Bishop Paul Dempsey: The Lord doesn’t ask us to be successful, he asks us to be faithful.

This article was written for The Irish Mail on Sunday by Bishop Paul Dempsey, Bishop of Achonry. It is reprinted with his kind permission.

The Diocese of Achonry has twenty-three parishes in Counties Roscommon, Sligo, and Mayo. The patron saints of the Diocese are St. Nathy and St. Attracta.  The Cathedral of the Annunciation and St. Nathy is situated in Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon.

Recently I was asked if I was happy being a bishop. My hesitation in responding probably said it all.  I wanted to be a priest from the time I was eleven. The way of life and the variety of situations a priest ministers in always fascinated me. Following the various psychological assessments and interviews, I was accepted for the seminary. My formation programme for priesthood was wide and varied. It included academic work, pastoral formation, spiritual accompaniment, and human development. Following ordination I served for twenty-three years in parishes, youth ministry, vocations promotion, and local media. Being honest, I loved every minute of it, acknowledging that there were some tough moments along the way.  Then out of the blue in mid-December 2019 a phone call came from the Papal Nuncio, the Pope’s representative in Ireland, asking to meet me. During the meeting he informed me that Pope Francis wished to appoint me a bishop. I remember the sense of numbness and disbelief. I asked for time to think, pray and reflect. It was a torturous few days. Eventually, trusting in God’s providence and with great admiration for Pope Francis and his vision for the Church, I accepted. From that moment my life took a direction I never imagined. In the past, when the Church was all powerful, being appointed bishop was viewed as a great honour. The position and status were second to none. In my experience, this is not the case today, nor should it be. It is well recorded that many serious mistakes were made by bishops that led to a lot of pain and grief in so many people’s lives. The power bishops wielded in the past was unhealthy and unnatural. The abuse of this power eventually led to the downfall of what was once the most powerful institution in the State. The past couple of decades or so have been a tumultuous time for those who are close to the Church and still believe in its life and mission, while acknowledging the wounds and pain that have been part of the story.

So, am I happy being a bishop? Well, I’ll put it this way, I miss parish life a lot. When I served in parish there was such variety in any given day. A priest who has a pastoral heart is out and about meeting people in all sorts of different situations, supporting, caring, encouraging. What a joy and privilege that is! Despite the fall of the institutional Church, people still have so much affection for their local priest in the parish. From knowing so many priests this is critical in their lives. Many people still need priests in the various circumstances that occur in life, but there is another reality, priests need people! In my experience a bishop is a step removed from the reality of parish life. Of course, there are pastoral moments such as Confirmations and other significant events in the life of the diocese. However, much of the time is spent on administration and ensuring that all the proper procedures are in place around areas such as Safeguarding, Data Protection and Charity Regulation.

So, am I happy? Well perhaps it’s the wrong question. St. Mother Teresa had a little saying: “the Lord doesn’t ask us to be successful, he asks us to be faithful.” The question for me is how can I be faithful to the Church in the midst of all the challenges, scandals, struggles, questions, weaknesses, failures and sinfulness that have been revealed in recent decades? To answer this there are a couple of things that I find helpful and give me strength and encouragement.  Firstly, is the call of Peter. When the Lord called Peter, he responded: “Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Despite his sinfulness and his later denials, Jesus did not give up on him. That gives me hope!

Secondly, is the life and ministry of Pope Francis. I think we would all agree that he does things somewhat differently. There is a freshness about his approach. He has invited us to be a “synodal” Church, one where we “journey together.” He has asked us to speak with parrhesia, a Greek word that appears in the New Testament that means “frankness,” “boldness,” or “courage.” He is a living witness of this. Recently during his visit to Malta, he gave a homily at the National Shrine of “Ta’ Pinu” in Gozo. He talked of “rediscovering the essentials of our faith” which are: “Our relationship with Jesus and the preaching of his Gospel.” He reminded us that the life of the Church is not merely about “a past to remember” but “a great future to build.” He went on to say, “We need to ensure that religious practices do not get reduced to relics from the past, but remain the expression of a living, open faith that spreads the joy of the Gospel, for the joy of the Church is to evangelize.” This is parrhesia in action!

Some people blame the media for all the Church’s woes. I do not believe this is true. It was via the media that the Church was called to account, to truth. Surely God must be at work in this? On Good Friday we face the rawness of the cross, it is the place of death. It is a reminder that we must face the pain, face the truth, face the sinfulness in the Church and allow some “relics of the past” to die and in doing so we become a more authentic, faith filled Church. In this we experience the hope of Resurrection. This takes time, but if we have the courage to travel this road, then the green shoots of new life will get the opportunity to break through and many are in parishes throughout the country. These green shoots begin with, as Pope Francis outlined, “rediscovering the essentials of our faith.” Put another way, we in the Church need to return to the basics, the heart of what faith is all about which is “our relationship with Jesus and the preaching of his Gospel.” The new life of Easter offers us this opportunity! This hopeful message encourages me to remain in the Church, trusting that the story continues and that there is “a great future to build” because of the empty tomb.

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  1. Soline Humbert says:

    Bishop Paul Dempsey:The Lord doesn’t ask us to be successful, he asks us to be faithful…

    What struck me is that, for the bishop, faithfulness is faithfulness to the Church. “The question for me is how can I be faithful to the Church in the midst of all the challenges etc…?”
    For me the question is rather:
    “How can I be faithful to Christ in the Church in the midst etc…?”
    But then, I am not a churchman!

  2. Kevin Walters says:

    Bishop Paul Dempsey: The Lord doesn’t ask us to be successful, he asks us to be faithful…

    “These green shoots begin with, as Pope Francis outlined, “rediscovering the essentials of our faith.”

    Quite recently I made a long post that encompassed this question (See link) Can a priest Consecrate the Host in isolation?

    Sadly, I did not receive a response but I received several on another site some of which are given in italics below.

    “So how can a priest Consecrate the Host in isolation?” Well, it must be that the assembly of the entire Communion of Saints is present at each Mass. My God! A fully Eucharistic Church for all time!

    The Angels and the Saints continually rejoice before the Eternal Sacrifice and we are drawn into communion with them when in our own given time here on earth we partake of (Memorialize) the sacrifice of the Mass in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, through an ordained Priest. And this communion is initiated by the breaking of bread.

    When the Priest performs the Sacrament by breaking the bread the intent behind the action (Breaking of bread) is one of sharing in the body of Christ. The intent precedes the action, and the action of the breaking (Sharing) of the bread must not take place unless there is a Communicant present, for a priest to do so would be a sacrilegious act, as in effect the priest would be ‘holding’ the Will of God in contempt.

    The intent behind the action of Jesus Christ breaking bread is one of sharing when the Priest breaks the bread, he has to stay true to His intent this necessitates a communicant as he cannot share it with himself.

    “A Catholic priest is unlike others in the long historical list of types. The reason is Christ confers his gift of the priesthood in a specific sacramental manner that exceeds the common priesthood of the faithful that all the baptized received.

    As his representative, he’s called to offer himself for the sheep, as he did, prepared to lay down his life for them.
    When He offers Mass alone with Christ [he’s never really alone] he offers himself in Christ’s oblation on behalf of the Mystical Body. Priests who are devoted to the Mass will offer it when no community is physically available in that sense. As did Cardinal József Mindszenty in Hungary and Cardinal Joseph Zen in China when imprisoned by Communists.

    It would be antithetical to God’s great love for these men, that he would condemn them for desiring to emulate him, especially when he’s given us that mediator charisma. Rather than condemn them, he would greatly bless them because they sought to glorify His name as the God who is love itself.”

    One cannot help but acknowledge the beauty of truly committed priests while knowing without a doubt that God loves them in their commitment to shepherd the flock, as they follow in His footsteps in humility behind Him. And this sincerity can clearly be seen in those faithful priests who are persecuted/isolated/imprisoned, etc. as their faith is manifest.

    While Heartfelt prayer, the ‘offering up of one’s ‘accepted sufferings’ in the difficulties of this life with His on the Cross, is always acceptable to Him, and this applies also to the faithful in their sacrificial life whether they be religious or laity which has been manifest by many throughout the ages, some of whom have been denied the sacrament of Holy Communion due to persecuted/isolated/imprisoned as with priests, many have laid down their lives for their brothers and sisters in Christ which is reflected in these words

    Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God,
    the almighty Father.

    Are the priests not also greatly blessed by having been given the gift to celebrate the Mass in obedience to His Will which glorifies His name? To deviate from the divine prerogative calls into question His inviolate authority with the possibility of serious consequences.

    So, in this my understanding, you cannot have one (Sacrifice) without the other. A priest acts as a conduit to God’s grace through the Sacraments he is not the Sacrament, he cannot forgive himself, ordain himself etc.

    “From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacrament also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.” (CCC, 1128)

    And the implication of this statement is that the celebrant, no matter how worthy or unworthy he may be, cannot take and must not take anything away from the ‘Glory (Word/Will) of God’. As Christ’s Sacrifice stands alone for perpetuity, we can memorialize it and imitate it but we cannot claim it as our own in any way whatsoever, rather, we all can only humbly partake of it and imitate/offer it up in our daily lived lives as the fruits of the sacrament also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them”.

    When His Word is acted upon in ‘obedience’ to His Divine Prerogative as given at the Last Supper. To my understanding Grace (Gods’ gift) is only given when, in obedience, the ordained celebrant re-enacts Christ’s actions in a memorial to Him. Because obedience to God is essentially love of God.
    Yes, God is love and when in ‘obedience’ we do His Will we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

    “Sanctify them in the Truth; thy Word is Truth as thou didst send me into the World so I have sent them into the World and for their sake, I consecrate myself that they also may be consecrated in truth”

    and the fruit of this sanctification is the gift of peace, a peace that the world cannot give. It could be said that obstacles (not being able to say or participate in the Mass) whatever they may be, when accepted in humility, only serve to increase our trust in Him and Him alone rather than trusting in one’s own efforts/opinions/image, as

    “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” ‘Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest in me.’

    “Keep in mind also, that it’s not the word that condemns, rather it’s our manner of receiving it and interpretation of it.”

    That is true but certain teachings cannot be misunderstood as in ‘one iota’ within the totality of the Commandments. “Take and eat this is my body” I would also include “Paint an image according to the vision ‘that you see” His inviolate Word/Will sits at the base of the Sacraments instigated by God Himself. Once this sacred belief is breached relativism ensues creating a downward spiral of spiritual dissipation within one’s own heart. In turn, Sacred Scripture becomes relative within the Church’s teachings which creates a ‘tangled web’ as men look to each other for approval of their own perceived understanding of God’s Word (Will).

    It could be said that to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass, which by its nature is publicly celebrated, is a shared communion with the faithful while it reflects this teaching ‘A Sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace’ and can never be a private affair.

    When we are faithful to His Inviolate Word, we have the promise that we will be led into all the truth by The Holy Spirit. Any insightful comment would be most welcome.

    This debate can be followed via this link

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  3. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Bishop Paul Dempsey: The Lord doesn’t ask us to be successful, he asks us to be faithful.

    Thank you, Paul Dempsey.
    My first question: Who on earth would want to be a bishop today? No doubt, one of Paul’s thoughts when the Papal Nuncio called him.

    My second question: Who on earth would want to be an honest or frank bishop, a born again parrhesiac, in a medium where Soline is all too poised to leap upon a frank and honest phrase to correct it along the lines of what she would have said, were she a bishop or a church (wo)man? Or in a medium where Kevin is all too ready to use ones honest phrases as a couple of pegs on which to hang some of his interminable scrolls and links in search of an answer?

    To Soline I would just say: read a little more, like the rest of Bishop Paul’s third paragraph and all of his fourth and fifth.
    To Kevin I’d say: write a little less, with fewer links and hooks to your endless debates. The world, or this forum, doesn’t owe any of us final solutions to our little problems.

    But really the question that struck me on reading Bishop Dempsey’s thoughtful piece was: why should a very pastoral priest – a man with a pastoral heart – spend the next quarter century on the necessary but mainly administrative tasks of an overseer until he burns himself out at 75 or older rather than being released back to the pastor’s work he obviously loves, from say 60 to 75, in a parish or pastoral area of Achonry or K&L or elsewhere of his choosing? Surely much of a bishop’s work is best done between 45 and 60?
    Now of course somebody is going to point to John Paul II or Benedict XVI or even Francis – sort of ‘no pension till you hit 85, then we’ll think about it, so meanwhile forget about your Parkinsons, your sciatica or dodgy knee, or even your piano.’

  4. Tony Flannery says:

    Bishop Paul Dempsey: The Lord doesn’t ask us to be successful, he asks us to be faithful.

    I really appreciated Paul’s article. It was so honest and open. I know there never was a danger of me getting the phone call from the Nuncio, but if I did I would certainly have been placed in the same type of dilemma that Paul describes. Being a bishop in today’s Church has to be very difficult if you are open to the reality of what is going on around you both in Church and in society. And clearly Paul is.

    But I would say to Paul that I am glad he answered yes, and that he took on the task. He is a fresh, and in many ways, a new voice that has already made a difference for those of us who are looking for signs of hope in the Irish Church.

    So, Paul, I wish you every blessing and I hope that you get plenty of support and encouragement along the way, and that you will manage to keep an independent and courageous voice in so far as that is possible in the office you have taken on.

  5. Kevin Walters says:

    Bishop Paul Dempsey: The Lord doesn’t ask us to be successful, he asks us to be faithful.

    In reality, Bishop Paul is saying I did not want the responsibility nevertheless “the Lord doesn’t ask us to be successful, he asks us to be faithful.” And in Bishop Paul’s faithfulness to His calling humbly submitted, reflecting his integrity. While homing in on the present situation in the hierarchical structure of the church “However, much of the time is spent on administration and ensuring that all the proper procedures are in place around areas such as Safeguarding, Data Protection, and Charity Regulation

    The art of leadership is the ability to delegate one’s responsibilities while possessing the acumen relating to the practical matters of administration. As a Bishop, there is no way that I personally would allow myself to become entangled in administration, my priority would be to minimize it.

    While returning to the basics, the heart of what faith is all about that is “our relationship with Jesus one manifesting humble service to my brothers and sisters in Christ. While preaching/revealing His Gospel in humble obedience to the Truth

    We as Christians need to be seen by mankind as being honest with ourselves by acknowledging openly our warts and all, in doing so we will be seen to be walking in obedience to the Truth (Way) if we do this His Light/Breath will dwell within us manifesting itself as humility a disarming action in the simplicity of being honest, as His Holy Spirit now dwelling within us will encompass those we encounter along the Way, leading them to follow His Way of Truth/Love onto the spiritual pathway of humility as they also drink from the new wine (Truth) of His Holy Spirit then they too will become ‘new skins’ for Him to dwell within.

    Only then will it be possible to put aside historic attitudes of condemnation, misogyny, bitterness, even wars as all these sins commence from the war/discord/conflict of contamination within each individual heart which is reflected in the contamination of our planet.

    Please consider continuing via the link

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  6. Kevin Walters says:

    Bishop Paul Dempsey: The Lord doesn’t ask us to be successful, he asks us to be faithful.

    Thank you for your comment, Eddie @3

    ”Kevin is all too ready to use one’s honest phrases as a couple of pegs on which to hang some of his interminable scrolls and links in search of an answer?

    At least I am attempting to solve some of the problems within the present situation within the hierarchical structure of the church rather than trying to pull the rug from under the feet of a priest who has just made the difficult decision to commit himself to the office of bishop. Better by far to have a priest who does not want the authority/power of being a bishop than one who craves it.

    From the article “rediscovering the essentials of our faith” which are: “Our relationship with Jesus and the preaching of his Gospel.” And that relationship is one of sharing in the Eucharistic sacrifice reflecting Unity of Purpose in brotherly love.

    While my opening post questions the increasing power of a hierarchical church which is known as clericalism – Merriam-Webster: Clericalism; a policy of maintaining or increasing the ‘power’ of a religious hierarchy. In this question

    “So how can a priest Consecrate the Host in isolation?

    Quote from another Website: Peter said “ Kevin is among those many really innocent souls misled by a generation of priests following Vatican II”.

    My response I have read that the 1917 Code of Canon Law, when the traditional Latin Mass was the norm, then-canon 813.1 stated unequivocally “that a priest could not celebrate Mass without the presence of a ‘minister’ who would serve the Mass and make the responses”.

    So, no Peter I did not learn this from a generation of priests following Vatican II.

    As it is fair to say that in the 1950s, I would have homed in on this through a fair number of priests who were born in the Victorian era. Although I do remember a priest once asking for the ‘presence of anyone who could respond in Latin,’ in this, we see a change from a minister to a lay member of the church at the latter end of the 1950s.

    This rapid change (In relation to Church history) can be seen in the life of Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916), who was unable to offer Mass regularly because of his apostolate as a hermit in northern Africa. He petitioned Pope St. Pius X for a dispensation that would permit him to say Mass alone, he had to wait many years for news of his dispensation on Jan. 31, 1908. “In the 20th century, from then on, the Church began to relax the restriction that prevented priests from saying Mass alone, leading to

    Quote “For generations, the Church’s position was firm: If a priest wanted to offer Mass, there had to be at least one other person present. Otherwise … the Mass could not be celebrated, period,” “The 1917 code’s refusal even to permit a priest to offer Mass in the absence of a congregation was actually much more stringent than the 1983 code’s canon 906, which allows a priest to say Mass alone for a ‘just and reasonable cause.’”

    1983 code’s canon 906 “ Except for a just and reasonable cause, a priest is not to celebrate the eucharistic sacrifice without the participation of at least some member of the faithful.”

    Leading to Canon 904: “Daily celebration is earnestly recommended.”

    Can. 904 Remembering always that in the mystery of the eucharistic sacrifice the work of redemption is exercised continually, priests are to celebrate frequently; indeed, daily celebration is recommended earnestly since, even if the faithful cannot be present, it is the act of Christ and the Church in which priests fulfill their principal function

    So, in just over 100 years, we have gone from
    A priest could not celebrate Mass without the presence of a ‘minister’ who would serve the Mass and make the responses”

    To Canon 904: “Daily celebration is earnestly recommended.”

    So, If I had lived a hundred years ago it appears that in my uneducated thinking based on trust/faith in the His inviolable living Word I would be very closely aligned to the teaching of the Church at that time which goes back to the very early church. While to my understanding The Orthodox Church does not and has not permitted her priests to say Mass without a participant(s).

    So, what has changed? (No one has responded)

    So, why does a traditionalist not want to hold onto the Truth of this particular traditional teaching given to the Church by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper which has been practiced by the Church down through the ages? Could it be that in our present-day it reinforces Clericalism? And doing so further decreases the shared Priesthood of the faithful making them no more than an inconsequential rather than true brothers sisters in Christ.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  7. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Bishop Paul Dempsey: The Lord doesn’t ask us to be successful, he asks us to be faithful

    And for another man who has been chosen, sent hither and yon almost from childhood, proved both faithful and successful in many posts and places, Ab Jude Thaddeus Okolo now heads off again from Cabra back to Prague. It doesn’t seem like five years. Slán agus beannacht.

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