Reflections from the Down & Connor Diocesan Congress (held Sept 2013)

Oct 12, 2013 | 3 comments

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‘A Church welcoming to all, without exception!” seemed to be the rallying call from the first Down and Connor diocesan ‘Congress’ held in the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, on Saturday 28th September 2013; and this was indeed a welcome event in the history of Down and Connor.

We were blessed with a beautiful autumn morning as our parish group of 30 travelled by bus to join the 1700 or so Catholics from other parts of a diocese made up of 88 parishes scattered throughout the north east counties of Antrim and Down, including 35 parishes in the greater Belfast area alone.   

The purpose of the Congress was to launch a Diocesan Pastoral Plan born out of over two years of listening and networking, carried out at parish level by the diocese’s recently formed ‘Living Church’ office (see ).  Much of this work involved engaging with existing parish pastoral councils and helping to establish councils where none yet existed.

As our bus neared Belfast even the perfect sunshine couldn’t prevent me from  wondering, would this just be a beads and bangles event to keep those of us who inhabit the pews happy and to provide us with reassurance that something was being done to steady the ship at a time of measurable church decline?  Or would the congress demonstrate that an honest attempt at church renewal was indeed underway? 

First Impressions
What struck me immediately on walking through the front doors of the Waterfront was how far away this was from the drafty church hall ‘make do’ experience of old, that we all know so well;  where the importance of meetings could be measured by whether they warranted the heating being turned on or not.  But here, standing in the packed foyer of Waterfront, surrounded by the tangible sense of anticipation and the lively conversations of the congress delegates, it felt like the local church was at last, confidently entering and taking its place in the modern world, here in the centre of civic Belfast.  Not only was the feel contemporary, but an air of professionalism was to be a hallmark of the day’s proceedings.  This extended from the seamlessly delivered programme, to the music provided by the excellent Down & Connor Folk Choir led by composer Brendan Dowds, to the lighting and the problem-free use of multi-media, etc.  I also have to admit at this stage to being pleased that we avoided the usual reflex when a group of Catholics get together, of having a ‘big  Mass’, with all the trimmings.  The congress proved it doesn’t always have to be candles and incense to be ‘authentically Catholic’.  And in case you think I am degrading the sacrament, you will be pleased to know that Mass with a congress theme – including the unveiling of the diocesan Pastoral Plan (complete with accompanying DVD) and a singing of a new congress hymn composed especially for the occasion by Brendan Dowds – was to be celebrated in all the parishes of the diocese the next day (Sunday).  To emphasis the specialness of the occasion, Saturday vigil Masses were cancelled throughout the diocese.  This was a very innovative way of involving everyone in the occasion, and not just those attending the Waterfront Hall.

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Also evident was the relaxed bond between everyone involved in delivering the day.  Each person had a job to do and no one was exalted.  The bishop and his two auxiliaries were in there with everyone else, taking their turn in doing what they had to do.  A female BBC news reporter, whose voice would have been familiar to all attending, was cleverly roped in at the last moment as MC for the day when it was realised she was a parishioner in the diocese.  The keynote speaker was the Irish Times journalist, Breda O’Brien.   As Breda spoke, with that working mother, down to earth, common sense, I couldn’t help wondering why we can’t trust such women with the homily at Mass on a Sunday?  If we did then maybe more would come to listen.  It really shouldn’t be the bridge too far we make it.  

The Pastoral Plan
The morning session included an outlining of the Pastoral Plan.  (Download here from )  Without going into it, I would say that the plan is a very broad document that does offer very real possibilities for initiative and new life in the local church.  There is of course nothing in the wording, nor indeed was there anything said on the day that is likely to raise the eyebrows of the media or of church authorities.  It is an agenda for renewal, not reform.  Totally valid and important of course, but it would also have been good to hear at least some acknowledgement of the fact that there were issues of church reform, admittedly beyond the brief of this congress, but of concern to many Catholics.  Unfortunately studious avoidance of such matters is still the order of the day and I look forward to a time when those in positions of leadership and authority will trust us enough to be able to at least discuss them in an open and mature way.  It is not beyond us. 

Déjà vu?
There are also parishioners with long memories, who might with some validity  argue that the diocese is merely at a point that it had reached over 20 years ago, when the then bishop Cahal Daly established a diocesan pastoral council, or when his successor bishop Patrick Walsh instigated an extensive diocesan audit.  There is however I feel, little to be gained by devoting precious energy to that particular debate.  We must look ahead, not back.  Hopefully what is different now is the context.  We now find ourselves in a situation where we have, firstly, a church suffering decline and with very real logistical problems; secondly, a reforming pope in the Vatican; and thirdly, a substantial financial investment in a very capable ‘Living Church’ team, headed by its ‘can-do’ director Fr Alan McGuckian SJ, who seem determined and organised enough to transform this pastoral plan from printed words on paper, to a living reality within our parishes and communities.

Panel Discussion
The morning also included a panel session during which a small team of four, Anne McDermott, Brett Lockhart, Breda O’Brien and Fr Timothy Bartlett, responded to written questions that had been submitted by delegates on the day.  Particularly memorable was when Brett Lockhart who after being rather indelicately introduced as a ‘convert’ from Presbyterianism, gently expressed his unease with the focus on that particular detail from his personal profile. Brett went on to stress his gratitude for his Presbyterian roots and the many living ‘saints’ within the Presbyterian Church that had inspired his journey of faith.  These were valuable sources of inspiration and experience from his Presbyterian heritage that he brought with him into his practice of Catholicism.  I felt in the context of the North and Belfast in particular, it was a moment of collective growth and it reminded me of recent words of Pope Francis, “
Proselytism is solemn nonsense” and “In ecumenical relations it is important not only to know each other better, but also to recognize what the Spirit has sown in the other as a gift for us.”  The truth of that really came across in Brett’s well balanced and articulate contribution to the panel discussion and it was no surprise to learn later that he is exercising his particular giftedness as a pastoral council chairman in a large city parish.

Also memorable was Fr Timothy Bartlett’s excellent articulation of Pope Francis’ new emphasis on inclusiveness; something that Fr Timothy noted optimistically, comes naturally to our young people.  I couldn’t agree more.  Let’s hope we do not catechise it out of them.  Too often we have witnessed fundamentalist religion opening the hearts of young people to God, while simultaneously closing their minds to others with different or indeed no system of belief.  It has been particularly saddening to have seen evidence of this happening increasingly in Catholic circles over the last number of years.  Thank God there should be less likelihood of it under the current guidance of Pope Francis. Less favourably received (by me at least) was an appeal for us laity to remind priests that they were different in the calling that they had received and for us to encourage them to live up to that calling.  That didn’t quite earn my personal amen.   To me this emphasis on clerical difference has not served us well.  It is a false dichotomy that only feeds and encourages clericalism.  There are of course different roles and ministries within the church, but I believe it is the claim of ontological difference that is turning the heads of many of our young and not so young clergy, who leave seminary with an inflated sense of their own identity and role.  That’s not to say of course that there aren’t many very gifted, selfless, even heroic priests.  But so too are there many very gifted, selfless and heroic lay people.  If priests are different or special in any way, it is only in so far as we all are.  Fr Richard Rohr puts it well; “one life is a significant piece of the eternal and cosmic Christ; a short moment of incarnation that is building up the body of God”.  We can’t be more special than that, nor should we need to be.


Belfast or Rome?
Unlike the feeding of the 5000 in the Gospels there was unfortunately no feeding of the 1700.  However the cafés and restaurants around the Waterfront must have experienced it as a God-send, when the delegates spilled out in the beautiful autumn sunshine in search of food.  The profusion of roman collars mixing easily with the nonchalant Saturday afternoon shoppers must have made it a scene more reminiscent of Rome rather than Belfast.  There was also plenty of time to browse the bookstands or engage with the large number of exhibitors spread over the three floors of the Waterfront complex.  There was a very wide range of organisations and groups offering such things as ministry support,  evangelisation courses, training in catechesis and liturgy, places for retreat, etc.  Its all out there, but it was quite impressive to see it all in the one place.  People could also use the time for silent prayer in a prayer space organised by the Apostolate of Eucharistic Adoration.  ACI did apply for exhibition space but unfortunately had to join the ranks of those organisations that missed out.  An ACI presence would have helped ensure that a broad spectrum of Catholic spirituality and perspective was represented on the day. Its application although unsuccessful signalled its dersire to work alongside others for the good of the church.  However it is good to know that it has been kindly put on the ‘Living Church’ contact list for future events.

Faith that does Justice
In the afternoon the returning delegates had the opportunity to attend two out of five workshops.   I had the privilege of hearing Fr Peter McVerry speak on the theme of ‘Faith that does Justice’.  Fr Peter reminded us that the ‘Kingdom of God’ which Jesus preached in his parables, was not somewhere we go when we die, but rather the very ‘here and now’ in which we live.

Co-responsibility – A Parish Reality
At a second workshop I heard Jim Deeds from the ‘Living Church’ team speak on the theme of ‘Co-responsibility – A Parish Reality’.  Jim reminded us that while Pope John Paul II had given us the word ‘collaboration’ in regard to lay participation in the Church, Pope Benedict had moved that on to ‘co-responsibility’.  I hadn’t been aware of that.  So its true, we learn something ever day.


Also speaking in this session was John Colgan, a layman from Newcastle who is a member of the writing group for ‘Living Communion: Vision and Practice for Parish Pastoral Councils in Ireland Today’ and who has been promoting pastoral councils for well over 20 years.  John spoke very convincingly about the Catholic Church having something even better than democracy, namely ‘discernment’.  He illustrated this with a story of how a lone wise voice on a pastoral council changed the direction of the council on a certain matter, where a majority vote would have resulted in a different course of action.  It was a point well made, although it may not have answered all my questions around the need for a more democratic style of church .  For example I was left thinking, ‘who decides who does the discerning?’  As in most things in life the answer probably lies somewhere between the extremes.  The older I get, the more convinced I am that there is no ‘holy grail’ system of church government.  On the cosmic scale of things I don’t think God is too bothered what system we adopt, as long as it is loving, compassionate, inclusive, just, and non-abusive.  How we want to achieve and maintain that is a matter for us.  It is however a task that requires a delicate balancing of tradition and reform and is one with which each generation will have to wrestle in the context of ever new social realties and ever evolving human consciousness.

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These were well delivered though-provoking presentations that put pastoral councils and their development, at the centre of any future pastoral planning.  What was apparent from round table discussions was the uneven distribution of parish pastoral councils across the diocese.  Some parishes have had them for 20 or more years.  Others have never had one.  This unevenness needs to be addressed if any diocesan pastoral planning is to be effective.  It may however require pastoral councils to become mandatory rather than being subject to the veto of individual parish priests. With the faith of current and future generations now at stake, I believe that day has passed. 

Where to Post-Congress?
Back in the auditorium, Bishop Noel Trainor used the afternoon plenary session to sum up and share his hopes for the future.  There is much in the pastoral plan to keep everyone busy for some time to come.  The bishop also hinted at the possibility of a similar gathering in two or three years time, if resources allowed.  While I would look forward to that, I would much prefer to hear of a commitment to less high profile annual conferences for the members of parish pastoral councils, both clergy and laity.  In this way the diocese would give proper recognition to the leadership role of the pastoral councils and provide a regular space where the laity and priests in leadership could be envisioned together and have an opportunity to deliberate on matters of pastoral concern. They could also be given the brief of electing a truly representative diocesan pastoral council from among their members. This body in turn could be responsible for planning maybe tri-annual synods or future congresses (supported by ‘Living Church’). Worryingly the summary document only makes reference to the existing Clergy Conference, but that is not to say that new structures cannot come into being as part of the outworking of the pastoral plan.  But how firm a grip does clericalism have on the institution to prevent this from happening only time will tell.  However, without new representative structures such as these, it would be hard to take seriously any talk of real co-responsibility in the church. 

Evening Concert
After the plenary and closing remarks and prayers, our group conveniently managed to forget everything Peter McVerry told us earlier about identifying with the poor, and headed off for a meal in a nearby classy  restaurant, returning in good time to a packed Waterfront for the closing Congress Concert ( details here )


In conclusion; this was a professional, contemporary, presentation of our church and faith that I was happy to have attended and with which I am proud to have been associated.  I didn’t think I would be saying that again, at least not so soon.   The Congress was indeed an innovation.  Of course, its not the end; merely the beginning.  Now we must put the meat on the bones. 

A need for Reform Groups?
Many may wonder, with Pope Francis installed in the Vatican and things like this congress happening  on the ground, is there still a role for the Catholic reform groups?  I believe there is.  I believe any agenda for renewal must be accompanied by a robust agenda for reform.  Pope Francis is leading the way with his recently announced plans for reforming the Vatican Curia.  On all levels the challenge remains for the Catholic reform groups to prophetically call the church to change beyond what it currently deeds permissible or possible.  We must help people to find their voice.  We must know what we are for, rather than just what we are against.  With that positive spirit we must help re-build a church that is not just welcoming but inclusive; a church that is seen to act justly in matters of internal governance; a church that is respectful of all;  open and unafraid of dialogue with the modern world; and a church that is progressive and relevant in matters of practice and belief.   

A New Wind of the Spirit
My fervent hope and prayer is that Pope Francis, along with his team of cardinal advisers, and our own bishops here in Ireland too, would eventually see in the reform movement locally and globally, something of the move and voice of the Spirit for our times.  To quote Cathy Molloy from the ACI steering group at the recent Marianella Centre meeting in Dublin “there is a new wind of the Spirit blowing at ground level”.  The Down and Connor Congress is a part of that.  So are the reform groups. But as the editorial in the Irish News following the congress put it, “how strong the fresh wind of change blows through the palaces, presbyteries and pews in Ireland, remains to be seen.”  Not least in Down and Connor.

Martin Murray

A pre-congress interview with Living Church Director Fr Alan McGuckian and Assistant to the Director Paula McKeown can be found in the September edition of the ‘Reality’ magazine.




  1. Des Gilroy

    Martin Murray has lost his true vocation – that of journalist. His piece is a truly wonderful summary of the event in the Waterfront, with a brilliant summary of the event and a very astute personal commentary. So Martin, thank you very much for that.

  2. Mary O Vallely

    May I echo Des Gilroy’s appreciation of Martin Murray’s very positive yet challenging description of this unique event in The Waterfront.
    I liked Martin’s pointing out Brett Lockhart’s defence of his Presbyterian roots and the realisation then that this was “a moment of collective growth.” How much we can learn from our fellow Christians if we but open our minds and hearts!
    I also share Martin’s discomfort at the belief in this ‘ontological’ change which has, in many ways, added to the distancing between the ordained and the non-ordained and created an unnecessary barrier to dialogue.
    “Co-responsibility” seems to be the buzz word of the moment and I feel the ‘new wind of the Spirit blowing’ through many parishes outside of Down and Connor also.
    Sincere appreciation again to Martin for the work put into composing this report. There is a certain Ulster trait of saying it as it is, of calling a spade a spade. We say of a person, “There’s no back doors to him.” This report has a vibrancy and honesty about it. It gets to the point with no sugar coating. It’s something I suggest PPCs round the country should study and discuss at their next meetings.

  3. Noel McCann

    Sincere thanks, Martin, for your very comprehensive report on the congress. The event certainly sounds as if it was a ‘slick’, professionally managed event. Without wishing to sound overly negative, as someone who has experienced life on a Parish Pastoral Council (PPC) for a number of years, placing our trust in the current model of PPC to renew our church is frankly a waste of time. A much more radical and inclusive approach is required. Is it possible that even the hierarchy and the parish clergy have lost faith in the concept of PPCs – as currently structured? If not why, so many years after the concept was initially introduced, doesn’t every parish and dioceses have a Pastoral Council?


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