, rules and regulations; it’s not just about reforming structures where we risk being accused of simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. As he said in his St. Killian’s Lecture, delivered in Wurtzburg: “it is about the ability to preach and witness to the message of Jesus[5]. Simply put, it’s about being authentic, being present, being visible amongst the people we minister.

Thou in thy sevenfold gifts art known;

The finger of God’s hand we own;

The promise of the Father thou,

Who dost the tongue with pow’r endow.

Priorities for our Church today in the wake of the World Meeting. Priorities begins with ‘P’ and I’m going to offer you a number of priorities all beginning with ‘P’. If we put our energy, our resources, our time into these priorities, I suggest we will find that new space to occupy. “The finger of God’s hand we own”. I love the Five Finger Prayer offered to us by Pope Francis. The thumb remembering those closest to you. The index recalling our teachers, or those who heal us. The tallest finger to remember those who lead, who govern, those in authority. The ring finger is our weakest finger, remembering the weakest, the sick, the addicts, the refugees. And the smallest, the “pinkie”, praying for ourselves.

Our first priority is Prayer. Pope Francis gave us the ‘Five Finger Prayer’. Prayer is the oxygen of our priesthood. We have got to become teachers of prayer in a world crying out for meaning and relevance. The big pull in parish halls now are Yoga classes and Mindfulness sessions. Homes no longer burn coal, but they burn lots of candles everywhere; burning them at home at a time when we in church have done our best to offer the most miserable slip of a candle for an exhorbitant price. Some time Prime Time Investigates will look at the price charged for votive candles! Bring back the ‘penny candle’; introduce adoration; start lectio divina. Mindfulness makes no sense unless Christ is the one at the centre. I recall vividly our encounter as Bishops with Pope Francis in the Dominican Sisters’ Convent in Cabra, on his route to Dublin airport, when he asked us “what is the first duty of the bishop? I say it to everyone: it is prayer[6]. I kept my head down! He didn’t say forming pastoral plans, clustering parishes, even fostering vocations, he said ‘prayer’. So as I speak to you, I speak to myself!

Our senses kindle from above,

And make our hearts o’erflow with love:

With patience firm and virtue high

The weakness of our flesh supply.”

The second priority I suggest is People. Put our energy into people, special people; duine le dia we used to call them at home. With the current debate on divestment, maybe it’s time to let some of our schools go. If we don’t offer a planned divestment, we risk losing the entire school structure from under our feet. Watch this space. It will first be a topic in a Citizens’ Assembly and the population will gently be comatosed into accepting divestment because it offers equality, compassion and empathy, the new buzz narrative. But before that debate starts maybe we should specialise and become leaders at educating special people, special needs children. After the Repeal of the Eighth amendment I suggested in a message to the diocese that “we must work even harder to strengthen a culture that values all life and advocates for all who are in need of protection in our society[7].

Pope Emeritus Benedict reminds us “being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but an encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”. Our faith is about meeting the person of Christ. Meeting Him in that young person in school, in the college campus, in the hospital, in the changing room, in the gym. Archbishop Eamon Martin often uses the phrase “intentional disciples”. The vast majority of people are not there yet; there is a huge piece of work to do. If we focus on the wounded, on the broken, on the poor, we will only then return to the ideals of the great founders of the religious orders – Daniel Delany, Catherine McAuley, Nano Nagle, Edmund Rice.

Drive far from us the foe we dread

And grant us thy true peace instead;

So shall we not, with thee for Guide,

Turn from the path of life aside.”

A third priority is Preaching. How we prepare, is it more likely we employ the search engine google than delve into a gospel text? Liturgy is the strength of our church, the sacramental breath and yet we often do everything possible to dumb it down. People want good preaching. They deserve good preaching. A good preacher has the gift of presence. There is a danger because many of the things we have all preached and stood for have been rejected by the congregation when they go into the privacy of the local school to cast their vote. I understand the disillusionment. It’s as if the goal posts have changed in the middle of the match. June is the great month of priestly jubilees; today our oldest priest Jack O’Leary is 70 years ordained. He is still celebrating daily Mass in the Nursing Home at Gowran Abbey, 70 years preaching! Ad multos annos.

If we all endeavoured to read just one book on preaching, on scripture this summer to re-energise our message, it would make a huge difference. The truth and relevancy of the gospel message in season and out of season. And yet the context doesn’t change. In the words of Archbishop Eamon Martin “what began as a gradual drift of people away from the Mass and the Sacraments became a stronger current which has carried many away from religion and from God altogether. Like other parts of Europe and the Western world, more people in Ireland are living their lives without reference to God or to religious belief[8]. The secularisation tsunami was slower to reach our shores, but when it did, it has wreaked havoc on our regular congregations, even family members and friends. While we may think we are preaching to the converted, just take a closer look at the results in recent referenda and ask yourself how did your congregation vote. We must work with both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ voters and plough a new furrow for the gospel.

Oh, may thy grace on us bestow

The Father and the Son to know,

And thee, through endless times confess’d,

Of both th’ eternal Spirit blessed.”

A fourth priority is Planet Earth. Look at the rise of the Green Party, the Green vote right across Europe, right across Ireland. The Greens now make up 9.19% of the European Parliament. They have elected two Irish MEP’s, and had they run more local candidates they would have had more local council seats. The environment is an issue for many people. Pope Francis’ seminal document Laudato Si, reminds us how we all share a common home and our duty to nurture this planet and look after its people. And I say all this, in an afternoon when the leader of the free world arrives into County Clare!

It seems a no brainer for us as church not to be leading the charge on climate change and climate consciousness and to bring into that narrative our culture of life and respecting life at all stages and in all forms. 60% of the entrants in this year’s ‘Young Scientists’ competition dealt with climate issues. The disposal of plastic in our seas, in our oceans. The lighting in our churches, how we heat our churches, the printing of newsletters, the recycling of votive candle containers. Even the blessing of holy water; the Columban environmental campaigner Seán McDonagh reminds us 37 outlets of raw sewage goes directly into the seas along the west and south coasts, our blessing might be good, but not that good!

All glory while the ages run

Be to the Father and the Son,

Who rose from death; the same to thee,

O Holy Ghost, eternally!

And a fifth one, I offer is the Press, dealing with the media. The Redemptorists, the Jesuits, St. Paul’s pioneered the highway of church communication. We have lost it somewhere along the way, with odd exceptions. Today is of course a digital age and people are less likely to read a broadsheet for their news; they’ll download it online. A digital culture has created in itself a new grammer of communication and expression. A touch of a la carte, pick and choose the stories that most appeal, often most sensational.

The truth is sacrificed at the altar of what is useful, saleable, effective. Pre-conceptions dictate discussions and as a result a significant number of good church people are terrified of the media, of the press. The fear of being misquoted or manipulated. Empathy and feelings replace truth, reasoning and facts in making decisions. Think for the moment of the obscene celebrations in Dublin Castle after the Referendum on Repealing the Eighth; such celebrations would have been unimaginable in the not too distant past.

If statements are not challenged, they must be true. We don’t like going on the radio, it’s not our playing field; and the priests who frequent the channels, the discussions, we look down our noses at. Who does he think he is? Well, lift the phone yourself! The narrative around different stories needs to be challenged. For too long the words ‘paedophile’ and ‘priest’ seemed synonymous; while now its ‘Tuam babies’ and ‘Septic tanks’. We need to invest in the training of spokespersons for the church to deal with the press, to play them on their own pitch.

So did we experience a “Francis bounce” with the World Meeting of Families nine months ago? I’m not sure, it’s hard to honestly call, yet those he encountered still talk about that encounter, whether it was in the Pro-Cathedral, in the Capuchin Day Centre, at Knock airport wherever. Mind you Pope Francis would be the first one to say it’s not him, it’s about Jesus. And maybe, just maybe sometimes we too need to remind ourselves also.

So the five ‘P’s’ that may shape our priorities nine months on, from the World Meeting: Prayer, People, Preaching, Planet & Press. I could add a sixth, I mention it every time I speak to priests. I spoke to you about it last time here in Focolare, our greatest gift is being ‘Present’. Authentically present, supporting one another, as you are doing here in Curryhills and accompanying your people. May the Lord bless each one of you, Ciara Lubich continue to inspire you and Boniface and all the martyrs of our church remind us that the Church is cyclical – we are all in it together for the long haul!


[1] Ganiel, Dr. Gladys: ‘Surveying the Papal Visit to Ireland: A Francis Effect?’, The Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security & Justice, Policy Paper 2, Queens University, Belfast, Amárach Research

[2] Hannon, Patrick: ‘What Now?’, The Furrow, Vol. 69, No. 11, November 2018, pg. 593

[3] Hannon, Patrick: ‘What Now?’, The Furrow, Vol. 69, No. 11, November 2018, pg. 600

[4] Varadkar, Leo, An Taoiseach, ‘Address of Welcome to Pope Francis’, Dublin Castle, 25 August 2018

[5] Martin, Diarmuid: ‘The Challenge for the Irish Church in the Twenty-First Century’, St. Killian’s Lecture, Wurtzburg, July 2017.

[6] Pope Francis: ‘Address to the Bishops of Ireland’, Dominican Convent, Cabra, 26 August 2018.

[7] Nulty, Denis, ‘Message Post Referendum’, 02 June 2018

[8] Martin, Eamon, ‘The Church in the Public Sphere – a perspective from Ireland’, University of East Anglia Newman Lecture, 08 May 2017.