The Diocese of Raphoe covers most of Donegal and is home to 82,600 Catholics. The incumbent bishop since 2017 is the Most Reverend Alan McGuickan.
The main part of the listening process in Raphoe was a series of meetings held in a number of parishes as well as three ‘hub’ meetings where parishes came together in either Ards Friary, Letterkenny Pastoral Centre or Rossnowlagh Friary.
The themes encompassed the following issues:
Some people spoke of the sense of vibrancy, identity, belonging and friendship they had experienced as part of their parish community. They spoke of a very positive participation within the parish where people were kind and helpful to each other. The experience of COVID lockdowns was still a very vivid memory when we conducted our listening events and people’s comments in some instances were directly linked to the pain and the frustration of that reality.
The positive opinions referenced above were balanced with more negative comments. Some people spoke of the feeling of togetherness being lost and said that people are grieving. Some spoke about how parish life has changed with less interaction between members, more individualism and a lessening of the sense of community.
This in turn was generating a sense of loneliness among the people. It was said newcomers to the church don’t feel welcome and many of the disadvantaged in our society had fallen away. Some felt if you are a regular church goer you would be made to feel welcome in and by the parish but if not then you would be left on your own.
The Church has lost contact with younger groups and many parishioners do not want to interact with each other. Several factors helped to aggravate the situation including the age profile of parishes, the clannishness of some groups, the lack of structures within the parish to facilitate dialogue and sharing, the scattered nature of some rural parishes and the lack of appropriate facilities in some of them.
The role of the church must change, and the laity will have to support the priest in this process. Bishops will also have to be more dynamic, and a bridge will have to be built linking the hierarchy and a shared church. The need for a warm and sustained welcome was repeated and stressed. Some felt the welcome should be by the priest while most felt it did not necessarily have to be the priest but could be a welcoming committee. The important thing was to speak to everybody and ensure everyone was included.”
Communication is a key factor – we live in the age of instant communication and yet we have to hear most of the news regarding the faith on the grapevine. Although a small minority said they were able to take part in parish decisions and put forward their points of view, the greatest reaction was that parish structures provide little or no opportunity for dialogue other than going to the priest and speaking privately. The vast majority said there were no opportunities at all.
Whereas most bemoaned the lack of structures to enable a dialogue to take place, others said it would be of little use anyway as the bishop would make his own decision irrespective of what they said, so it really didn’t matter what they thought. Many believed the views of ordinary people get ‘edited out’ at a higher level and there was a cohort of people who ensure the church remains a ‘closed shop’. Others felt people wouldn’t participate in such a conversation. Some people pointed to the past and said the church does not do this well – many conversations had taken place in the past and there had been no follow-up, it just faded away.
Speaking out most people wanted to see greater opportunities for dialogue. Channels or forums for dialogue had to be created and maintained. These included meetings such as those organised for the synodality events where open discussions had taken place – these could be organised on an annual or biannual basis. Meetings could also be on a ‘town hall’ style where the views of people could be discussed, heard, and acted on.
Meetings could be local or regional – there are good reasons for both. Everyone should be able to express their views – young, old, priests, lay people, parishioners and lapsed.
To listen to those to whom we have been deaf in the past – the LGBT community, the traveller community, the physically or mentally challenged, women in general. Co-Responsibility There was a recognition that everyone is responsible for the companionship, togetherness, and friendship within the parish; we are all one church and people must take an active role within the church if things are going to work. It was felt by many that although more volunteers were needed, people needed to be invited to participate – they will not put themselves forward.
There was also mention of the need to explore a place for the Permanent Diaconate in the diocese. There was a call for the development of Parish Pastoral Councils in the diocese. Whatever the practical difficulties the main fear was with the reaction of the hierarchy. Some said there was no point in having meetings as the bishops would decide what was going to happen anyway and they would ‘toe the official line’ from Rome.
Evangelising the next generation
There had to be a welcome for all, but everyone had to realise they were also responsible for getting the message out to other people.. For the voice of the parish to be heard it was generally agreed the parishes need far more facilitation so that people can have confidence in voicing their opinions and that the process would be on-going. Education at all levels was seen as significant for the diocese.
There must be an outreach programme catered to young people. Their participation should be actively sought but this can only be done by inviting them to play an active part within the community and by giving them more responsibility. To many the church was old and stale – it was just for old people. It needed to become more energetic and above all more sincere.
Adult faith development
Adult faith education and programmes in evangelisation need to be increased – there was a hunger for this. The connection with schools was seen to be very important and this link should be defended. The priest making regular visits to the schools was considered to be very important. Faith formation programmes such as those offered during Lent should be extended.
Many young people have not been to church since they made their Confirmation. Many teenagers are lost, and they need leadership during their rebellious years when peer pressure is so strong. Many suggestions related to the celebration of the Mass, such as more youth Masses; more music at Mass including gospel choirs, more involvement in the choir, making the mass shorter and more interactive, more lay involvement, the use of more understandable language, more inclusivity.”
Some wanted a place where young people could meet the priest and get answers to any questions they wanted, while others wanted more community events to be organised. The young people said their experience of sharing was limited to the ‘meet and greet’ with the priest after mass.
The large majority said they had no opportunity to make a contribution. Others felt they had some opportunity but not as much as older people and others felt they had a far greater say when they were younger. Some of them said they didn’t get involved because they felt it wasn’t their place, others claimed it was because there “are too many rules”.
Most felt they simply were out of the loop; they didn’t know what the issues were or what decisions were being made. If the church was really interested in their views the priest and the people of the parish should engage with the youth at a different level and allow them to express their views, thoughts, and feelings. Some said their voices were heard through the confessional while others said the priests were very approachable.
Several claimed they didn’t go to church but felt their voices would be heard if they did. Other respondents felt the older people know the priest better and therefore they would have more say in what happens. They claimed their voices are not heard, that they are never given the opportunity to speak, that their religion was forced on them or that they were told to sit still and be quiet.
What might the Holy Spirit be saying?
A number of themes jump out from the gathering process in the Diocese of Raphoe.
The most prominent is ‘welcome’. Some people stated clearly that only those who are already on the inside are made to feel welcome in our communities. New comers or people who only come infrequently are likely to be left to their own devices. It is vitally important for the diocese and every parish to investigate this and respond appropriately.
There is a challenge for the faith community from recognising the fact that in Ireland many people of faith find that there are more attractive opportunities for community engagement and service in the organisation of leisure activities than in the building up of the faith community. The Diocese expects Christian faith communities to be centres of Joy and Celebration and there is a dawning realisation that this will only grow if everyone makes their contribution.
Many people in our communities feel inadequate to step forward and there is an important insight about how to invite them appropriately and encourage them in the best way. In our diocese there is clearly a call for ‘formation’. This would involve both faith development and training in the kind of facilitation skills that would help communities to become more dialogical, centres of listening and learning. There is a recognition that the youth are a particular case.
They leave the practice of the faith in large numbers soon after they make their Confirmation. In many cases they have never been introduced to regular practice. This does not necessarily mean that they lose the faith or have no faith. However, the Church must seek ways to engage them actively and create a culture that will challenge them, listen to them and create authentic communities where they will feel welcome and supported.
We hear many different voices in this report. For some the person of the priest is central; there is an implicit acceptance that he needs to be deferred to, supported and collaborated with. Another voice, calling for a more dialogical approach in the future, asks for training in facilitation for both priests and people.
In our church as it now is the priest bears huge responsibility; everything can end up falling upon his shoulders. He is able to make great things happen. He also has the capacity, because of his own tiredness or limitations, to inhibit the emergence of new initiatives. Two quite distinct conclusions could be drawn: On the one hand, priests need and deserve extra support and encouragement in the very demanding role they now fulfil, especially at a time when our priests are getting older and fewer.
On the other hand the Church needs to look at renewing the structures that can facilitate a meaningful ‘synodality’ and sharing of responsibility for the life of the church.
The full report from the Diocese of Raphoe is available here.