SEPTEMBER 25, 2000

First of all I want to thank Father Jim and the Executive Committee for the invitation to come here tonight. I am pleased to accept that invitation and to be with you. I wish you a very fruitful discussion of the important topics which you have chosen.

I remember well being a delegate to the NCPI from the diocese of Kilmore. I am trying to recall my feelings as I set off to the Annual Conference. I am sure there would have been a certain amount of questioning, wondering was it worthwhile, was it worth the effort? For to be quite honest, as a delegate, I often wished for more interest among the priests of the diocese in what went on in the National Conference of Priests of Ireland.

Of course those were the days when NCPI was confined to diocesan priests. Now it has been enriched by the welcome presence of representatives of religious and missionary priests of this country. I think it is good that priests come together to discuss how to promote their ministry in all its aspects. For it is a challenging time to be in ministry, an exciting time, but also a difficult time. That’s why I think it’s very important to come together to discuss current issues in the country and the Irish Church. It is vital that we have maximum communication, communion and solidarity if we are to successfully address the problems that confront us in Ireland today.

Yes, ministry today is taking place in a changed Ireland and in a changed Europe. The Synod on Europe last autumn discussed the crisis of faith in Europe. It came to the conclusion that the crisis is not just one of faith, but a crisis of culture and of life.

Last week I visited Expo 2000 in Hanover in Northern Germany. I found it a fascinating experience. One hundred and sixty national pavilions took us on a mini world cruise of the five continents. I thought one of the most interesting pavilions was that of the Czech Republic. It featured seven statues of the Madonna and child and seven drawings of modern women. In the drawings the hands were in the same position of those of the Madonna, with one significant difference, there was not a child in sight, and not one word of commentary was offered. It was, in my opinion, an eloquent testimony from one of the most atheistic countries in Europe to the crisis which faces much of Europe, crisis not only of faith but also of culture and of life. The fact is that modern Europe has a problem passing on faith and culture, but not alone that, it has a problem passing on the gift of life.

One of the key elements in the winning of a relay race is passing the baton securely, swiftly, from one runner to another. We get the impression that in this generation, the baton is in danger of being dropped.
We ask ourselves; is it through some fault of mine or yours that this is happening? We come here with fears in the backs of our minds that the scandals are going to do irreparable damage to the Church. We are afraid that the message, as we bring it, seems irrelevant. There are fears that there will be nobody to take our place. Yet, despite all those fears, you have come here tonight. You have taken the decision to come in great numbers and I salute you for that. Let us hope that at the end of this Conference, you will have received some message that will bring you hope and lift morale. Hopefully, you will say to yourself, ‘Ah, those days at the NCPI were not a waste of time after all’.

I mention all of this, not that we might be plunged into panic or discouragement but rather, I hope, to encourage a calm objective assessment of the situation. My hope is that after your discussions on collaborative ministry, you will all go back to your desks and to your parishes with a lilt in your voice and a bounce in your step, eager to put your hand to the plough once more. I am confident that it can happen. There is a wealth of experience in this room on those very topics. You represent hundreds of priests who have invested immense effort and the best years of their lives on these very tasks. I would like to think that priests will go away from this Conference more hopeful than they came.

The Synod on Europe last year, had as its theme, Jesus Christ, Alive in His Church, Sign of Hope for Europe. The Synod decided that the first sign of hope in the Church is ‘holiness’. As a sign of hope and example of holiness for the priests of Ireland, I put before you, Blessed Joseph Columba Marmion. A lot of us can identify with him in one way or another. He was Irish – born in Dublin – a North-sider. He was a student of Belvedere College, a layman for approximately one third of his life. After studies at Clonliffe and at the Irish College, Rome, he was ordained for the Archdiocese of Dublin. After serving in the Parish of Dundrum in the City and teaching in Clonliffe, he joined the Benedictine Order. He was a Religious with a missionary vocation which took him to live outside his native country, a European living in different European capitals and countries long before the Treaty of Rome or the Commissions in Brussels. Blessed Columba Marmion was first and foremost one of Christ’s faithful. Through his writing and preaching of the Word of God, people came to know in a new light their dignity as children of God. They came to see and live all things in union with Christ. The challenge for all of us is to go and do likewise.

Thirty-five years ago the Vatican Council told priests that they must discover, recognise and foster the many and varied gifts of the laity. When your President asked me what I was going to talk about tonight I offered to talk on that topic because I happen to believe, with a lot of other people, that collaborative ministry has become one of the major challenges for all people who minister in the Church today.

“Who are the laity?” John Henry Newman asked in 1859, and added, “the Church would look foolish without them.” The laity are our brothers and sisters in the faith and sometimes in the flesh. They are the baptised; they are members of the People of God. They have been given the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They are our special partners in carrying out the mission which God has entrusted to the Church. The laity are those people who, with a noble and generous heart, have heard the Word and have taken it to themselves and have yielded a harvest through their perseverance. They often inspire us with their courage and humble us with their holiness. In their families they strive to ensure that Christ is born again in the hearts of his children. Each and every one of the People of God has an essential part in the mission of the Church to the world. We need to reclaim for ourselves (priests) and for our lay brothers and sisters, an awareness of the nobility of our vocation to build up the reign of God in the world. Maybe we should broaden out our discussion and discover with faith and recognise with joy and foster an appreciation of the many and various charismatic gifts of all of God’s people, lay, religious and other clergy. These gifts were given by a gracious God for a good purpose. We should try to develop all of those gifts together and work together to achieve that purpose.

Lay people love to hear those words and understandably so. For they are very affirming of the gifts of lay people and form part of that rich vision of the laity produced by the Vatican Council. It says, first of all, that the lay Christian is called to seek the kingdom in the world by engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to God’s plan. That is the arena of the laity’s activity, building up the Kingdom of God in the world, taking part in temporal affairs and making sure that they are in accordance with God’s plan.

The Council has a warning for pastors. As bishops and priests we are not established by Christ to undertake alone the whole salvific mission of the Church to the world. We are instead to be ‘Shepherds of the Faithful’. We are to recognise their contributions and charisms so that everyone in his or her own way will, with one mind, co-operate in this common task. An awareness of this common task has grown in the Church over these last thirty-five years, I think. You have the example of a lot of lay people on the missions now for some time. It is an awareness that they too share in that responsibility. This idea of co-responsibility has emerged, but it needs to be fostered more closely.

Thirty-five years later I thought it would be a good idea to do some stocktaking and try to assess how much has been achieved. Where have we failed? What have we missed out on? What can we learn from the experience of other countries? Yes, the help of the laity is urgently needed. We can’t do it all on our own. However all the baptised – lay faithful, religious and priests – are equal members of the people of God.
We all have responsibility for the mission of the Church. There is no point in loading that responsibility onto one section. So, if there are less people in the seats, then that is a critical situation. It is a critical and potentially disastrous situation, first of all, for the people who are missing, who are missing out on so much by not being there. Karl Rahner once said that, ‘There is not, and there should not be, any lay person, given that in its theological meaning a lay person is a member of the Laos, a member of the people of God, that is, someone who is consecrated’. The lay person is the baptised Christian who stays in the world and remains there to change the world into Christ.


So how do we discover with faith the gifts of the laity? I think to discover the gifts of anyone, we must know that person. We believe that they are gifted. ‘God does not make junk’ was a favourite saying of the Marriage Encounter people years ago and it is still true.
The first thing that needs to be said is that quite a lot of discovery of the gifts of the laity has taken place. A modern author/observer/commentator, says, ‘for all the adverse criticism to which they have been subjected, the priests and preachers of the late 60s and early 70s, did much more than they have been credited for, certainly more than the huge slow moving bulk of the laity’.

I do not to claim to have the answers to all these questions, far from it. However, from my experience, I know there are great talents among the laity. I come as a fellow-pilgrim. We priests and bishops are called to give leadership to the people but not any sort of leadership. It must be prophetic leadership. We must bring and interpret the Word of God. That leadership is given, not only by the words we speak, not only by the actions we do, but also by our whole lives. The Word of God must first come to us and live in us before we can pass it on to others. A prophet was always someone who has had an experience of God.

The prophet is the one to whom the holiness and will of God have been revealed. To give prophetic leadership the cleric, the leader, must contemplate and meditate on the present and the future, through the eyes of God. Prophetic leadership is a means used by God to guide His Chosen People. Tonight we pray, Lord, help us to listen and to learn from this meeting. Help us to be nourished by your Word before we proceed to nourish other people. Every Christian is an apostle. It is up to us to make people aware of their dignity and their mission and to help them to live up to that dignity and carry out that mission.

I would like this meeting to bring together people’s experience of how they find the achievements, the experiences, and the expectations, of the laity today. You have vast experience here in your midst. Sure, the participation of the laity in the life of the Church since Vatican II has increased and intensified magnificently. It is abundantly obvious in Liturgy but also in catechesis and other different forms of the apostolate.

Like every good educator, the priest is meant to draw out the gifts and talents and leadership qualities that are in the parish. The Holy Spirit, whose work Paul described in Corinth, is not on strike in your parish or in mine. There will be people who are talented in many ways in which the priest is not gifted, for example, music. They will be able to take initiatives, which the priest would never be able to take. The priest should not feel threatened or obliged to stifle such initiatives. The parishioners, like the pastors, are called and obliged to use their gifts for the good of the body, the Church.

During the recent World Youth Day 250 young Irish people were billeted in one parish on the outskirts of Rome – the parish of St. Patrick. They came from Derry, Raphoe, Kilmore, and Armagh. It was quite a challenge in the month of August, at a time when 80% of the parishioners were away of holidays. In the midst of it all the mother of the Parish Priest died and he was on his own in the parish. However, in his absence, his lay committee carried on brilliantly. It was an example of a parish where the Parish Priest knows he does not have a monopoly of leadership, he doesn’t have to initiate everything and he certainly does not have to do everything.

How can we discover, with faith, the many and varied gifts of the lay people in our parishes? First of all by getting to know those people, by visiting their homes, building up a relationship with them, by respecting those people and looking again and seeing their potential and by allowing ourselves to be seen as people who need their help. Sure, we cannot do it alone. The Church today needs all the gifts the Spirit of God gives to the community. But how do we realise and call forth and muster our different strengths and talents? One of the ways is by coming together in a Conference to discuss it and find new strategies and ways and associations.

Among the gifts that have been discovered, and maybe have yet to be discovered to a greater extent, is that people have a hunger for God and a thirst for prayer. Do we under-estimate our ability to discover and recognise this gift and foster it in our people? There is a tremendous hunger for God. We are called to be teachers of prayer. People desire to know the answers to the basic questions of life. There is a desire to know the author of life. Perhaps we are over-dependent on the Sunday homily as a means of reaching and catechising and forming our people. People like to be contacted and challenged. Are we being too diffident? Returned missionaries sometimes marvel at how difficult it is to get readers, altar-servers, gift bearers. Have we failed to put across to them the great honour it is to read at Mass, to read the Word of God. Have we lost something of our own appreciation of the majesty of God?

I was watching television last week and Gary Fahey was being interviewed, a bright, intelligent, young man. He was talking about what an immense honour, a huge honour, it was to play for his county in an All-Ireland final. You could see the pride and the joy surge up in him. Can we somehow put across what an immense honour it is to read the Word of God? To sing God’s praises if we have a singing voice, to bring gifts to the altar, to bring the bread and wine that will be turned into the body and blood of Christ? Have we lost our nerve in saying all of that?


Father Enda Lyons, in his book, ‘Partnership in Parish’, talks about the difficulty people have to see themselves as working in partnership with the priest. They see it simply as helping the priest do his job. We obviously have some work to do here to convince them that it is a matter of all the members working together, to do the work of the parish, the Church’s work, which is their own work. The use of the term ‘lay apostolate’ is not in favour nowadays. Because ‘lay’ suggests amateurish and apostolate suggests the 12 apostles and being confined to 12 and so on. But the priest recognises with joy the gifts which a gracious God has given, for a good purpose, furthering the reign of God on earth.

I am sure you have all heard of the famous crucifix of Dresden. After the bombing of Dresden the crucifix survived but without its arms. They decided to leave it like that to emphasize that now in the world, Christ has no arms or hands or fingers, except the arms and hands and fingers of his followers, to carry on his work.

The talents of lay people can be employed in many areas to which the priests or bishops do not normally have access, for example, the realm of business and high finance, the world of media and journalism, the world of sport and entertainment, the world of politics and public life. We all know examples of people who do immense good in all of these domains because of their values and their convictions. They do so in the defence of truth and the promotion of justice. What these people have, is the right to expect help from their pastors to inform their conscience, in the light of their responsibilities and of the decisions which they have to make. The recent document of the Irish Bishops on Prosperity with a Purpose was written to provide some of that help.

Why should priests recognise, with joy, the gifts of the laity? The reason is that by naming and celebrating one another’s gifts we enter into a deeper relationship with people. We commit ourselves to a deeper level of Church. We are committing ourselves to discuss and debate, to forget and forgive and in the process to build up mutual respect and love. The goal of our ministry is to bring about the reign of God. The vision is the path we choose and to which we commit ourselves. We remember that the part of the laity is in the world, there to bring the values of Christ into the world, particularly in the areas of marriage and the family, in the areas of public life and public service, and the areas of professional life and business life.


Fostering the gifts of laity will mean a new style of leadership. It is a style which involves coaxing and cajoling people, inviting people, promoting small groups discussions, listening, clarifying issues, providing information, and agreeing a way forward. All of this interpersonal action leads to deeper relationships and more lasting commitments. Obviously it can be messy, time-consuming, painfully slow, but eventually more effective. Collaborative ministry is not about efficiency, it is much more efficient to decide on your own, you know best. The role of the leadership in a parish is leadership in a community of brothers and sisters. It should not be seen in terms of power. The fact that the priest is the overall and official leader in the parish does not mean that he is the only leader in it. It is a mistake to think that the priest must initiate everything, not to mention do everything. In every parish there will be people gifted in ways in which the priest is not.

The leader recognises with joy the potential of small seeds and humble beginnings. Who could have recognised the potential of those 15 girls, mostly in their late teens or early twenties, who gathered with one lay-man, and one priest, on 7 September 1921 in Myra House, Francis Street, in this city. Who could have foreseen that what was beginning on that night in those humble circumstances would give rise to a movement that today has members working in 245 radio and TV programmes in Rio Janeiro and 28 branches in one Catholic University in Korea. I am talking about the Legion of Mary. Let’s never despise small beginnings or humble gifts.

New Boards of Management for primary schools are being set up at present. They, and other bodies, like Pastoral Councils, Finance Committees, are the means of ensuring that parishioners can exercise their right to make their needs and wishes known to their pastors. In the past, inadequate preparation and the inexperience of available lay-people, brought setbacks. The best people are not always the easiest to work with and the easiest to work with are not always the best people for the job. Parishioners have the right to express opinions concerning the good of the Church to their pastors. The challenge now is to prepare people to play the full part, appropriate to them in the life of the Church. Pastors have to respect the intelligence and maturity of their parishioners. People are more likely to listen to and obey pastors when they find that their own views are considered and their dignity appreciated. It is a question really of mutual trust and respect. Preaching catachetical formation, pre-sacramental preparation, care of the souls, these are the ordinary means by which lay faithful receive the spiritual assistance from the Church and the Word of God and the sacraments to which they are entitled.

One of the great strengths of the Catholic Church in Ireland has been, and still is, the close links between the lay faithful and their clergy. Those links have been forged by home visitation, especially in times of tragedy and bereavement, pastoral care, involvement in youth ministry and education. They have also been forged by involvement in fund-raising, parish missions, circulation of religious magazines. There is a proud tradition of inter-dependence, deep and loyal friendships and generous mutual support. The priests depend on their people for material support while the laity looks to their clergy for guidance, intercession and consolation.

In recent years the tendency is for pastoral care to become more structured and formalised with the introduction of various ministries into parish life. Due to the age profile and the diminishing number of priests, that process is set to continue and expand. The key factor is not the number of ministries the parish has but its willingness and capacity to become a ministering community. That development depends ultimately on people becoming aware of the needs of others and being ready to meet those needs.

A lot of progress has been made in the introduction of such ministries. Much more needs to take place. With the growing awareness that responsibility for the mission of the Church belongs ultimately to all of the faithful, I am confident that we will rise to that challenge. It will require a big effort of thoughtful planning, determination and commitment to follow through. Working with the laity is no longer an optional extra in parish ministry. It is the standard model nowadays, par for the course.

The vision of competent and committed people, working together in the complex task of ministry, is inspiring. That vision is the path to which we must commit ourselves in order to realise the common goal. Collaboration in ministry means working together to achieve the goal of furthering God’s reign in the world. Jesus entrusted the awesome task of furthering that reign to his disciples when he said, ‘Go, make disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them’. However, he did promise to be with them always, to the end of the age. It is the glory of the baptised to share in that office and to have received that mission. It is only by working together that we will fulfil that task and reach our eternal destiny.