Deanery Meeting – An Unhappy Experience

As a rookie Chairperson of a Parish Pastoral Council, I attended my first Deanery meeting recently. I found it to be a somewhat disconcerting experience and have been trying to discern why since then.

My first thought, as always, was that it was a consequence of my own inadequacies. My nose was out of joint because I was ignored. But after I’ve allowed it to “settle” and determined as best I can that it is NOT a personal thing, the negative residue remains.

First of all, there was absolutely no acknowledgement that somebody new had joined the group. The meeting began with a seeking of apologies about non-attendees (I noted that, to the best of my knowledge, the apologies were all from priests – no mention was made of chairs of PPCs who couldn’t attend. I may be wrong in this.)

The business of the meeting proceeded apace, with the presumption that everyone knew what was being talked about. Information was shared – some of it being accepted with nods of the head, and some of it causing a certain amount of debate and discussion. I had no desire to hold up the meeting by looking for background to the matters being discussed so I tried to follow what was going on. I finally got to the stage where I had to ask for some explanation as to who the various people being referred to were – what role did they play in the topic being discussed.

And so it continued, albeit with some of the group making sure to give me a bit of background as to what they were talking about. A date and time were selected for the next gathering and the meeting ended.

So what’s my problem?

There is endless talk from the Institutional Church that the role of the laity is vital if the Institution is to survive in the 21st Century, that the laity need to step up and take equal responsibility for the on-going development of the church. The Irish hierarchy and the Dublin Diocese go to great lengths to demonstrate how much progress has been made with Parish Pastoral Councils playing a central role in church life – with the laity being involved in the decision-making .

My understanding of Deanery meetings was that they were the forum in which the planning for the on-going work of parishes took place. In 2014 A-B Diarmuid Martin announced “Significant new changes enhancing the role of the laity in the pastoral planning of the archdiocese” declaring that “Deanery groupings will no longer be made up solely of priests, but will expand in membership to allow the participation of parish pastoral workers, deacons, Religious, chaplains and representatives from each parish pastoral council”.

Fine words indeed! But I’m afraid that my experience of this week’s meeting leads me to believe that that’s all they just lip-service rather than a genuine commitment to allow participation by the laity. Because, truth be told, my presence at the Deanery meeting was totally irrelevant. Thought chairing one of the Deanery’s PPCs, it wouldn’t have made one iota of difference if I hadn’t turned up. My perspective, or the opinions and viewpoints of the people of my parish community were of absolutely no interest to those assembled.

One might argue that I should have insisted on being heard. Perhaps I should have taken a more strident tone and demanded that I be allowed to raise issues that concerned me and others in my parish. That would take a more articulate person in possession of more fortitude than I, I fear.

And I don’t think it should be necessary. If, as stated so often, the clerical community WANT the laity to work in genuine partnership with them for the development of our Church, it should NOT demand that the lay people who try to step up and shoulder the burden have to shout to be heard.

I had to think and pray long and hard before I agreed to become involved in my PPC – and I had to pray even harder to discern if I should take the role of Chair. I did so because I care deeply about my church and my parish community despite all the dysfunctionality I perceive to exist within the Institutional Church. I chose to believe it would be more honourable and honest to work for change from within rather than leave and criticise from without. I chose to disagree with the voices of so many of my friends and family who claim that Catholicism will never change because those who have the power are incapable of letting go of that power and working in genuine partnership with the non-ordained.

My experience at the Deanery meeting has me wondering if, in fact, they’re right. It is all only window-dressing, just  a pretence that the members of PPCs are involved in decision-making. I sense that my feeling of disquiet is well founded if all Deanery meeting are similar to the one I attended. Perhaps I was unlucky!

It wouldn’t take huge effort to change the situation – if, that is, there is a WILL to change it. At the start of the meeting, the Chair could simply ask if there are any newcomers, and, if so, welcome them to the meeting and ascertain which parish they represent. They could then be reassured that they are free to ask for clarification at any stage during the meeting. In that way, they can feel their attendance and participation are valued.

At the moment, I don’t feel inclined to waste another two hours of my life in May when the next meeting takes place. I became involved with my PPC to be of service to my parish community and my church. There are many productive ways I can do that rather than attend meetings where I am neither use nor ornament!

Please don’t feed me any more empty words and platitudes if you continue to operate in the same old ways you always did. Start walking the walk!


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  1. Gerry O'Hanlon says:

    Jo O’Sullivan has written a quietly brilliant description of the clericlalism, witting or unwitting, that continues to thrive, even as new institutions and structures are introduced designed to eliminate it. We need urgently to bring about cultural change, and, as Jo says, this can be achieved if there is a real will to do so. Cardinal Marx in Munich and the German bishops as a group seem to ‘get it’ (see under Paddy Ferry post): we can learn from them.

    Gerry O’Hanlon sj

  2. Phil Greene says:

    Thank you Jo taking pen to paper and sharing your experience with us, it is definitely very valuable information.
    I am curious in that your own Parish Priest must be a forward thinking priest who actually likes debate, otherwise you would not be Chair. I also suspect that you would not be writing this if he had asked you not to.. please feel free to correct me if I am mistaken.
    I would sense that we do, thankfully, have other PPs that also want to move laypeople forward, to help them grow, contribute, feel valued and ready them for the road ahead ..
    So why does it all go wrong once we (laypeople) move to the next level up.?

    Who is directing this train of thought that sees us as just background noise?

    Where are these PPs that ask us to attend? Where is their support? Why are they not looking after us initially and having a preliminary meeting to review the minutes of the previous meeting etc. with new recruits (or the Deanery office appointing a central communications person to correspond with same)
    I hope you go to the next meeting , I hope you see the changes that you ask for above. Equally it might be possible in the future to demand(and I chose this word carefully) a lay people’s table rather than being separated into your distinct parish? You and others are representing a laypersons point of view after all. For now anyway until the institution finally learns, and acts as though we are all in this together..
    Thank you for all that you are doing, it takes courage these days to be part of the administration side of this male-dominated authoritarian institution and also to be a woman trying to fix something that many don’t see as broken..

  3. Mary Vallely says:

    The Deanery meeting ( a new term for me) was handled very badly, Jo, and I applaud you for taking your courage in your hands and writing about it here. Do please go to the next meeting and report back to see if anything has changed. It takes time to recognise bad attitudes in oneself and it takes a brave person to point them out with the tact and charity you have here. To be dismissed, ignored or treated like a lesser human as so many women have been/ ARE, in the Catholic Church is nothing new and it is about time we all stood up to these churchmen ( assuming it is mostly churchmen) and challenge their behaviour. Please do not give up. I know what a struggle it has been for you and your parish is blessed to have you as chair of the PPC- a very enlightened parish may I say!

    Someone will have read your words and reported back to the other members of the Deanery so please do attend the meeting in May and if they are still being ignorant then make your voice heard before walking out. You are a busy woman. Demand an apology in writing. About time such arrogance was challenged. To be honest, unless it is pointed out, most of them are probably unaware of how insidiously mean their behaviour is. Cherchez la femme. Nil desperandum. Small steps, great oaks from little acorns and every cliché that comes to mind to give you heart, woman. Keep us posted!

  4. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Jo O’Sullivan’s recorded experience of a deanery meeting (presumably in Dublin) is valuable in documenting the rearguard clericalism that still baulks at implementing the Catholic principle of the equal dignity of all in the structures of the church – but surely as long as Catholic canon law allows clergy to flout or evade that principle no lay person will have the slightest protection from these – or worse – indignities.

    To illustrate ‘worse’, the last recorded meeting of a pastoral council in my own parish was held in June 2018 – at which the PP declared to us not only that he did not need a parish pastoral council but that he did not believe the parish had the resources to participate in a recently launched diocesan plan for pastoral renewal.

    As one of the declared purposes of the said diocesan pastoral plan was ‘to begin planning for those times when a priest might not be present in the way that they have been up to now’ this decision – which under canon law cannot be overridden by parishioners themselves – effectively leaves the parish completely unable to prepare itself for the said imminent absence of priests.

    Informed of the situation the bishop of the diocese notes his concern that ‘issues’ have arisen, expresses his continuing faith in the diocesan plan and prays for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The parish website continues to record the standing down of the PPC in June 2018 and to affirm that: ‘In accordance with Canon law a new Parish Pastoral Council will be formed.’ There is no word as to when.

    Given that this situation may have arisen largely as a result of the PP’s crucial role in supporting ageing and infirm parents (who live thirty miles away) it nevertheless illustrates the extreme danger in which any Irish parish could find itself as a consequence of a canonical system that still vests governing responsibility and initiative solely in clergy who may have no knowledge whatever of the past history of a parish, and no driving interest in its future either.

    It surely needs to be a priority of the ACP – and of every Irish bishop – to address this situation urgently. There is no point in cheering the imminent end of clericalism when the church’s working constitution allows clericalism to flourish by guaranteeing complete freedom of action to any cleric who adheres to it.

    How is the ultimate ownership of a parish by its baptised and observant members ever to be established in Catholic canon law if its current clerical overseers will not address the problem of our total current canonical impotence?

  5. Séan Ó'Murchú says:

    Oh rookie chairperson Jo. It is so disheartening and should not happen.
    I have been involved in many organisations over the years, some with many layers. I implore you to attend and participate at the next meeting, and challenge the behaviour.
    My suggestion would be to get someone to attend the meeting with you (as representatives of the PPC)given that the instruction quoted from AB D Martin is for representatives not a representative. This also follows the approach when Our Lord sent the Apostles or Disciples in twos.
    My other suggestion would be to email either the secretary or chair of the meeting in advance – now is not too soon – advising your concerns and how they can be addressed.
    I will keep your work in my prayers.

  6. Bobsie Stephenson says:

    Words from a friend when I sent him the above: “that is powerful, I really, when reading it, have to agree wholeheartedly, though I may be called hypocrite because again I didn’t say what I felt because on the one hand it would be disrespectful I suppose because The Bishop was present, but as you know I’ve been there before 5 years ago – as Chair of my PAC – please convey my sympathy and best wishes”.

  7. Like others, I felt both impressed and depressed by Jo O’Sullivan’s report: Deanery Meeting – An Unhappy Experience. The writing was most impressive, though the event itself was such a squib. It shows painfully how insensitive some of us (clergy) can be. Sadly, not much is expected from Deanery Meetings, unless the participants, and especially the Chair, are actively seeking a way forward.

    Jo, can I join with the request that others have made, that you attend the next meeting (in May)… and then please write us some account of what transpires!

    Pat Rogers cp

  8. Phil Greene says:

    Pat @ 7
    “Sadly, not much is expected from Deanery Meetings, unless the participants, and especially the Chair, are actively seeking a way forward.”

    This is quite sad indeed Pat, as such meetings are then a waste of EVERYONES’ time and opens up another conversation that is worthy of consideration along with Jo’s difficulties as recounted in her valuable report above.

    So as a pure guesstimate of say, 50 people x 3 hours ave. (including travel)= 150 hours = 6.25 days, plus the organiser’s time = c.7 non-productive full days per meeting, WOW !!
    Enter “let’s have a meeting about a meeting” in Google Images tabs – says it all really .!!!

  9. William Herlihy says:

    Thank you Jo,You touched a raw nerve with me to night.
    As a former member of a PPC my experience is not a pleasant one.
    The PPC I was a member of, was disbanded by the Parish Priest in October 2017.
    The following is a brief history:
    As we had been in existence for one year the Diocesan facilitator came for a visit in September 2017, He read through the minutes of the previous year and asked a lot of questions,at the end he was happy with our performance for the year and gave us guidelines as to how we should proceed the following year.
    The Parish Priest attended the meeting and did not utter a word with the exception of saying the prayer at the end, at the invitation of the facilitator.
    In October we all received our letters of dismissal saying, a line had been crossed and himself and the Curate would no longer be attending meetings consequently the PPC no longer existed.
    To me, as a rational human being if he had a problem with the PPC,the place to voice his concerns was at the meeting the previous Month.
    We selected a delegation to request a meeting,a spokesman phoned him requesting a meeting The Parish Priest was rude on the phone and declined the request.
    We subsequently wrote to the Bishop and a meeting was arranged with the PP and the Bishop.
    The Bishop threw the problem back to us to resolve it.
    After numerous letters too and fro, we finally as diplomatically as we could, asked the Bishop to disband the PPC as relations had irrevocably broken down.
    The Bishop said to leave it with him.It is still with him a year later.
    A number of former members of our PPC no longer attend our Church.
    To give a flavour of the type of Priest I am talking about.
    Prior to the arrival of our current PP. People spoke from the Altar about up coming Alpha courses.
    A member of the disbanded PPC phoned The PP requesting an up coming Alpha course be included in the Parish news letter.
    The PP rudely declined and when informed it was a Christian organisation “Yes he said but it is not Catholic”.

  10. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Could we have a statement, please, from the ACP on the organisation’s policy re reform of canon law – to prevent summary dismissal of PPCs and to meet the obvious need to enable a continuous parish lay presence in PPCs if parishes are ever to survive the impending absence of priests.

    Alternatively it could propose an alternative to the PPC as a mode of lay empowerment to parish responsibility in the absence of a priest.

    As this issue has been raised many times, the continuing absence of an ACP policy response makes me wonder why I stick around.

  11. Pat Rogers says:

    I believe there is much to be said in favour of the Swiss Catholic model of parish councils, where the lay treasurer of the council is responsible for administering the parish’s income and expenditure. The parish priest is of course a member of the council “ex officio” Since the Council exists de jure, he listens to the advice of the others and many things are decided on majority vote.

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