'HOPE IN NEW BEGINNINGS': A PASTORAL LETTER FROM BISHOP GER

In the beginning was the Word: the word was with God and the Word was God. (John.1.)


Dear Friends,

The opening line of Saint John’s gospel is a good starting block from which to hear the starter’s “Ready, steady, go!” as we commence our New Year. It is a new beginning, a fresh start, a hope-full journey, and God is with us all the way. I wish you a happy New Year.


Beginnings

September 5th, last year was a special day in my life, when I was ordained Bishop of Ferns in St. Aidan’s Cathedral. It was a new beginning and it filled me with trepidation as well as a sense of my unworthiness. However, the warmth of welcome expressed in words and deeds helped to make me feel at home here in Ferns and I am profoundly grateful for that very generous welcome – thank you.


I am reminded of the words of my late father who at the beginning of the cutting of the hay in June used to say: “Here goes in the name of God.” Unknown to him, as he placed God at the heart and beginning of his haymaking task his words echoed the sublime words of John’s gospel - In the beginning was the Word: the word was with God and the Word was God.

As I reflect on the theme of beginnings, I am aware of events that are at points of beginning:

· A tentative hope that the Covid pandemic will be behind us soon.

· A personal hope that the beginning of my first year in Ferns will see a steady growth in meaningful ministry as I collaborate with the people of the diocese to shape our local Church in the face of a challenging future.

· A strong collective hope that as a diocese we will answer Pope Francis’ calling the worldwide Church to a new Beginning by joining him on a Synodal Path.


Concern for Others

Beginning the New Year and hopefully a new way of living in a post Covid world, I think the appropriate question for me to ask each one of you is a simple, “How are you?”

I will not be able to hear all your answers, but you need to be asked that question or to ask it of yourself. It is not to be asked lightly but in such a way that it will prompt you to reflect on the entirety of your being at this moment in these challenging and often strange times. It is a question that invites you to reflect on how you feel in body, mind, and spirit after the past two years that were turbulent to say the least. That simple inquiring question “How are you?” has the concern of the entire Christian Community of Ferns behind it. I invite everyone to answer for themselves by naming how they are wounded and hurt because of these past two years of pandemic. The beginning of the year is a suitable time for healing to begin and I sense that there is a lot of healing to be done.


Christian Caring

In the same way, I invite you in the months ahead not to shy away from gently asking those you meet, “How are you?” and to listen deeply to their answer. It is a Christ-like thing to do. Two examples that come from Jesus’ life are his meeting with the woman at the well and his meeting with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. He asked the basic question “how are you?” and listened intently and with compassion to their answers.

It is a sacramental moment of making Christ present when we ask others about their well-being and listen attentively to their replies. It is the beginning of healing and the starting point of all ministries. We have in the past reduced ministry to the work of religious or priests, but it is the task of all the Baptized to ask the caring questions and listen to the plight of others. May we make it a New Year’s wish to be genuinely caring towards one another.


Diocesan Life

It has been difficult to meet as many people in the past few months as I would like to have met and even more difficult to carry out the task of collaborating with people to shape the church of Ferns for the future. In a sense, this work is only at a beginning stage. However, I have been deeply encouraged by the dedication of Diocesan staff and volunteers, the openness of priests in their conversations with me, the witness of the religious sisters and brothers, the imagination and enthusiasm of the Diocesan Pastoral Council, the Council of Priests, the Way Forward Group, the Synodal Planning Group, and the local Vocations’ Committees. All these groups are building a Church for the future, and I consider that a key role for me to play is to encourage and help establish a unity of purpose among all of us.


Reluctance to Begin Anew

The Galway priest, mystic and poet, John O’Donohue in his poem, for a New Beginning, talks about a beginning as moving from “the seduction of safety and the grey promises that sameness whispered” to a time of “delight, when your courage kindled, and you stepped out onto new ground.” My hope is that each of us realizes a moment of beginning life anew as the first signs of spring are in the earth and in the air around us.


In his New Year Message for World Peace, Pope Francis proposed three pathways to achieve peace in the world. I think that what he proposed can be applied also to the work of our diocese. The Pope names Dialogue as the essential starting point. He says,

Dialogue entails listening to one another, sharing different views, coming to agreement and walking together.

He adds a key point that it should be a Dialogue between generations so that the older generations try to understand what the world is like for the young and that the young recognize that there is a wisdom that comes with age which is applicable to even the most modern problem. Our dialogue in this Diocese will have to be wide ranging and inclusive: between people, lay and cleric, between rural and urban parishes, and between all who treasure our local church.

Pope Francis then talks about teaching and education as drivers of peace. I would see formation of people and priests as a central obligation of my ministry in the years ahead. The riches of Scripture, of Theology and the skills needed for ministry in the modern world will need to be shared widely across all our parishes and Diocese


Finally, Pope Francis lists the life-giving dignity of work as a key building block in our understanding of our worth as human beings. If we look at what this means at a Diocesan level, it will be working together to bring new projects to completion which will give meaning to our Christian living. It may be working to alleviate poverty, to protect our fragile earth, to create gatherings for young or old, to help those who are emotionally or physically vulnerable, but whatever it is, it is vital that our Christian words become real.


The Synod

This brings me to the Synod of the Church established by Pope Francis. He has invited the Church across the entire world to engage in dialogue. At local level this means asking and attempting to answer this question,


What is God saying to the Irish Church at this time?


To answer this question from Pope Francis, we might begin by answering these two questions for ourselves.

· Aware of our present reality, what would be your dream for the Church?

· Are there areas of life as you experience it that the Church needs to respond to?

We will explore this question through a process of discernment which, in a Christian context, is understood as a decision-making in which discovery leads to action guided by the Holy Spirit. An important task before the Church worldwide and before us here in Ireland will be to identify the challenges that have inhibited the practice of discernment in the Church up to now, and discouraged people from taking a more active leadership role.


Language and Understanding

One of the first challenges we face is that the language of ‘synod’ and ‘synodality’ is unfamiliar to many people in the Catholic Church. The term synod, meaning assembly, has its roots in the Greek for together on the way.’ In describing this new focus for the Catholic Church in Ireland as a synodal pathway, the Irish bishops, like other bishops worldwide, have sought to convey this image of being on a journey together. Here in the diocese of Ferns, a Diocesan Steering Group has been established and its role will be to work with parishes, people and priests and all Diocesan bodies. The purpose is to listen to as many people as possible and to create a document by mid-Summer which will reflect the principal hopes and wishes of the people of Ferns for their Church.

It is planned to have four listening sessions corresponding to the four Deaneries of the Diocese and to have these as soon as the Covid Pandemic allows. In addition, the Steering Group in collaboration with the Diocesan Pastoral Council will identify unique independent groups who will be consulted with during the spring and early summer.

However, you might like to respond to the questions above yourself and if you do, you will be able to send a submission to the following email address – synod@ferns.ie


Christ Always with us

May we keep this image of Christ before us throughout our synodal journey: The Christ who sat at meals and on hillsides with the poor, the rich, the Jews, the Pharisees, the virtuous and those with poor reputations. He listened to everyone and saw their inner dignity which is only visible to God. Christ led them to recognise themselves as deeply precious and loved by God. It is my hope that on our synodal journey in the diocese of Ferns, we too will identify those we have shut out or who feel marginalised, and that we will be as gentle as the Saviour in inviting people to an understanding that they too are cherished children of God.


A Blessing on All Our Beginnings

My friends, these past two years have been testing times for all of us. Some of you have lost loved ones during the Covid pandemic, either to the disease itself or to some other ailment. It was heartbreaking to part with loved ones without the support of our traditional Irish funeral which always gave so much support even in the deepest sadness.

It has been a time of exhausting difficulty to all who engaged in the care of the sick, in hospitals, nursing homes and family homes. No one has escaped the effects of Covid whether they contracted the disease or not. Thankfully, people have journeyed together in a newfound sense of solidarity and Christian support. Much of that support lies in the simple fact of being present and listening to one another in times of trouble. May we continue to harvest the graces that have come to us in our times of trouble.

I gently remind you that Christ is always with us, unbidden, unseen, but powerfully present. Trust in God that all will be well and that the hope of better days ahead will be fulfilled in time. I leave the last word to my father who embarked on the annual haymaking with a quiet unquestioning trust in God’s loving mercy. It is my wish for all of us as we face the road ahead: Here goes in the name of God.

His everyday words evoking God’s blessing while echoing the inspired words of Holy Scripture,

In the beginning was the Word: the word was with God and the Word was God.

May God bless all of us throughout this New Year,


+ Ger Nash January 2022