A Question of Faith…
BISHOP Cullinan launched a new pastoral plan for the diocese of Waterford and Lismore on Sunday, June 9, the Feast of Pentecost. Entitled ‘Go Make Disciples’, it sets out a programme of renewal in the diocese over the next five years (2019 – 2024). I will reflect briefly on the contents of the plan later but first a word about planning and the Church.
Pastoral planning is a relatively new development in local church settings. In the traditional understanding or model of Church, Catholics were expected to obey the commandments, receive the sacraments and be loyal to Church teaching. No real need for planning here! The dominant culture in parishes was one of maintenance, ensuring that sacraments were administered and the building was fit for purpose. Strategic planning is associated with the corporate world or NGOs, but not the Church.
Business Groups engage in a process of strategic planning when change is needed, when they feel they must adapt to the changing environment if they are to survive. There is discontent with the way things are going and a real desire for a new vision and new approaches. Creativity is called for, lateral thinking, to chart a way forward. It is fuelled by a conviction that things do not have to be the way they are, a belief that change is possible.
There is no denying that change is needed in the Church today. Congregations are ageing and dwindling, youth feel alienated, and there is a serious decline in vocations. Society is rapidly becoming more and more secularised and the credibility of the Church has been seriously undermined by the fallout from the abuse scandals. Theologian Michael Conway has pointed out that today’s culture is inimical to the more centralised and authoritarian mode of organisation and governance that has become characteristic of the Catholic Church. We live in a world where patriarchal, hierarchical institutions are being deconstructed and exclusively male leadership is being rejected. What is valued is a more horizontal, egalitarian order which is person centred and where authority gives reasons for decision and policies. Yes, more than change, a revolution is needed!
Pope Francis has indeed initiated what has been described by theologians such as Gerry O’Hanlon as a ‘quiet revolution’ in the Church. He has proposed a new model, a new way of experiencing Church or rather it is a retrieval of a much more traditional form of Church, the way of Church for the first millennium. His core revolutionary project is set out in his Apostolic Exhortation ‘The Joy of the Gospel’. His vision is for a synodal church. The idea of ‘synod’ is an unfamiliar concept and somewhat difficult to define precisely. But basically it is based on the premise that the church is primarily people on the road, journeying together, but unified by the Spirit. The model anticipates a radical decentralisation of the Church in which there is to be free and open debate and consultation. He acknowledges the right of all to be consulted in what affects all: “There must be a mutual listening,” he claims, “in which everyone has something to learn.” The voice of the people must be brought to bear at all levels.
Consistent with his wish to decentralise Church governance, Francis is emphatic that more responsibility be given to bishops in their local dioceses but he also challenges them to be particularly attentive to the ‘signs of the times’ and at all times to consult and to listen. He is insistent that all must have a voice in discerning new ways for the Church to fulfil the mission. Francis is particularly concerned that the voice of the poor and marginalised be heard, pointing out that reform almost always comes from the margins, not from those at the centre. He explicitly talks of a role in decision making for women.
Pastoral planning is an inherent dimension of this revolutionary vision of Church. Mindful of Pope Francis’ revolutionary outlook, the diocesan plan, ‘Go Make Disciples’, emerged from a process of dialogue and consultation initiated by the Diocesan Pastoral Council. Consistent with Francis’ teaching that the Church should go out, engage with the world and not be pre-occupied with her own self-preservation or protecting her own interests, a radical transformation of ecclesial culture from maintenance to mission is called for.
Four strategic directions or themes are identified to effect this transformation. The themes focus on evangelising, (engaging with spiritual seekers and especially with youth), building communities which are inclusive and welcoming, meaningful liturgical celebrations and remodelling of leadership structures to serve the mission of evangelising and the promotion of justice and peace in the world. Core objectives and actions to implement the strategies are outlined under each theme.
Pope Francis’ vision of a synodal Church will inform the new model of leadership. A number of parishes will be co-operating together as a pastoral unit with two or three priests ministering together as a team to serve the pastoral needs of these parishes. Each of the priests will be a “Co-Parish Priest”, that is, we will no longer have one single Parish Priest per parish but several priests working in all of the parishes that are linked together as a pastoral unit. Lay people will be part of the leadership team.
The ‘quiet revolution’ of Pope Francis promises much by way of reform. Let’s hope it will bear fruit in our own diocese.
Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column