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GROUPING PARISHES IN PASTORAL AREAS - WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?

By Sean O'Leary, Ferns Director of Pastoral Development


In the final moments before his Ascension, Our Lord bestowed upon the apostles the call to make disciples of all nations, a call that has been faithfully transmitted down through the generations. Here in the Diocese of Ferns, we have been responding to this call for over 1,400 years. In recent years, our work has been shaped by the Second Vatican Council and the Synod on Synodality, which reimagines the mission of the Church for the times we live in and places baptism as the foundation for ministry.


In 2021, the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy published the document: ‘The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the Service of the Evangelising Mission of the Church’. This document urges us to view parishes as outward-focused and identify perspectives that can renew parish structures for the mission of evangelisation. A Pastoral Area is a grouping of parishes that can increasingly collaborate in deeper and more intentional ways to support mission. This collaboration can involve the sharing of vital resources, such as priests, deacons and lay leaders across parish boundaries.

In the Diocese of Ferns, we have 49 parishes containing 99 churches spread across rural, urban and suburban areas. Every local Church is a home for God and we cherish these places where we experience Divine beauty, truth and goodness; witness the unity of heaven and earth; and come to know Emmanuel – ‘God with us’. The story of these sacred spaces is still unfolding and each church community has gifts which contribute to the full flourishing of our Diocese. And so, we go forward with Eucharistic humility on the way to the Kingdom united in the unquenchable hope of the Church, which is something beyond all our fears, plans and imaginations.


Our Diocese is all the richer for the way we work together for important developments. A renewed focus on co-operation and collaboration strengthens our missionary identity and helps us to choose courageous action over fear by trusting in the love and presence of Jesus amongst us. A priest’s vocation is radically rooted in a deep relationship with Christ and a strong commitment to faith communities. Amidst the current shortage of vocations to ordained ministry, it is important to take seriously the pastoral needs of our priests in a time of significant workload and change.

One of the fruits of forming Pastoral Areas is that priests and deacons along with lay leaders will be able to pray together, work together and support one another. As we continue to transition towards Pastoral Areas in the year ahead, we will need to pray especially for a spirit of collaboration, friendship and unity. Change can foster doubt, fear and uncertainty about the future and so it is important that we pray for the renewal of collaboration in the service of our missionary endeavours.


On the eve of his death, Jesus addressed his disciples as friends. Despite our travails and shortcomings, we are healed by the friendship of God who breaks through the walls that we surround ourselves with. Pastoral planning provides an essential tool for mapping change by analysing needs, sharing a vision, developing a plan or framework for working together and identifying actions.


Sometime during the year and following significant consultation, our Diocese will publish a pastoral plan that will emphasise our renewal of mission and chart some of the actions that will be required. Additional actions will be at the discretion of parish communities within emerging pastoral areas to collaborate with each other to better take account of local contexts in the mission of sharing the Good News. This will not be the work of a few meetings or events but is rather the work of years of growing closer together in the peace and love of Christ and the unity of the Holy Spirit.


The transition towards Pastoral Areas also requires a renewed focus on recognising baptism as central to ministry, awakening co-responsibility in the Church as an essential aspect of living communion and nurturing the universal call to holiness. We will also need to consider how to build stronger connections between the sacred and the secular to foster hope between the Church and the world. Going hand-in-hand with all of this is the need to faithfully discern forms of ministry that will serve the mission of the Church into the future.


The National Directory for Catechesis in Ireland ‘Share the Good News’ keeps the ultimate purpose or mission of the Church in clear view: ‘A fully formed and empowered Church community, guided by the Holy Spirit, will have much to say, in union with Jesus Christ, for our world today.’ It would be short-sighted to perceive Pastoral Areas simply as a mechanism for catering for the shortage of priests or deacons. Properly understood, pastoral areas are much more than that. They can act as a means of enabling all to take co-responsibility for the proclamation of the Good News.


The leadership qualities needed in the move towards pastoral areas include respect, appreciation for the experience and wisdom of others, an openness to change and the willingness to discern together the way forward. Such leadership qualities are built upon the skills of self-awareness, listening, facilitation, decision-making and communication. But, more importantly, sharing the Good News is not simply sharing information; it is communicated through small acts of friendship that reach across boundaries.


Somewhere right now, a priest is saying ‘The Lord be with you’ to which the faithful respond ‘And with your spirit’. When we experience these words as the embrace of Divine friendship, we come to understand that God is the origin and destiny of all our relationships.

The conclusion of ‘The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the Service of the Evangelising Mission of the Church’ states: ‘This demands that the historical Parish institution not remain a prisoner of immobility or of a worrisome pastoral repetition, but rather, it should put into action that “outgoing dynamism” that, through collaboration among different Parish communities and a reinforced communion among clergy and laity, will orient it effectively toward an evangelising mission, the task of the entire People of God, that walks through history as the “family of God” and that, in the synergy of its diverse members, labours for the growth of the entire ecclesial body.’


The Incarnation makes God’s invisibility, truly and visibly relatable. By journeying together as fellow pilgrims, we become more visible to each other and more open to the profound mystery of God’s presence in the world. This is what we were made for. This is what human life is about. Filled with questions, we thirst for answers. But, Jesus shows us the Way. We recede into doubt to discover what God is saying to us now. We open our hearts to share what the Holy Spirit has gifted us. And in times of change and confusion, we follow Jesus by asking the question that he asked his disciples on the road to Emmaus - ‘What are you talking about?’. And our hearts too will burn within us (Luke 24:32).


For more information, see: ‘Grouping Parishes for Mission: An Exploration of Key Issues’ produced by the Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development published by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. See also: Instruction "The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church", of the Congregation for the Clergy (vatican.va)

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