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By Jim Thompson

Four meetings were scheduled to facilitate consultation on the pastoral plan for the diocese of Ferns.  They were held throughout the diocese in Camolin, New Ross, Bunclody and Blackwater.  I attended the meeting in Bunclody.  The first thing that impressed me was the large warm pastoral centre attached to the church. What a wonderful place for sharing ideas and encountering each other. There were about sixty people present including priests and laity. The meeting was led by Bishop Ger and facilitated by Sean O’Leary, Ferns Director of Pastoral Development. The Bishop’s great gift of listening was abundantly clear throughout the meeting.  The opening prayer to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit set the right tone. 

An Article and Documents

Sean drew our attention to his recent article on pastoral areas on the Hook of Faith website.  In it two publications are recommended: The Irish Bishops’ Grouping together for Mission, published in 2011, and The Vatican Congregation for the Clergy’s Instruction. The Instruction document was issued by the Congregation for the Clergy and approved by Pope Francis on 27 June 2020. I was very encouraged by its title: ‘The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the service of the Evangelising Mission of the Church.’  What a dream for the Church! 

The Instruction calls on all, both priests and laity, to a conversion, to change our ways of being church.  The purpose of our conversion is to serve the mission of the church.  Our energy must be spent in the mission of the Church rather than in maintaining the present structures. The document draws attention to Pope Francis’ hope that “we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat.” (Mk 6:37)  (Instruction, 3).

Eight Themes of Our Diocesan Dream

The first handout we received set out “Eight Themes of our Diocesan Dream”. These themes had been developed through consultation with the diocesan clergy and the Diocesan Pastoral Council. Presented in a circular format, they are: Listen & Follow; Welcome & Include; Pray & Journey; Worship & Witness; Empower & Flourish; Form & Lead; Hope & Communicate; Love and Serve. The themes formed the basis for reflection in small groups. Following this, feedback from each small group was given and noted.

In the second half of the meeting, we were presented with a proposal for twelve pastoral areas incorporating the 49 parishes and the 99 churches of the diocese. This is understood as a temporary plan to implement the eight themes of the diocesan dream. Small groups met again, this time to identify their hopes and fears. Feedback was again given to the whole meeting, and noted. 

At the end of the two hour meeting the Parish Priest of Bunclody invited all to participate in a cup of tea. This kind gesture epitomised Christian hospitality and enabled relaxed conversation among us all.

Reflecting on our Diocesan Dream

Reflecting on the diocesan dream helps us to identify the need for conversion in all of us.  The ‘Love and Serve’ theme within the diocesan dream involves “reaching out to others and to all God’s creation in love.”  Reaching out to others is our vocation.  This vocation will lead us away from an emphasis on maintaining the status quo and will open up the role of mission that each of us is called to. Many are already living this mission, some of whom are regular churchgoers, others who are not.

Three Examples of Reaching Out

Three examples of reaching out to others spring to mind. Peter reached out to the Roman Centurion Cornelius, both responding to the voice of the Spirit. At a time when it was illegal for Jews to associate with Romans, Peter enters Cornelius’s house and has a meal with him. In this encounter Peter realises that God has no favourites: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10)  When Peter went back to Jerusalem there was criticism of his actions.

During the Fifth Crusade, at the Siege of Damietta in September 1219, St Francis insisted on reaching out and meeting the Muslim, Sultan al-Kamil, ruler of Egypt. He was the enemy of the Crusade which Francis had accompanied.  In this encounter they realised that they were both filled with the same Spirit. The Sultan’s gift to Francis on departing was said to be a horn that called all people to prayer.  Eight hundred years later Pope Francis took the name of Francis in honour of the saint. The Pope had an experience similar to that of St. Francis when he reached out to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, His Eminence Dr Ahmed Al-Tayyeb. Their meeting in Abu Dhabi in February 2019 was another watershed moment. They both signed and gave us the beautiful document on Human Fraternity. The opening words of the document read: “Faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved.” The document closes with a joint appeal that it become the focus of study and reflection: “Al-Azhar and the Catholic Church ask that this Document become the object of research and reflection in all schools, universities and institutes of formation, thus helping to educate new generations to bring goodness and peace to others, and to be defenders everywhere of the rights of the oppressed and of the least of our brothers and sisters.”   (A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. 4 February 2019, Vatican, va.)

A Call to Conversion and Mission

Most of us will not travel to exotic places and meet important people. But each of us is called to continual conversion and mission. This involves living out our faith and attempting to see in the other a brother or sister. This is what it could mean to live out the diocesan dream.

Pope Francis ends Fratelli Tutti with a prayer to the Creator which captures our mission: “May our hearts be open to all the peoples and nations of the earth. May we recognize the goodness and beauty that you have sown in each of us, and thus forge bonds of unity, common projects, and shared dreams.”  Before a closing prayer, Bishop Ger ended the meeting by painting a word picture of hope for all of us to take away.  He drew our attention to a photograph of a group of thirty people from Ferns Diocese in the square at Maynooth University taken on the feast of the Epiphany 2024.  He told us that this group were there to begin a six-month discerning course before committing to a two-year pastoral course. This he compared with the same number of seminarians from all of Ireland currently studying for the priesthood over a seven-year period in Maynooth.  I left the meeting with the hope that we are on a journey, a journey of exploration.  We know that all mankind and all creation is the family of God. What we need to do is develop structures and opportunities to express this reality. A map has been given to us founded on the Gospel and expressed in the eight dream themes.  It is now our mission to make it a reality.


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