Spiritfest – A positive experience of church

At a time when many say the church is a relic of the past, irrelevant in today’s society and that it deserves to die it is no harm to recognise that this is not always true; that for many the Church is a vibrant, living part of the community and a life-giving force. Here, in the Parish of Killeagh- Inch in Co. Cork, we are lucky to experience our parish community as a welcoming, inclusive one which attempts to include and involve as many as possible, regardless of what stage they are at in their personal faith journey, and all are encouraged ,or indeed challenged, to be active participants rather than passive recipients of a “service” provided by our PP. This was more than obvious at our recent Spiritfest which ran from Friday, September 22nd. to Sunday 24th.

Spiritfest was/ is a concept planned and organised by our Parish Pastoral Council – an opportunity to explore and celebrate our faith and understanding of the Church in the world today. One of its main aims was to be as inclusive as possible – to provide varying experiences in the hope that some aspect might appeal to everyone who engaged in the process.

Community and welcome were essential ingredients and thus on Thursday a marquee was set up in the church grounds at the main entrance. An open invitation was extended to all to gather for tea, cakes and chat after each of the weekend Masses and after events on Friday evening and Saturday morning. All baking was provided by parishioners; tables and chairs from the local Community Hall. Catering was done by a willing group of volunteers who ensured a friendly smile and pleasant conversation was offered to all who came their way. Visitors varied in age from young children to the older members of our community. Consequently the atmosphere was vibrant and the volume of conversation was enough to “raise the roof” at times. The Bons Secours sisters were also present in an outreach to our community, providing prayer leaflets for many different occasions and delighting our younger members with free woven bracelets and biros. The fact that each gathering lasted over an hour is testimony to its success – young mixed with old and all enjoyed the camaraderie and sense of community afforded by the occasion .

The weekend’s events began with a talk by Rev. Gerry O’ Hanlon who spoke about “Pope Francis and the Quiet Revolution – its implications for the Irish Church” This took the format of a talk followed by a question and answer session. The information provided was clear, detailed and insightful, outlining Pope Francis’ vision for the Church as evidenced by Church documents and stories illustrating that Pope Francis not alone preaches a message of inclusion and service but also lives it in his daily dealings with others.

We heard about the inverted pyramid that the Pope uses to illustrate that the hierarchical Church exists to serve the People of God rather than seeing their positions as ones of power but also that the role of priest, prophet and king is not confined to those ordained but is the mission of every baptised Christian.

Fr. O’ Hanlon also explained that Pope Francis, although he might appear at times to be theologically conservative in some of his views, is committed to the vision of the Second Vatican Council which greatly valued the process of dialogue and openness – recognising that listening and sharing is essential and promotes growth, insight, acceptance and outreach – a vision which we, as PPC and parish, try to embrace and put into practise on a daily basis. This talk was followed by questions from the floor which saw active engagement and involvement. Having an open forum where faith, Church and religion was the topic at hand was both different and affirmative of the role of the laity. The fact that approximately 90 people attended this talk does not suggest a dead or even dying institution but rather an interested and empowered group of people willing to explore opinions, queries and questions in a setting where they are both valued and valid. The talk began at 7.30 and the church was not closed until after 10.30- no clock -watching but a pleasant, educational, social occasion.

Saturday morning’s activities started at 9am with a walk in nearby Glenbower Wood, recognising God’s role and presence in nature. An opportunity for quiet reflection and meditation , the “pilgrims” were assisted on their way around the pre-selected route by thought -provoking quotes researched, printed and laminated by one PPC member and put in place by another member and her family – further evidence of Church in action and Church as a living body. On completion of the walk some were known to adjourn for tea and scones – extending Church beyond the church gates.

Back to the marquee for 10.30 and an opportunity for our younger members to actively participate in our Spiritfest. One of our PPC members organised a session with the title “Time Out with Jesus” aimed at primary school children based on the Eucharist, Last Supper and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. A fun-filled, action-packed 90 minute session involving prayer, story, music and arts and crafts followed which concluded with each child bringing home a self-made replica of the Last Supper that can be used in their prayer spaces at home. Musically she was supported by one of our Choir Leaders and other adults assisted in the busy arts and crafts session , adopting an “all hands on deck” approach. Such was the energy and enthusiasm generated that the adults present were spotted discussing the action song learned during the session -proving that more than the children enjoyed the experience!

At all Masses held during the weekend (3) Frances Rowland spoke of her experience working in the Kerry Diocese in the area of Adult Faith Development at a time when some parishes no longer have a priest in residence. Rather than preaching a story of gloom and doom she outlined the positive realities she has experienced – the growing participation of and ownership of the laity in these parishes. She likened every member of the Christian community to a piece of glass in a stained glass window – many different shapes, colours and sizes but all making a vital contribution to the overall beauty and sense of the image. Each contribution is different but equal in importance. Likewise each and every one of us can and does make a difference. By combining our different gifts, talents and abilities and recognising the value of all members we can create a vibrant, alive church that supports and sustains us in all areas of our lives. During her talk she commented favourably that she had experienced 3 different choirs ( of the 5 in our parish) and felt a huge sense of welcome in each of our churches. She gave willingly of her time and was involved in many an animated conversation, all faith related.

To close our Spiritfest weekend we had Fr. Liam Lawton perform in our church and the atmosphere, lighting, content and performance was truly a spirit lifting event. Accompanied by our local choir The Voices for The Cloud’s Veil and As You Go all left feeling spiritually renewed and uplifted, having experienced a celebration of who we are as Christians and what it is we are capable of if we truly consider our call to holiness.

We set up four prayer spaces in the church as part of our weekend celebration but they remained in place for the coming week. Exploring the themes of hope, love, compassion and gratitude each station had a number of common features -biblical quotes, visual images and phrases, laminated prayers that could be taken away and an action specific to each space. These included a hopes/ wishes jar into which people placed their short -term and long term hopes which is now at the altar for the month of October; a mirror with the accompanying line “You are made in the image and likeness of God” ; stones which, when held, became warmer and reminded us of the power of holding someone in love; a jar filled with water into which a fizzy tablet is dissolved demonstrating God’s instant forgiveness and the freedom associated with forgiving others and a Thank You box where people placed the Thank You cards they wrote for blessings received and these too are still in place at the altar. For our young (and not so young) members we had the jelly bean prayer -each colour representing a different reason to pray. To hear a child in Senior Infants explain this to his pals was magical. These prayer spaces afforded many people the opportunity to engage with these themes at the level of both head and heart.

To conclude the Spiritfest provided us, as a community/ local church with the opportunity to focus on what we are and what we can be and to realise that many are crying out for this “real” experience of a living, loving Church that reaches out to its members and those not actively involved, many of whom embrace the experience and live Church as a 24/7 commitment and not as something separated from everyday life. By being involved in the planning, preparation and execution of the weekend many felt invigorated and enthusiastic about their parish, Church and community.

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  1. Mary Vallely says:

    Thank you Mary Smiddy from the Parish of Killeagh- Inch in Co. Cork for that wonderfully descriptive, passionate account of your recent Spiritfest. The reader could not but feel invigorated by it and heartiest congratulations to all involved! The huge efforts in preparation and delivery seem to have paid off.

    We have had three Spiritfests in Armagh diocese from what I remember. The first was held here about nine or ten (?) years ago in the city in a local school and was a powerful three days – for me at any rate. Monica Browne made the most impact on me and I sing some of her songs still and recite one of her prayers several times a day. I remember that feeling of solidarity, of being part of a community. Though many of the participants had come from other dioceses it didn’t matter. We all had that same thirst and desire to know God better and to be united with one another through our mutual love of God and humanity. The 2nd Spiritfest was held in a hotel in Dundalk and the 3rd in a parish community centre in Portadown but they were smaller affairs and seemed somehow to have lost the dynamism of the first. They are extremely expensive to run but having read Mary Smiddy’s account it is obvious that they are a great tonic to a parish.
    To be reinvigorated and renewed in one’s faith, to have passion reignited and hope restored that the Holy Spirit is ALIVE and working among fellow Christ followers is worth the risk of a parish going into debt for a while.

    I feel refreshed and hope- filled after reading that account. See? From Clare to Armagh that Spiritfest dynamic can be carried on through the cyberwaves. 😀

  2. Ian Evans says:

    It’s such a shame that despite the richness of our tradition, the infinite possibilities we could have at our disposal when it comes to Gospel outreach and the sharing of faith as part of our Sunday obligation, we remain straight-jacketed within the celebration of the Rite of Mass as the only expression of Sunday Worship. When there are so many around us only too ready to remind us, or to report us, that the only valid expression of worship on Sunday is the celebration of Mass, and that anything else to its exclusion would be a mortal sin, then no wonder the future continues to look bleaker year after year.

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