Getting dialogue going in a parish community

One of the suggestions that came across quite strongly from the Regency Hotel assembly in May was that dialogue groups be set up in every parish.
I want to share my experience about such a group.
As a consequence of the publication of the Murphy Report in November 2009, my immediate, strong desire was to talk about it within my parish community. I was part of a community building team within the parish at the time and circulated the members of that team – together with the PP- to the effect I was going to be raising the issue at the forthcoming meeting, which, coincidentally was scheduled for the Tuesday after the publication of the report.
On the morning of the meeting, I got a phone call from the PP, who was with the chairperson of the parish pastoral team, informing me that I was not to raise the issue of the Murphy Report at our meeting. I was told there would be a parish forum called early in the New Year and the topic would be discussed then,
I was horrified – I had never felt such censure before and felt deeply hurt and offended by it. I had thought I was a proactive, positive member of my parish and felt I was considered such by my fellow parishioners and my pastors down through the years. My reaction was to say I could not be part of a church which forbade me to speak; a fact my PP seemed quite happy to accept. I decided I couldn’t even go to the meeting, but sent word with another team member, explaining why I felt I couldn’t attend. I was heart-broken – I felt my parish had abandoned me.
Much to my joy, the rest of the team members were horrified by the ‘silencing’ and assured me of their support. Because of their reaction, I felt I could return to my parish activities.
To be fair to the PP and the Pastoral council, they DID hold a couple of open fora (forums?) for the parishioners where people could air their feelings. The fora were very structured and guided by experts at the ‘top table’. While they were very worthwhile, and I truly appreciated them I felt that we needed on-going dialogue – and dialogue as equals where we were totally free to voice whatever was in our hearts – not just structured sessions, where we were guided by leaders.
I began trying to set up such a group within the parish. When I approached the chairperson of the pastoral team, I was told there was nothing stopping me from setting up such a group but it didn’t have the go-ahead of the pastoral team. However, I WANTED it to be a parish initiative so that it could be publicised it through the parish bulletin and use the parish hall for its gatherings. I didn’t want a private little gathering of a few like-minded friends getting together in each others’ houses. And I certainly didn’t want it to be MY group! What chance would such a group have of being heard ANYWHERE?
Together with other parishioners, we began the quest to set up a group under the auspices of the parish in the spring of 2010 and it took from then until June of 2011 to actually get ‘off the ground’. During that time I had to become quite ‘pushy’, I had to stick my head up over the parapet, I had to keep reminding other people that things would not happen unless we made them happen; I had to hold my nerve when I wondered if anybody else actually cared that such a group be set up. It was a very lonely place to be a lot of the time. I realised that other people DID care about such an initiative, but they were busy people, leading very full lives and a parish dialogue group was not at the top of their agendas. I actually had to MAKE it be (and stay) at the top of MY agenda or it would fizzle out!
Our little group has now been in existence since June of last year (the first actual gathering took place in July) and I wish I could say it was worth all the hard work to get it off the ground. But I can’t.
I am still the only person who arranges gatherings – if I don’t call meetings, they will not be called.  There is no established core group who attend regularly so that our ‘conversation’ can develop and deepen. Anywhere between three to eight people (on a good night!) may turn up, but invariably the same issues are aired because somebody has come along for the first time and needs to voice his/her concerns. While I am deeply conscious of the benefits that each individual gains by being able to do so for the first time, it does mean that those who wish to move on from that stage become frustrated. And so we hobble on from month to month.
I am now at the point where I wonder, should I just let it go? It would be good to be able to say that it is a necessary and worthwhile venture and that it is important to keep it alive and active. But the evidence seems to indicate otherwise. I don’t think my fellow parishioners would notice if it didn’t happen this month – not even the few who would have attended!
I ask myself if I’m doing something wrong – I’ve tried to get those who come to the gatherings to suggest alternatives, but nothing has been forthcoming.
It is wonderful to attend gatherings like the ‘Towards an Assembly of the Irish Church’ and other previous and subsequent meetings, where I am surrounded by equally passionate people. But I then have to go home to my parish community and try to effect change there. And that is such a different proposition!
The general body of parishioners would seem to fall into two ‘camps’ – those who support the notion of dialogue within the parish but are too busy to become actively involved and those who view the whole venture as something rather suspicious – peopled by those who wish to destroy the church from within! I, personally, seem to have gone from being a ‘respected member of the parish community’ to a trouble-maker who, in an old-fashioned phrase, has ‘notions beyond her standing’!
And all of this because I firmly believe that, in order for my beloved church to survive, we have to talk about where we are so that we can see a way forward. And we can’t leave it up to the ‘authorities’ within the existing structures to do so. That is what has got us into this horrific mess in the first place.
I have given my name to the ACP, but I have asked them to ensure this posting goes up anonymously – not for MY protection (those within my parish community who read this will know exactly who we all are!) but for the protection of that parish community – the people I live among and work with and love.
If anybody out there has suggestions as to what steps I might take, I would dearly love to hear them.
I’ve always accepted that, as a Catholic, I might be expected to ‘stand up for my faith’ someday. Never, in my wildest imagining, did I suspect that the people I would be ‘standing up to’ would be others WITHIN the Catholic family. Yet that appears to be where I am now – nobody from outside of my faith – nobody in the scary secular world – has ever tried to banish me from anywhere because I hold the views that I hold. There’s an incredible irony in all of this, isn’t there?


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  1. Carol Dorgan says:

    I sympathise greatly with this writer, and admire your tremendous determination to keep trying. In my experience, even with all the good will in the world, people seem to have little time for anything that might be seen as “extra” in Church. And deeper than the issue of time, I believe, is the lack of a sense of ownership of Church/parish, and so little realisation of a responsibility for the quality of life within the Christian community. Too many people are just passive “consumers” in church. How can we all move beyond that to the challenge of active, knowing participation?

  2. Gemma Denny says:

    There is lack of a sense of community in many Parishes. Most people could be described as passive consumers, looking to a Parish to provide a service for Baptisms, Marriages and Funerals and Sunday Mass. This attitude is not limited to churchgoers. Some years ago a survey indicated that only 7% of adults engaged in voluntary work in their community. The challenge is to encourage those who would become more involved in their parishes by examining the barriers to greater involvement and providing necessary support and education. Equally, great care and consideration should given to those already involved in parish work. It is tempting for those in authority to surround themselves with those who will agree with them. Parish priests have a duty to communicate openly with all their parishioners and to avoid ‘parish pump politics’. Open communication would lead to greater understanding and hopefully prevent the hurt experienced by committed parishioners.

  3. Sheila McHugh says:

    Perhaps it is now time to return to the original pattern established by Jesus, that of discipleship. The ‘laity’ – ‘clergy’ divide which we have at the moment only creates a dualistic attitude and hierarchy of ‘us and them’, rather than a community of equals in service to one another.

  4. We are all so different that we respond to the same situation at different rates and in different ways. Add to that the obvious observation that we all build upon differing experiences.
    There is a very painful situation in my parish to which most people respond, “Well, at least we still have a priest.” Others have chosen to move away to another parish. Some, a minority, have opted to weather the tempest in the parish, but they are suffering. One parishioner has developed an ulcer, and then cancer since the “Situation” crystallised – this member is dying. Another parishioner is devastated by being refused Communion in the hand; she has already been suffering sleeplessness as a result of the changes imposed on the parish. How long before she too develops an ulcer? People cannot talk openly together about the way they are impacted because they do not want to be uncharitable, or to upset others.
    No chance of a “parish group”- the pp is the proximate cause of the situation so he wouldn’t allow a meeting to go ahead that he perceived as fomenting dissidence and rebellion. Each parishioner has to discern what is the best way forward for him or her to continue to grow in faith and trust and act accordingly.

  5. Mary O Vallely says:

    “Passive consumers,” a “lack of a sense of ownership” and a “what’s the point-ery” are some of the reasons for the seeming want of passion and desire to engage with other parishoners perhaps. My late father used to blame the apathy ( or “lack of engagement” is perhaps a more charitable term) we suffer from in this part of the world on the heavy barometric pressure in Armagh though I suspect a looming Ara Coeli so close to our church kept us all in our places. Can you blame people really for not making their voices heard? Our church history is peppered with instances of the non-ordained being ignored.
    Sheila’s point (3) about the laity/clergy divide is worth exploring. The lack of open communication and our national lack of self-confidence are also reasons for passiveness I imagine.
    To the persistent and feisty parish worker who asked for ideas, perhaps aim for a definite small, attainable goal first. If that can be achieved through dialogue then you could build from there? Confidence in one’s ability to effect change will lead to the building up of the desire and the passion.If they see that dialogue works then they will persist.
    Fair play to you, woman! You are doing more than the rest of us though I do have an excuse with this heavy barometric pressure….zzz
    BTW, Simmary (4), I am shocked and horrified that someone in your parish was refused Communion in the hands. Was this a one-off? Are others in the parish not shocked and angry? I hope and pray that this may never happen again and was some sort of misunderstanding. God bless the person refused and God forgive the thoughtless minister whose action caused the hurt.

  6. David Walsh says:

    I sympathise with the writer. (You should have a non de plume). It is a long and lonely furrow to get something going that might be feared as unorthodox or deviant, or not under strict control of the clergy. We were reflecting on this at a Congress workshop. So much good work by the laity can fail because of the incumbent PP. The pope asks for a new mindset especially among the laity for co-responsibility but it is in many cases the PP who needs a change of mindset. One participant thought it was the younger priests who were most at fault while older men with some worldly wisdom more accepting of lay support. I do however have hope of a new attitude leading to new structures and more action. There has never been more need nor more people discussing renewal. Renewal won’t happen without new structures and greater lay/clergy co-operation and indeed genuine co-responsibility of all the baptised.

  7. In answer to Mary O’V (5) this refusal – cf my post at (4) -occurred at a Mass on the old calendar feast of Corpus Christi which was celebrated in a Tridentine Latin mode. The Mass had not been listed as Latin in the bulletin. Not many parishioners attended as the E&W Bishops moved the celebration of the feast to the foll Sunday a few years ago, and the parish does not normally get a Thursday Mass in English.
    The pp is required to celebrate Sunday Mass in English for the bulk of the local parish and at that he does not refuse to administer Holy Communion in the hand at this time though he encourages kneeling and reception on the tongue. Personally, I no longer attend my parish; I go elsewhere, but tend to encounter distressed parishioners who confide their troubles. But as I said, they do not speak openly to others for fear of being uncharitable, or causing others to stumble.

  8. Martin Murray says:

    I totally identify with this experience and share the same desire for conversation and dialogue at parish level. Equally I have had to recognise that for a wide variety of reasons, the issues of reform and abuse are still very much taboo subjects for church going Catholics. Many fear being accused of disloyalty, especially those who serve in some capacity in the parish and feel bound by their role. Others as members of particular groups and movements do not want to undermine their vested interest in these by voicing controversial points of view.
    For most individual Catholics a personal Rubicon has to be crossed before they can allow themselves to be critical of the Church or to add their voices to the calls for structural renewal and reform. Expressing theological points of view is also a strictly no go area for the laity (it used to be the Bible, but we got over that one).
    Sadly, within our parishes, a ceiling has been set on what can and cannot be discussed. The attitude is, if it’s not possible in the present (usually because the Rome prohibits it) then it is wrong and indeed pointless to discuss it. This really sucks the life and imagination out of even the best of our meetings and ‘official’ listening exercises. Sean O’Conaill has wonderfully called this the ‘listen and forget’ strategy. He also has identified what he calls the Catholic Church’s ‘Fear of Assembly’ (maybe if Sean reads this, he could expand). But basically this is the institution’s fear of any gathering of Catholics which it has not instigated or which it cannot control. While this might keep things neat and tidy, it leaves little room for the Holy Spirit to ‘blow where it will’.
    I totally identify with your desire for dialogue to happen within the parish structures rather than be a private affair. While definitely not giving up on the idea, we may well need to acknowledge the very real limitations that exist at this stage in time. While we wait for this to change we can be preparing the ground. Conversations between friends and family on these matters should be considered as absolutely worthwhile work and time well spent. A word of caution – my own experience of this would suggest that in our zeal we shouldn’t force these conversations on others. Many as yet do not share our passion. I have seen the eyes of family and friends glaze over when I got started. I have learned to temper my enthusiasm and thankfully no one has yet crossed to street when they seen me coming :-). But they do know where I stand, which is something new for someone who normally tells people what they want to hear.
    The fact is, it is getting harder for committed church goers of any integrity to sit on the fence. We need to be ready to respond to the issues, questions and concerns that will increasingly arise.
    We can also thank God for virtual communities.

  9. I commend you to the nth degree for seeking to take people where they might not, do not wish to go.
    Yes I believe you will find a lot of that. I agree with Sheila about the us and them. We are not infants needing ‘led’ and spiritually spoonfed for the rest of our naturals. The time comes to move from milk to solid food.
    I’d wonder about the qualifications of those ‘experts’ and where their loyalties lie – with the ‘us’ or the ‘them’.
    Maybe those meetings in your homes are not such a bad thing. At least you are with like minded souls. Early church too. We cannot change the world as we all know. But through one of those meetings if you can help one soul, one day at a time, and in that help each other – then that is what ‘Church’ is fundamentally about.
    “Love ONE another as I have loved you…. ”
    Otherwise you’ll drive yourself around the bend getting nowhere.
    Not much help I know. But all the crap and politics of ‘meetings’ at times never leads anywhere anyway but division.
    God bless

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