LAY PARTICIPATION IN PARISH LIFE
I belong to the parish of Balally, in the foothills of the Dublin mountains.
I have experienced the parish as a place of invitation, challenge and an opportunity to grow .
Invitation came from local curate in Sandyford about 1979 to the community to engage in an exploration of what it meant to be the People of God. That was my initial opening to the knowledge and implications that we are the church, when the principles of Vat11 were brought into my consciousness. That started my longing for a deeper sense of who God is.
Challenge was to find my voice and learn the language of Church, in order to be able to articulate the experience I had living on my ordinary life as wife, mother, neighbour, to somehow link that into a Sunday liturgy which bore no relation to what most of us did during the week
Opportunity to grow, to begin to let go of fears and inhibitions, and to trust that I have something to offer arising out of the sacramental call to all baptised., and to hear what others might have to offer too.
All this has happened slowly and it isn’t until one reflects on all that has happened, that the stepping stones become clearer. There were many boggy spots, frustrations and conflicts while moving towards where we now are as parish.
I must give the Diocese credit because under the umbrella of the Parish Renewal and Development, a Co-ordinator eventually was assigned to my parish. A red-letter day! All my stirrings about the need to belong in a new way were validated by what he offered us.
He introduced us to the study of Christifidelis Laici. This document which came out from Romein 1988. It built on the inspiration of Guadiam et Spes and Lumen Gentium, and stated clearly and simply that because of our baptism as lay people we are all called into the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ.
There were others along side me in the parish who began to take on the responsibility of their baptismal call, to find their voice, to learn, to study and to discuss so that together as a newly formed parish of Balally, we worked to make the links between our lives and the Sunday liturgy. Parish as ‘village fountain’ where all could slake their thirst(Jn23rd) was an image that inspired us in those heady early days. That’s about 20 years ago and slowly change started to happen.
In my parish now the guiding principle of the ‘management’ is collaboration: people and priests praying and working together, reading the signs of the times, and planning for the future.
We are blessed to have an enlightened leader, but he also is blessed to have us. There is quite a cohort of people who have received adult faith formation, one way or another. It wasn’t always good and could change again for the worse with a change of priest/leader! We have the space to exercise our role in different ways… for example, on the baptismal or funeral team, finance committee, liturgy group, hospitality group, lay led prayer, creative liturgies for regular and unusual events, ecumenical gatherings…
While many lay people have responded well to the invitation to belong and participate in new ways, it’s not perfect by any means. Many resist change and hanker after old ways of being church. Many have a cultural connection with the church from their childhood practice, but no real language to speak of a personal relationship with God or Jesus. Many have fallen away specially in the years since the cover up of clerical sexual abuse was blown open and the numbers in the pews are visibly shrinking. The age and class profile is not too healthy and there are many unresolved tensions.
But there is a huge waiting list to get into the two parish school. Sacramental preparation has changed, with the ‘Do this in Memory ‘programmes active for First Communion and ‘You shall be my witness’ for Confirmation classes. There are new teams of enthusiastic parents available for the year that their child is receiving sacrament, but then disappear, but they are on the move, and may be freer to take more responsibility later. But there is enough to maintain a family Mass team with a big numbers of families present and engaged.
There is huge goodness visible and specially in times of trouble.
New Parish Pastoral Centre just being completed: offers possibilities for meeting the needs of this time:
- a gathering place to be church with a small c
- venue to train new lay leaders for ministries of Leadership and Service in Prayer, Scripture, Meditation, whatever needs arise
- a place for Pastoral care, informal and formal, breaking bread together in a Coffee shop, dialogue and chats, comforting and listening,
Liturgies such as Seder Meal etc. Who knows what else…
Already there 6 Teams of lay leaders for Advent Morning Prayer at 7am and Evening prayer every Thursday… this has worked out really well and the teams are fairly autonomous, pray together and have found it like mini basic Christian communities.
As I reflect on my position as lay woman in a male clerical dominated church:-
I felt at one stage that as a woman in the parish, I was literally on all 4’s with the weight of centuries on my back and that it would be impossible to straighten up. I am not there now. Slowly and steadily I have straightened my back. I came to realise that I share, like everyone else, in the ministry of Jesus, as priest, prophet, king ‘you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’ and that we are all in this together as equals, but doing it from our own place. There are petty frustrations all the time. Need to push and shove at times when the issue is important. I remember what Albert Nolan said before Apartheid finished inSouth Africa. ‘It’s not enough to be gentle as doves. The Gospel also calls us to be cunning as a fox’. There comes a time when it’s right not to take ‘no’ for the final word. Just one of many examples: We had to push hard some years ago to have a Mass in the parish for children who died at or around the time of their birth. Parents who had lost babies like this were particularly pained by the language of Church around the abortion referendum and the emphasis on the right to life of the unborn, yet their still-born babies were not recognised as people and given a funeral rite or any blessing. Reluctant curate was bowled over by the liturgy which was a huge healing event for participants as old as 80 and as young as 20. Now there are blessing in maternity hospitals and parishes for grieving parents, because women found their voice. Limbo has thankfully receded into the mists of time.
Has the issue of birth control weakened the message of Vat 11?
In my experience in the parish, it has weakened the church enormously. Church has lost moral authority. Church’s understanding of human sexuality and human needs has not kept pace with modern knowledge…with dire effects. Issues of the day, such as AIDS, contraception for people who are ill, or who have too many children, the question of celibacy, homosexuality, second relationships following unspeakable situations…no visible sign of deepening engagement about these moral issues. Here inIreland, one of the fallouts of the scandals revealed in Ferns, Murphy and Ryan, is that the Hierarchy has lost courage and credibility to speak out on behalf of those who are poor or disadvantaged at a time when we in the parishes need a strong counter-voice.
Passing on the Faith
I didn’t learn too much from being told about God by an ‘authority’, and the God I was told about wasn’t too attractive. But I did learn about God by experiencing something in action. What is authentic has its own drawing power. I need to know that there are communities or people where faith is actively lived and to see that the commitment to a life informed by that faith is real. Religious communities that are healthy are a real sign of that and that is so present in this room. Others have that need too. Sisters in a parish are a greater treasure than maybe they realise, with a repository of faith, knowledge of Scripture, faith engaged with, and fidelity to their call.
Convictions I have, from life experience over the years
Shaped by Family life, parish life, study, Eckhart House,MilltownPark…
- Suffering is not the end, it expands one’s world and understanding and it often is the manure for new growth. I can only see this sometimes when I look back, but try to remember it as I am enduring the trials, big and small.!
- God is alive and present, if a little more hidden, but once awakened to the presence of God in the world, it’s visible every day. Stuff growing and blooming this Summer, despite rains and being swept around.
- Romemay fall, but God will still be with us.Jerusalemfell, which was unthinkable to the Jews, but the way people related to God and worshipped adapted to the change. I see the present structures of Church breaking down, but coming from a psychotherapy background, breakdown offers a pathway for breaking through into new ways of being church/people of God
Bairbre de Búrca