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Bishop Denis’ opening address at the recent Assembly of Priests and Deacons, Hodson Bay Hotel, Athlone

Considering Our Ministry and Wellbeing

A warm word of welcome to you all as we gather in the Hodson Bay Hotel here on the shores of Lough Ree in Athlone this Sunday evening for our Diocesan Assembly. We remember those at home, covering duty for us, allowing us our headspace to be here. The last time the diocese gathered for an assembly of this nature was in Bettystown, County Meath from September 16th to the 20th 2007. That was thirteen years ago. I was then a few miles in the road in the neighbouring parish of St. Mary’s in Drogheda. How times have changed for all of us!

Looking back to that well-known photograph taken by Tom Sunderland in Bettystown, there were 74 priests present with Bishop Jim, at least when the photograph was captured. In the past six and a half years I have sadly buried five of those men: Moling Lennon and PJ Byrne sitting side by side on the front row of the photo; John Fingleton on the same front row a few seats away from Bishop Jim. Pierce Murphy squeezed in on the second row and John Cummins holding up the back row, both leaving us far too soon in the past year. Others gone before my time: Ned Flood and Tom McDonnell. More decided since that photograph was taken that priesthood was not for them: Ger Cushen, Conor O’Reilly and Kevin Walsh.

So, what might I have been doing when Tom Sunderland took that photograph I wondered? I know Willie Cleary, then a priest in Mornington called to your hotel to say hello. I remember him telling me later in the week that Kildare & Leighlin had held a gathering, addressed by Cormac Murphy O’Connor. Most likely Sunderland’s photograph was taken on the last day of the gathering – Thursday, September 20th 2007. Early morning Mass for me would have been at 8am; the usual school visits to Fatima (the girls’ school) and Congress (the boys’ school) took up most of that morning. That afternoon I was working on a talk to be delivered to the Fatima Parents’ Council at their AGM that evening. It was on the ethos of our school. I had just returned on September 17th from the Meath Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes. Another photograph taken with my late Mother at Lourdes is on the hall stand at Bishop’s House. A brief quote from that address to the Parents’ Council:

“… in Scoil Mhuire Fatima we have girls coming from 29 different nationalities and cultures, some Catholic and some non-Catholic, they all find Fatima a sacred place and a welcoming place …”

We could paint a similar canvas for many of our schools today. Thirteen years later, we gather here at the Hodson Bay Hotel. We gather at a good time for us all, early into the New Year, into a new decade. This is a unique year 2020 when the Diocese will gather for two significant events, this Assembly here in Athlone and our Diocesan Retreat next September in Dromantine.

So what will the next thirteen, ten, even three years bring? We know they will bring enormous change. Speaking to this change this Assembly has been organised by the outgoing Council of Priests. I thank Mícheál & Ger for their huge work in planning and sketching a programme with Fr. Paddy Sweeney. I thank Paddy for accompanying us and journeying with us through these days. The programme is designed around you, each of you, the 64 who will be participating over the coming days – Priests and Permanent Deacons. I acknowledge a few more men who had intended been here but funerals and health issues have changed their plans. We hold Fr. Ruairí and his mum Mary in our prayers this evening, as we do a former deacon in our diocese, who died yesterday, Anthony Moylan and his very good friends here with us.

The Assembly title ‘Considering Our Ministry and Wellbeing’ acknowledges the context in which we all minister and work today, the outside pressures, the fatigue, at times the sheer exhaustion and equally those moments of huge joy and great accomplishment. It also asks how we look after ourselves in all of this, how we take care of ourselves, that famous work/life balance.

And also how we might begin to plan for a future, a future where collaboration with colleagues will be more essential than ever; a future where the voice of lay people alongside an ordained ministry will be crucial. We have talked about this before, but how do we do it? How do we equip our parishes to be more self-sustained in the years ahead?

The last year has seen the establishment of a new Diocesan Pastoral Council. While it is still finding its feet, the many voices around the table, show a great and welcome collaboration with priests, deacons and lay faithful. Next month will see elections for a new Council of Priests. These are important elections; the Priests’ Council is a very important body. This will be my third Council and I have found each of them invaluable, working with me and advising me on many matters pertaining to the life of the diocese.

These days are something I always believed were so important for our diocese, for you our priests and our deacons who work alongside us, to come away from our parishes, from our schedules, from our busyness and reflect on what its like ministering in a very different church, diocese and faith life than the one we were perhaps ordained into.

It’s a very different church today but a wonderful church; it’s a very different diocese today but one which is gifted in many many ways and indeed it’s a very different faith life today, if we take regular practice as the guage, but scratch the surface and faith is all many people have to resort to, in moments of crisis. It might not be as regular or as consistent as we might like, but it is still strong. Just think how many connected with us at Christmas and we welcomed everyone.

There is great positivity out there. The amount of people praying for us over the coming days is very reassuring. If Tom Sunderland were to take a photograph at this gathering, what would we see? Maybe a few more grey hairs, or maybe less hair, but also new faces, many new faces. I think of the wonderful new priests who minister amongst us and are with us on these days in Athlone: David Vard, Terence McGovern, Sean Hyland, Michael Flattery, PJ Somers, Alex Kochatt, Paul Lawlor,  Gaspar Habara, Eugen Dragas Tamas, Ciprian Matei, Petru Medves, Bernard Reyhart and Piotr Jakubiak, alongside our Permanent Deacons present: Joe O’Rourke, Gary Moore, Pat Roche and John Dunleavy.

And of course, my face is also new in that picture! As your Bishop, working with you, I am here to listen, to participate and equally to enjoy the company and companionship. I want you also to enjoy these few days, take the rest and also engage honestly with all the sessions. If there is anything I can do as Bishop, now with you six and a half years, anything I might do better, do differently, let me know. We need to work together, today, now more than ever. The days of isolated solo ministry is over. I realise the key word in all of this is capacity, energy, enthusiasm – I pray these few days together on the shores of Lough Ree are real, honest, enjoyable, informative, useful, engaging and above all that we enjoy and appreciate the company of each other as we begin to chart out what our future will look like as co-workers in His vineyard, what we so often call ‘our shared future together’. Many thanks and God bless you all.