Bishop Ralph Year of Mercy article s

Bishop Ralph                Photograph courtesy of Bob Rae

Since I arrived 21 months ago I have visited every part of the diocese, if not every parish. It has been heartening for me to see priests and people working together to build up the local community centred on the Eucharist and to engage in mission beyond the parish boundaries.

However, I have also seen how the growing age profile of priests and congregations, on the one hand, and the diminishing numbers of both on the other, hamper opportunity for genuine growth. This is, of course, is not just a problem for the Diocese of Hallam.  Other dioceses around the country are experiencing the same difficulties as ourselves; not to mention, other parts of Europe, North America, Canada, and Australia and more.

Everyone, of course, has an opinion about what needs to be done which usually involves maintaining their own parish communities as they are at all costs! This I fully understand.  Change isn’t easy.  And if this change is perceived in any way of loss or “letting go”, it is even more difficult.  But not to face change is not to face the reality in which we find ourselves now and in the future.

The most common solution offered, as I move around, is to import priests from abroad. I would like to record my gratitude for the work that our Nigerian priests already here in the Diocese are doing.  Without their presence among us we would find it even more difficult to function as a diocese.  However, and I know that some would strongly disagree with me, I do not believe this is a long-term solution.  Something more radical is needed.

As I have moved around the diocese in recent months, I have taken the opportunity to speak about a model of parish found in Cardinal Kasper’s book, The Catholic Church: Nature, Reality and Mission. Reflecting on the Church in Europe, he observes that because of the way the Church and society have changed in recent years, the model of parish that most of us grew up with, and were nourished by, is no longer adequate to meet the demands that a socially changing Church and society is making on the parish as we know it.  To meet the demands of the changing Church and world around us, he offers a model of the local Christian community that is both old and new.

Firstly, he reminds us that the initial evangelisation of Europe was centred on the monasteries or the Bishop’s House. These centres of worship became centres of liturgical excellence and powerhouses of missionary endeavour and outreach.  Reflecting on the situation in Europe today and many other parts of the world, where human resources are in short supply, he says, the tendency is to try and spread these as thinly as possible in the hope that everything can be maintained as it is.  This is understandable, perhaps, but not the best solution, in his view.

He writes, “… simply spreading out the lack of priests and community evenly across the territory is a method which is not orientated towards the future but the past and which, for this reason alone, can have no future.”

We should, he says, recover something of the sense of looking to the centre once again, as the early Church communities did in the first centuries of the faith in Europe, rather than spreading ourselves evermore thinly in the hope that somehow we will be able to maintain the status quo. Rather, we should look to recreating these centres of liturgical excellence and missionary zeal.

However, this is not enough on its own, he says. Something more is needed to renew parish structures and communities.  His suggestion is, that in this ‘looking to the centre’ we should look to the model of the base communities of South America and Africa where groups form themselves into reliant worshipping communities.  Part of his vision, then, of the parish of the future is of a community of communities.

Miraculous catch of fish sI am not suggesting that we necessarily slavishly follow Cardinal Kasper’s model but I do believe that it has some merit and worth some consideration and help us as a diocese to move towards the future to which God is calling us.

You will recall the incident in St Luke’s gospel where Peter and the others are washing their nets after an unsuccessful night’s fishing when Jesus invites them to “Put out into deep water and pay out your nets for a catch.” (Lk 5:4) Peter is resistant but agrees nonetheless and ‘they netted such a huge number of fish that their nets began to tear’. (Lk 5:6)

Jesus invites and challenges his disciples in every generation to ‘put out into the deep’. Like Peter, we, too, can be resistant to his invitation but if we overcome our resistance we, also, will experience and do more than we ever dare hope or imagine.