PARISH PASTORAL COUNCILS – A FORMATION MANUAL
CARDINAL SEÁN BRADY
THURSDAY 13 JANUARY 2011
* Pope Benedict desires the Bible to be not simply a word from the past but a living timely word … the Scriptures not only acknowledge our fears but they identify our desires and indicate the key to their fulfilment
* Passing on the faith from one generation to another has always been a challenge
* Four characteristics of parish pastoral councils: faith formation and education, community life, liturgy and prayer, and outreach to those in need
* We live in a deeply individualistic time where everyone loves to be independent but wherever we are, we are all interdependent – whether we like to admit it or not
I like nature programmes on radio and television. I suppose that is why I simply love a story in the book being launched this evening. It is about the lessons to be learned from the wild geese as they fly in V formation to their wintering grounds in the slob land around the coast.
Now geese are often regarded as simpletons but listen to this: science has discovered that by flying in V formation, the whole flock adds over 70% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own. Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it immediately feels the drag and resistance of trying to do it alone and it quickly gets back into line.
When the lead goose gets tired he rotates back and another flies point. The geese flying in formation “honk” to encourage those up front to maintain speed. When a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it.
I think all of that is simply amazing and offers so much food for thought – not just for Parish Pastoral Councils but perhaps for the Church in general. I am very pleased to launch Parish Pastoral Councils – A Formation Manual, written by Debra Snoddy, Jim Campbell and Andrew McNally. Could I immediately begin by asking your prayers for Father Andrew McNally who is seriously ill at this time.
The authors provide slim details about themselves but just enough to indicate their considerable experience of life in parish communities, their familiarity with the Word of God and with the particular needs of parishes today. I want to pay tribute to the outstanding work done by Debra Jim and Father Andy over a number of years.
I see this volume as the latest of a trilogy published in recent times in the Church which gives me great hope. The first was The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. It is the fruit of Pope Benedict’s reflections on the work of the Synod on the Word of God which was held two years ago. The Holy Father says he hopes that its publication will have a real effect on the life of the Church – on our personal relationship with the Sacred Scriptures, on their interpretations in the liturgy and in Catechesis and in scientific research. He earnestly desires the Bible to be not simply a word from the past but a living timely word.
It was my privilege to represent, along with Archbishop Martin, Ireland at that Synod. I am very pleased that this document has lots of gems to offer us hope. For example, in the Scriptures we discover an answer to our heart’s deepest desire. God speaks and acts in history for our good. God listens to our needs and our pleas for help. The Word of God can help us unite with Christians of other Churches. It lists four activities which help us come to unity in faith. The Holy Father reminds us that he had already said the quality of homilies needs to be improved.
The second document that gives me great hope is Share the Good News – launched last week. It also is a manual – a Directory for Catechesis in Ireland. It says that the compassionate love, healing and peace which Christ offers to the Church and to all peoples, contains real treasures. Treasures, because they have the power to teach us, and future generations, how to be the body of Christ in our own time and place and to bring Christ’s compassionate love to all.
My hope is that Share the Good News will help people to see that the message of Jesus does indeed point the way to true joy. It does so by finding answers to questions about the existence of God, and the after-life and a whole range of other issues.
The final beacon of hope is Parish Pastoral Councils – A Formation Manual which is being launched here today. I congratulate the authors on its timely publication. This book is about the creation and sustainment of a Parish Pastoral Council. It outlines, in great detail, what needs to be done to form, enable and sustain a group of people who will work, with the clergy, to enhance the ministry of the parish. I like the honesty that says that the formation of a Parish Pastoral Council is but a step on the journey of renewal. But it is the kind of step that can bring new life and love to the parish and its people. That is what counts.
I once attended a seminar where we were asked to envisage the perfect parish. After a lot of scratching of heads and biting of biros – four main areas were identified. Happily this Manual identifies those same areas as of concern for a parish pastoral council.
The first area of concern is that of WORD
It refers to the area of faith formation and education – at home, at school and at parish level. It would include the study of the Bible and of the Catechism for adults and minors. Passing on the faith from one generation to another has always been a challenge. While we know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News, there are a lot of other Gospels out there proposing their own version of Good News. There are those who consider God as irrelevant and the presence of God as a violation of personal freedom.
Yet, in our own times, many things in which we are often tempted to put our trust have proved ephemeral – passing. The blunt truth is that it is useless to waste time on those things which have shown themselves incapable of fulfilling the deepest yearnings of the human heart. So a new realism is called for. Those who build their hope on the Word of God possess that realism. Building on the word of the One who is before all things, they are building in a sound and lasting way.
The second area is COMMUNITY
Community life refers to the ways in which we welcome and support each other in a parish especially in times of difficulty such as sickness, recession and tragedy. It is about creating a sense of welcome and belonging and ownership and solidarity in the parish. We live in a deeply individualistic time where everyone loves to be independent but wherever we are, we are all interdependent – whether we like to admit it or not. We have seen a remarkable example of how a parish supports its grieving families in time of tragedy in the parish of Errigal Kieran in Co Tyrone in recent days. I wish to express my deepest sympathy to John McAreavey on the death of his wife Michaela, and to her parents Marion and Mickey and to her brothers Mark, Matthew and Michael Harte.
A third important area refers to liturgy and prayer – how we give praise and glory to God instead of yielding to the temptation of worshipping and glorifying ourselves. Last Sunday we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus – the second manifestation of Jesus as Saviour.
In St Matthew’s Gospel – after his baptism in the River Jordan, Jesus goes out into the desert to fast and be tempted. Even though he was weakened by his fasting, Jesus found the strength to repel the suggestions of the evil one. He does so each time, thanks to the help of God’s word – thanks to the assurance of the Father: “This is my beloved son”.
Many would say that we are in the desert at this moment. Any of you who have gone from Jerusalem to Jericho through the Desert of Judea know what the desert looks like – a wild and dangerous place. But, like the sea, the desert is both a barrier to and a means of communication. Israel – the Chosen People – first met God in the desert. We meet God in times of crisis. Crises abound right now. People feel lost, confused and helpless at these times.
A few years ago self-confidence reigned supreme – the sky was the limit and the world our oyster. Although expectations were unrealistic, warnings went unheeded. Then the sudden change. What went wrong? Where do we turn? Biblical faith insists – the God of Hope is most powerfully present in a season of hopelessness. Israel met God in the crisis of the desert.
In the New Testament the desert is the time of testing and temptations and of failure but it is also a time of triumph when the Chosen People found favour with God.
One of the most joyful days for me of the last year was 6 June. On that evening, representatives of the sixty-one parishes processed into St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh behind their individual parish banners. They had come to proclaim that the aim of the diocese was to be the Body of Christ. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we try to live like Jesus in our time and place, sharing his compassionate love with all.
So it is not a question just of sharing news – good and all as it may be. We are called to share the compassionate love and healing power of Jesus Christ. That takes us to the fourth area of concern for Parish Pastoral Councils. It is that of outreach which means caring for those in need, including the sick, suffering and the poor.
History tells us the importance of the re-discovery of God’s word. It has always proved to be a well-spring of renewal in the Church. The Word of God understands and guides us in our present trials.
The Scriptures not only acknowledge our fears but they identify our desires and indicate the key to their fulfilment. We must always remember that the same Holy Spirit that was involved in writing the Sacred Scriptures is also present in the reading of the Sacred Scripture. Read in a context of prayer, the Word of God can change the perspective. It can enable us to see that what appeared as impossible moments of crises and difficulty in reality proved to be a wonderful occasion of possibility.
Faith comes from hearing the Word of God – a real hearing of the Word of God – the hearing in which we really meet and know Christ. A living faith insists on sharing the Good News. That is why I think we have here the framework for a renewal of faith in Ireland. The common thread is the encounter with Christ. The grace of Baptism gives to the baptised not only the power but the responsibility to address these concerns. But, sad to say, if God’s word is not heard and there is no faith, well God can easily be considered irrelevant. The result is that God disappears off the horizon.
With the dimming of the light which comes from God, to quote a phrase of Pope Benedict – ‘humanity loses its bearings’. That is a sad place to be. But humanity can rediscover its bearings.
For those who encounter Christ and become his Heralds certainly do not lose their way. They play their part in ensuring that God’s life can spread and, as they do so, they experience an immense joy, a joy that has its source in the heart of God, a joy that comes from knowing that Jesus has the words of everlasting life.
I hope that this book does well. May it help us all to fly in formation, honking to keep each other going, not just to the slob-land but to the fresh and green pastures of eternal life.