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Bishop Ger Nash and Dr. Sean O' Leary

Ever since the 19th Century when the Bishop of Orléans Félix Dupanloup divided the catechism into three essential questions: ‘Where does humanity come from?’, ‘Where is it going to?’ and ‘How does humanity proceed?’, such questions have become a focus for contemplating our purpose. A notable example is the famous painting by Bishop Dupanloup’s former student Paul Gaugin, entitled ‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’. These questions are sometimes cited in future-oriented research, especially in the field of artificial intelligence.

Similarly in pastoral development, three questions often shape our thinking about planning for the near future: ‘Where are we?’, ‘Where are we going?’ and ‘How are we going to get there?’. These questions have the potential to position pastoral development as an exploratory process that embraces consensus-building across a Diocese. Pastoral planning attempts to make explicit the faith space we occupy in today’s world; uses Scripture, Church documents and local synods to stimulate discussion, discernment and action within parishes, pastoral areas and the Diocese; uses various collaborative tools, synodal processes and structured group exercises; encourages prayer and reflection; and promotes the thread of unity from theology, spirituality and pastoral experience with the help of the Holy Spirit.

The Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis communio on the Synod of Bishops, promulgated in 2018, speaks of ‘the search for a consensus that springs not from human logic, but from common obedience to the Spirit of Christ’, and reminds us, citing Pope John Paul II: ‘When it comes to verifying the faith itself, the consensus Ecclesiae is not given by the counting of votes, but is the result of the action of the Spirit, soul of the only Church of Christ’.


In the Diocese of Ferns, a collaborative project between the Council of Priests and the Diocesan Pastoral Council to develop a pastoral plan for the Diocese was strengthened by embracing a consensus-building approach that included the wider Diocesan family. From the beginning and throughout the process, outlining the conditions for consensus-building was important. These include establishing a common goal, developing staged processes for different groups and promoting a shared commitment to openness, trust, and facilitation.

‘What the Lord asks of us, in a certain sense, is already all contained in the word “Synod”. To walk together – laity, pastors, Bishop of Rome’ (Pope Francis, Speech at the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, 2015). This presupposes a re-learning or change of mentalities, relationships and communicative dynamics in our ecclesial structures. This is what it will mean to experience a new ecclesial model in a synodal key.

Consensus-building encourages us to be creative and dynamic, to co-operate as equals, to explore differences, to use varied structures and processes, to strive for clarity about decisions, to share power, to acknowledge different levels of agreement, to work around blockages, and to get things done together. As Pope Francis reminds us in Fratelli Tutti: ‘differences are creative, they create tension and in the resolution of a tension lies the progress of humanity’.

Here in our diocese, the initial stage of opening out and the final stage of coming together involved the collaboration of the Council of Priests and the Diocesan Pastoral Council. The middle stage of broader exploration also involved Diocesan offices, programme officers, vicars, the assembly of priests and the lay faithful in parishes and deaneries. This exploratory stage included significant conversations and different processes concerning all the key issues to establish the common ground, make room for disagreement or conflict, overcome fears and animate hopes. For instance, a

collaborative tool was used by the assembly of priests to consider the advantages and disadvantages of transitioning to pastoral areas. This grounded our work in reality based on priest’s knowledge and experience. A statistical t-test revealed a “very significant” difference between the scores for change and the scores against change (p-value = 0.0096). This indicated that the factors for change were deemed to be more impactful than the factors against change without negating any voice.


The main facilitation skills used were active listening, summarising, encouraging group reflection and feedback, testing and synthesising. This allowed for significant amendments to the plan that minimised any tendency towards disjointed outcomes or incoherence and also wove together important elements. This approach was particularly important as the middle stage of exploration reached completion. Throughout the process, testing for agreement became central to discern: (i) the usability of the emerging plan, (ii) engagement with the plan and (iii) the potential of the plan to prompt shared decision-making and action. Along the journey, feelings, needs, wants, opinions, experiences, fears, and hopes were recorded as signposts for the journey. In this way, we worked together to navigate the profound landscape of the visible and invisible. In the Gospel of Matthew these vistas are presented powerfully by Jesus: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food; ... I was a stranger and you took me in; ... I was ill and you visited me; ... What you did for the little ones among my brothers, you did for me” (Mt 25, 36ff).

In the journey of pastoral development, God shows himself – often surprisingly - in those who are often unseen.

Testing also allowed us to reach practical agreement while overcoming the naive expectation that a very high standard of complete agreement was possible. In this model of consensus building, people can agree, agree with reservations or agree while standing aside on a particular issue. By fostering collaboration rather than adversarial debate, consensus processes help us all to seek the thought of Christ. Rather than striving for victory in every debate, each one of us is encouraged to try and understand what "the Lord's will" is (Eph 5:17).

This testing process also streamlined the synthesis process between the Council of Priests and the Diocesan Pastoral Council and led to approaches that offered a greater depth of thinking. This enabled us to move forward by embracing unity in diversity rather than uniformity. This significantly reduced the challenge of managing inconsistencies and potential clashes. For instance, during the synthesis process which led to a streamlined plan, people were invited to write different reflections (theological, spiritual, pastoral, educational) upon the plan to reflect different perspectives to enrich ongoing contemplation and action.

St. Paul teaches that ‘by the same Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of the same Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many... To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good’ (1 Cor 12). Therefore, we recognize that each person has unique gifts granted by God, and that all contributions deserve respect and consideration.

Yet, consensus seeks to balance power differences and overcome power struggles.

In the final streamlining process, excluded material that had been generated for potential inclusion in earlier drafts of the plan was adapted to create resources to support the implementation of the plan. In addition, a pastoral development team of priests and lay leaders was formed and trained to provide further support for the implementation of the plan and support communities and parishes to engage in pastoral development. This is particularly important as the number of priests active in ministry decline in our Diocese.


The consensus building approach to pastoral planning helped us begin answering together the key questions of ‘Where are we?’, ‘Where are we going?’ and ‘How we are going to get there?’. It is an ongoing journey that recognises the gifts of the clergy, religious and laity to inspire faith and build hope in our parish communities; hopes for loving God and neighbour, for living our faith, for gathering together, for teamwork, for families and young people, for lay leadership, for learning together, for reaching out to the vulnerable, for mission, and for vocations to lay and ordained ministry.

Our pastoral plan is fittingly called ‘Our Future Church’. It simply offers the People of God a yardstick and a profile of a future parish to aid collaborative scenario-building and creative action within parishes and pastoral areas. The space between our immediate actions and the future Church itself offers us all opportunities to further develop: (i) formation so that we know the possibilities, (ii) structure so that we deepen our connections and (iii) approaches that help us to grow relationally. In a deep sense, this is synodality. In a synodal church, discernment, consensus-building and collaboration are dynamic ways of living and walking attuned to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, who forever draws us towards a deeper incarnation of our truest vocation.

‘Our Future Church’ also includes a significant fund-raising initiative to raise vital funds for formation regarding lay ministry i.e. to help children and families prepare for the Sacraments; to support families and loved ones in times of illness and bereavement; to encourage prayer in our communities; and help sustain parishes. In our gatherings, we ask for help from our heavenly Father who governs the past, the present and the future; his Son Jesus Christ who called together a people and the Holy Spirit who renews every age. This is our mission, to humbly contribute to the unfolding of God’s life-giving plan for humanity and for all creation. For more information, see


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