Diocesan Pastoral Plan for the Archdiocese of Armagh:
“Strengthening Parishes in the 21st Century”
Press Launch in the Synod Hall, Armagh
Address by Cardinal Brady
3 November 2008

Welcome and thank you for taking the time to be here today.  Yesterday at Masses throughout the diocese we launched a process for strengthening parishes as vibrant faith communities in the 21st century.  I would like now to tell you what is involved in this process and the reasons for it.  My address to you will be accompanied by a Press Release and you find some video material connected to the launch on our diocesan website and on You Tube.

The process
The first step in this three-step process will be the clustering of parishes for the purpose of sharing resources – resources such as programmes, personnel, gifts and talents.  There will be meetings in each of the parishes before Christmas and again in Lent to discern which parishes will cluster with which and how many parishes there will be in each cluster.  I want to emphasise that our purpose is the strengthening of each parish in its mission of making Christ known and attending to pastoral needs.  Each parish will maintain its own identity.  We will not be merging parishes or amalgamating parishes.  I expect to finalise the work of creating the clusters by June 2009.

Once we have the clusters in place the second step will be to assess the resources that each cluster has and the resources each cluster needs.  This will happen between September 2009 and June 2010.  As a part of this work we will address such matters as:

•    how many priests are to serve in each parish in the cluster;
•    what resources are to be allocated to the employment of lay leaders in the cluster
•    the number of Masses to be celebrated at the weekend and on weekdays in each Church in the cluster.

Then in the third step we will begin to develop and create new parish structures and ministries that will enable the parishes to continue to function and develop as vibrant Christian communities. Some of these ministries might include the employment of lay people to administrative or pastoral roles within a cluster.  We already have examples of this at diocesan level.  Tony and Kate who are here with me this morning work full time at pastoral development and youth ministry in the dioceses.  We also have Mr. John McVey who works full time on diocesan administration.  Some of the structures might include the establishment of a pastoral co-ordination council for the cluster.  Over the last few years we have made great strides in the development of parish pastoral councils. We are presently working on renewing our diocesan pastoral council so cluster pastoral councils may be a welcome extension of this work.  These new parish structures and ministries will enable the parishes grow as communities of worship, witness, outreach and faith, engaging all parishioners in the task of continuing Christ’s mission in the community, society and the world.

The Rationale
We are embarking on this process in order to strengthen parishes as vibrant faith communities in the 21st century.  At the recent Synod in Rome the Church was referred to as the House of the Word of God.  We can say therefore that the parish is the house of the Word of God.  It is in the parish that we mostly hear the word of God and it the parish community that has the task of proclaiming the Word of God.  It is important therefore that we strengthen our parishes so that they can proclaim the Word of God, carry on the mission of Christ and respond to pastoral needs.

There are, I think, a number of factors that lead us to move toward the clustering of parishes and the development of new parish structures and ministries at this time.  Not least is the simple fact that we live in rapidly changing times and every organisation has to adapt to change.  The Church adapts and changes so that it can more effectively carry on the mission of Christ.  It is our love for Christ, the Word of God, which inspires us to face the challenges that changing times demand.

We are of course experiencing a decline in the number of priests, both nationally and in our own diocese.  At present we have 138 diocesan priests.  That number will continue to drop in the next ten years.  If we are to ensure the health of our priests over the next ten years and ensure the vibrancy of our parishes, changes are inevitable.

Another reality is the decline in the numbers attending Sunday Mass, which indicates a need to continually work for a renewal of faith.  It is my hope that by sharing resources among parishes that we can effectively address these matters.

Another factor is the growing emphasis on participation in society and in Church.  As I said in my pastoral letter yesterday I believe that one of the abiding contributions of the Second Vatican Council was revival of the significance of baptism as the sacrament that invites us to participate in the life and mission of the Church.  Can it be an accident that as we witness a declining number of priests we are awakening to the potential of every baptised person using their gifts in service of the parish?  I believe the Holy Spirit is at work here.  That there is a growing awareness of the role of all the baptised in the mission of the Church and that there is an expanding number of lay people studying Scripture, theology and pastoral ministry is the foundation of ensuring that we can continue to have vibrant parish communities in the 21st century.

Also at the heart of every vibrant community is the celebration of the Sunday Eucharist.  I want to ensure that the Eucharist is fittingly celebrated in each parish every weekend.  The process for strengthening parishes is intended to ensure this.

Clustering may seem new but I would like to stress that there is nothing to fear.  Anyone who has an interest in the GAA or indeed any other sport knows this.  GAA fans who are passionate about their own local club are at the same time passionate about their county.  Just as it is possible at one and the same time to be committed to club and county so it is possible to be fully committed to parish and cluster.  Each parish will have a lot to offer to the clusters that emerge, which in turn can resource the parishes in the cluster as vibrant faith communities.

At the turn of the millennium Pope John Paul II called on all of us to promote a spirituality of communion.   I would like to quote him.  He said that the spirituality of communion is the ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as “those who are a part of me”. This makes us able to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship. A spirituality of communion implies also the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a “gift for me”. A spirituality of communion means, finally, to know how to “make room” for our brothers and sisters, bearing “each other’s burdens” (Gal 6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy. Let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, “masks” of communion rather than its means of expression and growth. (NOVO MILLENNIO INEUNTE 44)

The archdiocese of Armagh is a communion of faith communities, which are committed to each other. As we embark on this process of renewing our structures we will rely on this spirituality of communion among all of us to strengthen our parishes as vibrant faith communities in this 21st century.

Thank you.