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RECLAIMING HOPE

By Sean O'Leary

Bishop Ger Nash has appointed Sean O’Leary as Director of Pastoral Development. Sean led the drafting process for the Synthesis of Communal Discernment in the Diocese of Ferns whilst working as a family carer. He has facilitated retreats on science and faith for Ballyvalloo Retreat and Conference Centre, contributed to the Hook of Faith and delivered programmes for Christian Media Trust on South East Radio. He is married to Noreen and belongs to Wexford Parish. In this article, he offers a reflection on the scope of pastoral development for the times we live in.


As I begin this reflection, I wish to express my profound gratitude to the family members, neighbours, priests and religious sisters and brothers who have so openly shared their faith with me in a spirit of lifelong discovery. There is something so beautiful about faith that we barely manage to do justice to this deep way of knowing. Each word or deed is somehow incomplete yet vital. And so, I thank God for the good people on the road who have helped me to appreciate that faith is a journey that takes us well beyond the terrain that we daily tread upon.

Put simply, pastoral development is a continuous process of answering Jesus’ call to mission, service and love. It begins with faithfully discerning how we can meet the needs of the Church and the People of God for our own moment in history. This approach to planning and change has been evident in our Diocese for over 1,400 years. And so, it is with a great sense of continuity, humility and blessing that I begin my new role in pastoral development for the Diocese of Ferns.

A central question of pastoral development is: How do we shepherd our resources and continue to care for the landscape and people of the Lord’s vineyard where we dwell? This question helps us to realise that a Church that clings to its own security becomes confined and isolated. In this sense, the theme of the Year for Vocation to the Diocesan Priesthood (2023-2024) is especially noteworthy: ‘Take the risk for Christ’.

Accepting this risk is exactly what the first Christians did as they met, discussed, shared, prayed and worshipped together in small communities. As the Acts of the Apostles attest, they too had to face misconceptions, disagreements and hardships. Yet, their love for Jesus and their commitment to each other helped shape their way of life and plant the seeds that led to the flourishing of their communities.

In the ‘Joy of the Gospel’, Pope Francis shares his dream of a Church where people’s joyful enthusiasm for sharing their faith is contagious and where their experiences of living out their faith is deeply transformative. The positive experiences of our recent synodal journey reflected some of this enthusiasm and transformation even amidst the challenges that were identified. The time is ripe now for continuing to plan ever more concretely in terms of community and ministry.

Over the past number of decades, there has been an increasing understanding of all the People of God in terms of collaboration, co-responsibility and synodality. These are technical terms for working and journeying together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To paraphrase Pope Benedict XVI, all the People of God are co-responsible for the Church’s being and action. This has been built upon by Pope Francis’ invitation to journey together as the People of God upon the path of synodality.

The report of communal discernment known as the ‘Ferns Diocesan Synthesis’ available on our Diocesan Web Site (www.ferns.ie) provides much food for thought and points towards pastoral developments that will help shape our local Church in the years ahead. This will be supplemented by further opportunities for dialogue at the local level and the progress of the Synod on Synodality in the universal Church.

A working document (The Instrumentum Laboris) has been released (see www.synod.ie for details). The first session of the Assembly of the Universal Synod will take place in Rome this October. To date the synod has revealed consistency from around the world in relation to questions concerning the status and participation of women; the pastoral reality of holding together love, mercy and truth in extending a welcome to all; and the widespread call for greater transparency.

The insights gained from our own local communal discernment provide the seeds of a pastoral plan for our Diocese that grows from the good work already being done by parishes, lay groups and religious congregations. The growth patterns of these seeds will come from people collaboratively scoping out ways of working together in a shared mission; reimagining parish leadership within the emerging structures of pastoral areas; engaging in prayer and spiritual conversations to discern practical solutions to missionary challenges; re-vitalizing sustainable initiatives to care for the earth; supporting the work of parish councils and the celebration of liturgy; creating spaces for welcome, dialogue, prayer, community building, healing and outreach; testing and implementing methods of communication; developing life-long approaches to training and formation; and deepening our vocation as witnesses to faith, hope and love.

In the short term, this will involve the development of different strands of training and formation to prepare lay women and men to take up roles that were once filled by ordained clergy. The various roles include Catechists to help families and children to prepare for the Sacraments; Pastoral Care Workers to work with the housebound and sick and to assist families in the time around funerals; Prayer Leaders with Scripture as a route to building capacity for leading liturgies; Parish Administrators to support the viability of parish communities that will be without a resident priest; and Volunteers with Accord to help couples prepare for the Sacrament of Marriage.

None of this will be possible without listening; prayerfully listening to each other and sifting through the conversations to communally discern the stirrings of the Holy Spirit. Each one of us can discover or re-discover our baptismal call to be a follower of Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Each one of us is called to be a missionary disciple. Each one of us belongs to a pilgrim Church that is building God’s Kingdom. This is our direction for progress. Speaking personally, there can be no greater adventure in this life.

We face the future together, as the People of God: priests, religious and lay faithful. Our recent experiences of synodality have reinforced the need to be able to live wisely with tensions rather than rushing too quickly to tidy everything up. For outcome-oriented people like me, this means coming to realise that the process of synodality is itself a worthwhile outcome. Sadly, the vitality and spirituality of synodal processes has been lost in media reports about synodality that overemphasize the hot topic issues.

Amidst challenges, it is easy to lose hope especially when faced with slow, uncertain or unsteady progress. Yet, God is infinitely patient and calls to us constantly. Even in difficult times, we can experience an unexpected glimmer of hope. Caught up in the storms of life, it is enough to simply respond ‘Thank God’ and remember that God transforms our efforts in the service of his Kingdom.

Beyond gratitude, it is good to know that God is the source of our lives, of our unity in diversity and of the gifts that we receive and willingly share. This reminds me of the Divine Mercy message that helps us to understand that Jesus’ promises will be fulfilled by our trust in eternal life, through our efforts to do good and reflect God’s mercy with our love and mercy towards neighbour; which we do in deed, word and prayer.

As people of faith who grow in unity and purpose, we become ever more certain that the Holy Spirit is working among us. Each one of us has a vocation that calls us to a mystic ascent toward unity in God and also calls us to community. The prayer issued at the Episcopal Ordination of Fr. Ger Nash as Bishop of Ferns helps us to contemplate the path ahead.

Eternal God, Shepherd and Guide, You accompany us on the journey of life, and walk with us in times of change. May all of us, your people in this place, know your presence in our lives. Help us to live each day, compassionate of heart, clear in word, gracious in awareness, courageous in action, generous in love. And may you surround our comings and goings with loving care through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

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