New Lay Ministries

New Lay Ministries

As chair of my parish pastoral council (PPC), I received a communication from the Dublin Archdiocese, requesting that PPCs discuss what new lay ministries are needed if our church is to “thrive into the future”. I was heartened to see the following statements included in the Reflection notes.

“We need new ministries to make contact with those beyond the gates of the church, especially younger people and young families.”

“I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelisation in their respective communities.” (Pope Francis)

Here are my personal reflections.


To thrive into the future, what new lay ministry do we need to develop?

Before we can address what new lay ministries we need in order to reach out to those beyond the gates of the church, we have to ask why so many people are now beyond the gates. Unless and until we answer that question honestly, we’re only shifting the chairs on the Titanic.

No amount of beautiful liturgies, sincere faith formation/development programmes, warm welcomes and hospitality can achieve results if people do not cross the threshold of the church. While all of those activities are invaluable to the church community, and the people involved in them are to be applauded for their commitment, they’re not enough.

So why don’t people cross the church door? I don’t, for one minute, think there is a simple answer to that question. There’s a multiplicity of factors involved. But I firmly believe there are a few glaringly obvious ones that need to be addressed. Many people who are disaffected perceive Catholicism to be a misogynistic, homophobic, rule-ridden “Thou shalt not” institution.

So I believe that, as a long term initiative, the most needed lay ministry is one which addresses that perception by working towards reform within the church.

I also believe that a lay ministry which deals specifically with community building is a more immediate necessity.

Reform Ministry

Such a ministry, sanctioned by the diocese, would work towards changing:

  1. The role of women in the church
  2. Church attitudes and teaching re homosexuality; persons in second relationships etc.
  3. The role/authority of the laity
  4. The handling of all forms of abuse

I personally believe that, all of the above would change if we worked towards changing:

  1. The priesthood. There is a dire need for priests who “have the smell of the sheep” – people who are part of the “real” world, who are not set apart because of some idea that they operate on a higher plane than the rest of us – people to whom the rest of the baptised can relate honestly. I think there has to be a paradigm shift in our understanding of Sacramental Priesthood. I acknowledge that this falls into the “uncharted water” that we’re asked to venture into! I have no desire to see women priests who simply become absorbed into the clericalism that is destroying our church. I think we need to go back to the drawing board and re-imagine what the role of the priest should and could be. In that way, marital status, gender and/or sexual orientation would not even be an issue.
  2. Teachings on sexual morality, which originated at a time when our understanding of human sexuality was uninformed and which were discerned by celibate males. With the best and most sincere of intentions, men who had to renounce their God-given sexuality, who were often kept at a level of sexual immaturity, couldn’t possibly discern valid teachings about sexuality for people whose sexual lives developed along a normal trajectory. I include in that what is normal for heterosexuals and what is normal for homosexuals.

I accept that these are very lofty aims, and I’m quite certain that there are many whose views differ. But a Reform Ministry where such thing were discussed would indicate to the wider community that changes are afoot. I also accept that a little team sitting down to talk about these issues is of absolutely no use if it is not widely known that it is happening. So practical ways of promoting a Reform ministry, working towards changing the perception of church have to be found.

I suggest;

  • Publicising the existence of the group on the website – with a brief description of its aims.
  • Finding ways to publicise it on social media.
  • Publicising meetings in the weekly bulletin and on the website.
  • Publicising occasional reports on the deliberations of the group in the bulletin and on the website.
  • Holding talks/workshops on topics of relevance to the disaffected and alienated.


Community Building Ministry

While I believe a Reform Ministry is essential if the church is going to thrive, the reality is that most people do not spend their days worrying about such matters. Most people live most of the time in a much more immediate way. So, if church is going to be relevant, and encourage people to be attracted inside the church doors, it must first give them a sense of wanting to belong. It has to meet them in the ordinary everyday aspects of life. Many people are reticent about being involved in the “holy” side of parish life (a flaw in the Irish psyche, perhaps?), but would gladly participate in community building events and activities.

A community building ministry looks, primarily, to supporting the social/ emotional lives of people. It looks to supporting people in times of need, and providing enjoyment in the mundanity of life. While such events and activities happen in parish anyway, they are generally isolated, ad hoc occurrences with no central ministry co-ordinating them.

A community building ministry team would look towards ways of providing enjoyable activities to involve the wider community and would meet regularly to plan, monitor and evaluate all such activities within the parish. Such monitoring and evaluation would help lead to the development of a strong community aspect to parish, which, in turn, would engender a sense of belonging and a desire to be part of parish life.

I have no expertise in these matters, I claim no authority outside of what I have observed and concluded as a practicing Catholic who has been involved for many years in my parish.

I get annoyed and frustrated by the fact that many, many people – clerics and lay alike – claim that they know the church has to change, but they don’t seem to take any real steps to change it. The oft trotted out “Ah, but change comes very slowly in the Catholic Church” just doesn’t suffice. Irish Catholicism cannot afford the luxury of time. To use another well-worn phrase “The dogs in the street know it”.

A few years ago I made the statement that I was happy to see Catholicism being excoriated in the media. It meant that it was something of importance to the general public. It’s only when something matters to you that you can be hurt by it and lash out! I think we’re now very close to the point where the media won’t bother to report on aspects of Catholicism, positive or negative, because the general public will no longer be interested. It will be irrelevant.

And I think we owe it to the generations who went before us, to make the spiritual path that we inherited from them something that is still relevant to the generations coming after us.





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One Comment

  1. Sean O'Conaill says:

    This is a most helpful and honest attempt to address the current impasse, Jo – and all of us need to apply the same level of dedication to the question you are posing:

    i.e.: Where and how do we begin?

    You call for a ‘Reform Ministry’ and outline what you see it trying to do, but you stipulate that it be ‘sanctioned by the diocese’. You will see straight away that although no ‘reform ministry’ could operate effectively without diocesan approval, you are once more dependent upon bishops being supportive of this plan. So, yet again, you are declaring that nothing can happen until our bishops want it to.

    The ACI proposals put to the Irish Bishops’ Conference last year followed that same basic rationale, but knowing that other organisations and individuals need to be part of any initial discussion, we pointed out that in 1964 Vatican Council II envisaged exactly that kind of discussion. In article 37 of Lumen Gentium the church moreover declared the RIGHT of lay people to declare their pastoral needs to their bishops ‘…through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose …’.

    Although our submission was acknowledged by the secretary to the ICBC before Christmas we have received as yet no response whatever to our specific proposals. Furthermore, although we presented to them our evidence for thinking that the principle of co-responsibility is making very little headway at present (e.g. via parish pastoral councils) the bishops make no reference whatever to that issue in their most recent press release, following their plenary meeting in Maynooth March 9-11, 2020.

    Obviously the Coronavirus crisis will have had primacy in their deliberations, but as their statement has room for mention of the September 2020 Eucharistic Congress in Hungary it surely also had room for mention of the most critical issue now facing our church here: how a clerical system approaching total collapse is to leave a legacy of continuity, in every parish, when the tradition of a continuous clerical presence in every parish can no longer be maintained.

    It is difficult to know what to make of this total silence on this issue – especially because the ICBC does nothing to dispel the impression of wishing that we lay people generally would ‘mind our own business’ – a blithe continuation of the ‘don’t you lay people worry your little heads’ clericalism that has put us in this fix to begin with. What has been called mushroom farming – a matter of keeping everyone in the dark because it involves least effort and is supposed to be good for them – still rules OK.

    A possibility that we need to consider therefore – until something like a policy for change comes from the ICBC – is that it may never do so, because the entire system is now incapable of initiating or managing change.

    In the classic ‘desert island’ situation, a shipwrecked community of merely baptised Catholics might try throwing messaging bottles into the waves in hope that some of them might sometime might reach a bishop somewhere, who might then act in response. In the meantime, however, I reckon they would feel both free and obliged to meet together to organise themselves for the maintenance of their tradition and the initiation and formation of their young people.

    As that is not in essence a different situation from the one we are in now, how long more should we wait for signs of leadership from that so distant land called Maynooth, before concluding that we are already, in truth, entirely ‘on our own’?

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