Parishes must adapt to become all they can be

The declining numbers of clergy and of church-goers, and our new, multicultural society pose challenges to our Catholic-identity communities, says Fr Éamonn Fitzgibbon.

Parishes must adapt to become all they can be

The declining numbers of clergy and of church-goers, and our new, multicultural society pose challenges to our Catholic-identity communities, says Fr Éamonn Fitzgibbon.

The notion of parish is deeply embedded in Irish culture.

A parish gives us a sense of where we are from and where we belong. It is tied up with our sense of identity and place.

Partly because of the GAA’s ‘parish rule’ and the proliferation of clubs throughout Ireland, and partly as a means of marking territory and setting boundaries, the Irish parish has always been about more than religion.

But being Irish and being Catholic were conflated and the Catholic Church was such a dominant cultural presence that one’s parish was only ever partly the worshipping community to which one belonged.

It was also your club, your community, and your home place.

Because the huge majority in Ireland were Catholic, the geographical territory of the parish was synonymous with the Catholic parish.

The Irish parish was primarily territorial.

Sporting rivalries generated pride in the parish.

But the GAA’s club/parish system has come under pressure, particularly in rural areas, as clubs amalgamate and deep (and sometimes bitter) inter-parish rivalries are set aside to create new clubs, formed from a number of parishes.

And many Catholic dioceses are grouping ecclesial parishes into clusters and pastoral areas. The changes in Irish society have resulted in a similar change in how we understand parish.

Because of a rapidly declining number of clergy, and a parallel decline in religious practice and in the numbers of people who self-declare as Catholic, one can no longer presume that the people within a particular territory equate with the membership of a Catholic parish.

Marriage is a good touchstone of the change in Ireland; Catholic ceremonies regularly accounted for 90% of marriages in the 1990s. Today, the figure stands at 50%

The provision of education in faith-based parish schools has also generated much debate and there is a recognition that, here, too, change is needed to reflect the more pluralist society in which we now live.

Increasing numbers of immigrants have resulted in a far more varied religious demography.

The declining numbers of clergy available to work in parish ministry have also had a very significant impact.

The local priest was traditionally at the centre of the parish and often when people said ‘we have a great parish’, one could safely conclude they had a great priest. Parishes were clergy-dependent and overly-identified with the parish priest.

In surveying what the Irish parish has become, and in recognising how dramatically this is changing, we can legitimately ask if the Irish parish does, in fact, have a future at all. Is it simply an out-dated and redundant way of being Church?

Encouragingly, in ‘Evangelii Gaudium’, Pope Francis says that “the parish is not an outdated institution”. However, he also warns against becoming “a useless structure out of touch with people” and says that the relevance of the parish depends on its flexibility, adaptivity, openness, and ability for self-renewal.

There is an urgent need to now rediscover what, in fact, the parish is meant to be.

A few weeks after visiting Ireland, in 1979, Pope John Paul II said “[The parish] must rediscover its vocation, which is to be a fraternal and welcoming family.” Primarily, parish is about people. It is, as Pope Francis reminds us, “a community of communities”.

The Irish parish in the future will be less about administration, clericalism, the institution, rules and regulations.

A parish is not a commercial franchise or a local branch office. Neither is it a service station, where clients call for a weekly top-up or to avail of other services, as required. It is, in fact, the living body of Christ, made up of believers who care for each other as a vibrant, faith-filled community.

Parishes are essential to the universal Church, as they guarantee the Church’s presence locally.

Our parishes in the future will be lay-led and we will experience far more ministry exercised at local level by lay people giving full expression to their baptismal call

In the past, Ireland, throughout the monastic period and the more recent missionary movements, brought its experience and learning to many parts of the world.

It is now time for us to look to the experience elsewhere and receive the wisdom garnered by others. Other countries have faced and addressed the challenges now confronting the Catholic Church in Ireland.

We need to be open, generous, and humble enough to allow that learning to inform us, as we try to ensure parishes can be all that they are called to be.

Fr Éamonn Fitzgibbon is director of the Irish Institute for Pastoral Studies at Mary Immaculate College’s campus in Thurles. The institute hosts a two-day conference, the ‘Future of the Irish Parish’, on August 28 and 29, with speakers including Cardinal John Dew, Dr Margaret Lavin, and Bishop Michael Wuestenberg.

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