Yesterday Fr James Mallon gave an inspiring talk in the Glenroyal Hotel, Maynooth on renewing and reviving parishes.

Bishop Nulty welcomed Fr James and opened the conference saying;

“It is my privilege to welcome you all to the Glenroyal Hotel this morning to this conference on transforming our parishes. From the huge numbers here and the fact that the conference has been overbooked sometime back, tells us that parish means a great deal to all of us. Today is the feast of the Dedication of our Cathedral in Kildare & Leighlin. A Cathedral is a Mother Church to every parish in the diocese. Fr. Michael Comerford’s authoritative History of the Diocese suggests the Kildare end of the diocese originally had 22 parishes, while the Leighlin end had 27 parishes, until they were united in 1678 by Archbishop Oliver Plunkett. Boundaries and names have changed over the years, some names have been consigned to the pages of history, many have been retained, today there are 56 parishes in our diocese. Kilcock the nearest one, just out the road to the west. Pope Francis reminds us: “a parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community.”

There are 1,360 parishes in Ireland. Parish means different things to different people. Donal Harrington in his book ‘The Welcoming Parish’ began with a brainstorm around the first thing that came into your mind when you heard the word ‘parish’, perhaps some of these words might resonate with your personal experience of parish: “Territory; Priests; Community; Hard Seats; Stations; Football Team; Confirmation; Belonging: Politics; Christmas Crib; Insular; Funerals; People; Frustration; Money; Identity; Worship; Family …”. Generally positive words, but what do we make of these words? Those words are all somewhere within the text of Fr. James Mallon’s book ‘Divine Renovation’, our guest presenter today, the word ‘identity’ is one he particularly is keen on.

We only had to read the sports supplements last Monday morning to see how interwoven parish and club are – Corofin, Castlebar, Slaughtneil and Moorefield. In Newbridge Parish you are either a Moorefield fan or a Sarsfield fan! There is no sitting on the fence! In my former parish of St. Mary’s, Drogheda you were defined by which side of the Rover Boyne you were from, it was often mischievously remarked: “She’s from the far side” and you never married someone from the far side! The far side of course very much depends on which side you are standing! Perspective is everything.

This is exactly what James Mallon has succeeded in doing in producing a book and an accompanying guidebook, and workshops like todays and tomorrows in Cork. James has a clear perspective on parish. His feet are grounded in pastoral reality and pastoral practice. We can all empathise with him in his struggles to move the card school from the local hall, who maybe pay a nominal rent that wouldn’t even pay a caretaker’s salary for a day! Maybe in our case it’s the bingo fraternity or the scouts, everything of itself very worthy, but no one prepared to budge an inch. Building up a parish rotates around adult faith development. Next summer’s World Meeting of Families in Dublin offers an opportunity to visualise our parish as a family of families. The ‘Amoris Programme – Let’s Talk Family, Let’s Be Family’ allows us at parish level to engage in adult faith formation around the concept of family.

The days of pay, pray and obey are over; the challenge is for people to belong. James introduces a new vocabulary around parish life with his term “belonging Catholics” as against conveyer belt ones, who turn up for sacramental moments. It is a huge frustration for priests and parish teams who invest great energy in these sacramental moments, to see a minimal number turn up the following Sunday or really engage with parish afterwards. There are exceptions, and he puts a figure on that exception category – 6% to 20% – of parishioners in a typical parish, actively choose to take part in activities which deepen their faith. The big move James contends is to make disciples in all our parishes, not just people who belong.

There is not a diocese in Ireland who isn’t at the present time reflecting on how we might do things differently. We call it different things, we use different headings, but it’s the same thing we are trying to achieve. Our Kildare & Leighlin reflection is entitled: ‘Facing Changes & Challenges Together’. In that pastoral last May, written for Good Shepherd Sunday I spoke of the necessity for “a radical reappraisal of our parish structure, how it should be organised, coordinated, funded and ministered into the future”. Today’s conference is a further contribution to this discussion. Other dioceses will speak about a vision document, or perhaps reimagine themselves in five or ten years-time. It’s an attempt to get to the same end point, a greater ownership and deeper appreciation of what it means to be a follower of Christ, living out our shared baptismal calling. Archbishop Eamonn Martin has said: “the parishes of tomorrow will be ‘communities of intentional disciples’ sustained by committed and formed lay people”. This entails a certain letting go by bishops and priests, and maybe by all of us who get possessive around parish.

I thank James for coming to Ireland for these couple of days; I thank him for reenergising leaders at parish level to re-think and re-shape their own parishes. Parish means so much to us. Our parish structures in Ireland go back to the period after the Norman invasion, they represent the lands of minor lordships. In the Anglican tradition the older parish names are still used. In our Catholic tradition some of the old parish names have largely been lost, as with Kildare & Leighlin gone are the names Maryborough, Philipstown and Downings. I am told many of our parishes are generally amalgamations of three or four, or even more ancient parishes.

As we set out on this day, organised by Tine and Alpha, led for us by Fr. James, I think of an article I read a few weeks ago entitled: ‘A vibrant parish in 2030 – what might it look like?’ Maybe that’s a good frame for all of us to ask: ‘What might the Irish church, our diocese, our parish look like in 2030?’ James is building on good work done before him by people like William Bausch, Michael White, Tom Corcoran and Donal Harrington to mention but a few. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at an address recently in Haddington Road said “the fate of the Christian is more likely to be that of marginalisation rather than martyrdom. Marginalisation should not lead however to a flight from reality into a comfort zone and to the felt safety of the likeminded”. We could adapt that quote and suggest the fate of the committed parishioner, the fate of the 6%-20% category, the fate of all of us gathered here in the Glenroyal, is the risk of marginalisation, that is why a day like today is so important.

I understand Fr. James, a Scots man by origin, he likes his soccer, movies, photography, dogs, everything Apple and good Single Malt Scotch, we will have to make sure he gets a taste of Irish Whiskey before leaving these shores! As for liking everything Apple, I heard there was an advertisement last June 29th that said: ‘Ten years ago today, Apple and iPhone changed our world’. It is estimated there are over a billion iPhones in the world. As church, as parish it is good to ask ourselves how are we embracing these tools of contemporary communication to promote our mission? Most of us gathered in the Glenroyal are not digital natives; we are migrants in the digital world, but maybe this is where we need to be missionary, to be evangelisers! Sitting where its uncomfortable challenges us out of the zones we all retreat to. Fr. James, you are most welcome. Tom and the team from Tine, Peter and the team from Alpha, thank you for offering this day for all of us. And thank you to all of you who are here in great numbers wearing your parish jersey this day. May you wear those jerseys with even greater pride at the end of this day!