Brendan Hoban: Placing Hope in Faith – the Killala Diocesan Assembly Experience
Bishop John Fleming
addressing the 300-plus delegates at the Diocesan Assembly
Article by Fr Brendan Hoban,
as published in the Western People Tues 12th October 2021.
Next Sunday, October 17, is a critical day in the history of the Catholic Church in the world, in Ireland and in Killala diocese. Because it’s the day when Pope Francis’s world-wide reform of the Church will be launched in every diocese in the world. Also launched will be the Irish Bishops’ intention to set the Irish Catholic Church on a new pathway. And it will also mark the implementation stage of Killala diocese’s Placing Hope in Faith process. The three-pronged initiative is to begin the process of the Catholic Church – in the world, in Ireland and in Killala diocese – becoming ‘a People’s Church’.
That reform was supposed to happen after the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) but (for different reasons) we never quite got around to it. But now Pope Francis tells us its time has come.
To describe what Francis wants to see happen, he explained the parable of the two pyramids. The Church we’ve been used to, he explained, in terms of authority and control, is a model of the Church where the Pope is on the pinnacle, the bishops are at the next level, priests and religious are next, and ‘lay’ Catholics are on the bottom rung. And what Francis is attempting to do, he said, is to turn the pyramid upside down! In other words, to bring the people – Catholics in parishes and dioceses into the centre of the Church. What the Second Vatican Council called ‘a People’s Church’.
In simple words, the key change is that pope, bishops and clergy will no longer decide what needs to happen and no longer just tell the people what they should do.
The new way, what we call the ‘synodal’ way of being Church, is all the baptised discussing, reflecting and together deciding what needs to change and what doesn’t. In Francis’s own words it’s the people, religious, priests, bishops and pope ‘walking together side by side’. Or ‘journeying’, as he sometimes puts it.
Yes, it’s a big challenge but, on October 17, an 84-year-old pope is pointing us in that direction. In every diocese in the world from October 17 until next Easter there will be a listening process – a structured listening (and hearing) what Catholics want that will become the building blocks of a very different church.
Of course, it eventually had to happen. The signs were ominous for quite a while as the graph of the Catholic Church continued to dip with all the other obvious features of a Church in what seems like terminal decline – regular Mass attendance falling; the authority of the Church fading; priests and religious disappearing; etc.
Providentially, in Killala diocese (north Mayo and west Sligo), Bishop John Fleming and the priests faced this decline back in 2015-6, wondering what might be done to arrest it. We enlisted the aid of experts; we examined what other dioceses were doing; we discussed it, debated it and prayed about it; and we came to two realistic conclusions (a) that we didn’t know what to do and (b) even if we did we wouldn’t be able to do it on our own.
Providentially and inevitably, we came to another equally obvious conclusion – ask the people what needs to be done and just do it.
So, in 2017, we took (what we didn’t know at the time) and what (we know now) is ‘a synodal pathway’. We began (what we didn’t know at the time) turning the pyramid model of the Church in Killala diocese upside down.
We started with a listening process and we gave two commitments on that: one, the people would be given an opportunity to say what issues were important to them; and two, we would hear what they were saying and together implement what they wanted.
From May 2017, the listening started: deanery meetings of priests were held; deanery representatives (clergy and lay) were agreed; and a steering committee appointed.
From September-December 2017, the committee members debated, discussed, disagreed and prayed as they edged towards a pact that was grounded in trust, and that was based on a real and respectful engagement with the issues that would surface in the listening process.
Reassurances were given that the priests would support and agree to implement whatever proposals emerged, the agenda was open and everything – including contentious issues like the ordination of women, the celibacy requirement for priesthood and LGBT+ teaching – was on the table.
An analysis of priest numbers was undertaken – in 15 years, between 10 and 15 priests would be left. A Mass attendance survey was completed – numbers were around 30%. And a decision was made to hold an anonymous, confidential survey to ensure absolute freedom of expression.
Agreement was reached on seven survey questions: (a) Where in your everyday life, do you experience love, truth, goodness, hope and joy? (b) What is it that encourages you to participate in the life of your local church/parish? (c) What is it you find difficult about participating in the life of your local church/parish? (d) As a Church, what are the biggest problems we face? (e) What do we need to do now? (f) What do we need to stop doing now? (g) What topics should be discussed at the upcoming diocesan assembly?
In January 2018, the actual listening process was launched. Meetings were held with Parish Councils. Surveys were distributed and collected in every parish during February-April. An independent company, the Institute for Action Research (Kerry), was employed to analyse and evaluate the findings.
129 proposals were sifted from the survey and on July 1 2018, a diocesan assembly was convened in a Ballina hotel of 300-plus representatives from the 22 parishes of the diocese who voted electronically (and, thus, secretly) on 129 proposals covering the following topics: Family; Youth; Women in the Church; Lay participation; Inclusion; Management of parishes; Safeguarding; Education in the Faith; Pastoral care/priests; Vocations; Prayer; Liturgy; and Deacons.
The process had delivered on its stated intention: what do the people of the diocese want to see happening? We now knew what the people wanted and the next stage was to implement their decisions.
Peter McLoughlin, a leader of Placing Hope in Faith
In 2019, ten Focus Groups comprising 109 people who volunteered at the assembly met to prioritise proposals in each area and a new committee, the Action/Implementation Committee, was formed which chose three of their number – Peter McLoughlin, Patricia Melvin and Anne Sweeney – to lead the implementation, in tandem with the bishop and the priests.
Patricia Melvin, a leader of Placing Hope in Faith
It was agreed that two issues should be tackled first: the simultaneous election of new Parish Councils in every parish of the diocese; and a regular weekend Family Mass to be encouraged in every parish.
Meetings were organised with the Parish Councils of the four deaneries to forward the implementation of those first two issues but unfortunately, Covid-19 intervened after two of the meetings had taken place and the other two, Erris and Tireragh had to be postponed. (These will now take place this month – Erris Parish Councils in Broadhaven Bay Hotel on October 26 and Tireragh Parish Councils on October 27 in Easkey Community Centre.)
Anne Sweeney, a leader of Placing Hope in Faith
The listening process in Killala diocese is already over and we are now at the implementation stage of the process. We know now what the people want to see happening, and as we promised that whatever they proposed that could be implemented would be implemented, we are appealing for your help to do just that.
So, if you’re a member of any parish in the 22 parishes of Killala diocese, please do what you can to encourage and implement the programme decided by the whole diocese in the diocesan assembly.
Already plans are in train for the election of new Parish Councils in every parish and the members will be commissioned by Bishop Fleming in the new year at a ceremony in Ballina Cathedral.
So, by early February next we will, please God, be up and running again. It has taken us – including the break during Covid – almost five years to get to where we are now. And where we are now is implementing what the people want.
Help us to make it happen.
Brendan Hoban: Killala Diocesan Assembly…
Thanks, Brendan, for this detailed text account of the Killala process, which I have linked from our own ACI page on your Zoom presentation of June 24th, 2021. The audio of that, with ensuing questions and responses, is listenable in full at:
That ‘regular family mass’ is for me a heaven-sent idea, especially in the context of the need to interest young people, and to move to parish-centred faith formation and sacramental preparation. The liturgies designed for that could be a vital resource for other dioceses.
Brendan Hoban: Killala Diocesan Assembly…
At 22.00 Brendan says very interesting things on how they handled hot button issues (celibacy, women’s ordination, lgbt) by discussing them freely with support from Bishop Fleming, who promised to send the results to Rome, Maynooth, and the papal nuncio; this gave confidence to the steering committee and to lay member who would otherwise have ‘walked away.’
Let’s hope every diocese sends similar reports, and that the CDF does not crush them.
Brendan Hoban: Killala Diocesan Assembly…
Well done. That is a very interesting and quite comprehensive list of thirteen topic headings that emerged from the listening process launched in January 2018. But that process began nearly four years ago. So I cannot help wondering (and hoping) whether Care for the Earth might emerge as a major heading if the listening process were to take place at present.