The Diocese of Down and Connor excelled at the weekend hosting a massive diocesan congress to launch one of the most comprehensive pastoral plans any Irish diocese has produced in recent history.
Over 1,700 people gathered in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall for the unveiling of the much anticipated ‘Living Church’ pastoral plan for the diocese.
Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor made no secret of the demands he feels the new ‘Living Church’ document would place on the faithful in his diocese.
To use the bishops own words, the plan will place “a heck of a demand” on everyone involved at parish level in the diocese. But based on Saturday’s success, this is a diocese prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve the aims that have now been set in stone.
Speaking prior to the launch, Bishop Treanor claimed “it would’ve been the easiest thing in the world for me to sit down and write a plan for the diocese. But I decided that I need to involve everyone.”
From his arrival in Down and Connor, Bishop Treanor was clearly keen to involve people from every aspect of parish life in the diocese. He established a small committee which soon set about a comprehensive programme of listening to the hopes and desires of priests, religious and lay faithful all across the diocese. Forty-seven lay people were commissioned to go to parishes and listen to what people had to say.
The result of the listening sessions was a report that identifies five core themes:
Open Welcoming Community
Faith and Worship
Passing on the Faith
Bishop Treanor then established the Living Church office with three purposes: to prepare for a Diocesan Congress, to oversee a planning process based on the five main themes of the Living Church Report and to make a start in the work of facilitation and training necessary to enhance the experience of lay participation in the parishes of the diocese.
Several working parties were also established made up of clergy, religious and lay faithful whose background or expertise enabled them to contribute to the plan. All working parties produced reports with proposals for a way forward in their specific area and eventually came together to finalise the strategic plan.
In terms of creating a more open and welcoming community in the diocese the plan sets out several aims:
To create a Church where everybody feels welcome and supported
To ensure that the highest standards of safeguarding of vulnerable adults and children continue to operate
To maximise opportunities for interchurch and interfaith dialogue
To ensure the diocese has structures that foster open and transparent communication
To ensure that the voice of the Church is heard in the public square and that the Catholic response to all major issues is clearly presented
To contribute to the Church’s engagement with legislators, politicians and public bodies.
Regarding faith and worship, the ‘Living Church’ document outlines four key aims and suggestions about how to achieve each of them.
To place adult faith development at the centre of parish life
To promote celebration of the liturgy
To provide opportunities for people to develop relationships with God
To ensure that families can grow in their prayer life.
The document notes that “priests, religious and bishops are supported and nourished in their life and ministry in the service of the people of God” and to ensure this is continued the plan suggests a number of aims:
To ensure all priests are supported, taking into account the changing context with which priests minister
To develop a structured programme of on-going formation to support and nourish the clergy in their personal and vocational lives
To facilitate fraternity and mutual support
To encourage the work of the religious and facilitate their involvement in the diocese.
Lay participation is also dealt with in the pastoral plan which lays out goals the diocese needs to meet in order to involve the laity from parish level up:
To promote a culture of co-responsibly
To promote the on-going formation and development of lay volunteers for service in parishes.
The final section of the document deals with one of the most significant topics, and lays out several tangible aims to ensure the passing on of the Faith to future generations:
To ensure that children belong to a parish community that provides a safe place for them to grow in their experience and knowledge of God’s love, to hear God’s plan for their lives and to develop their potential to make a difference in the parish and the wider world
To ensure that young people recognise their place within the parish and grow in their own relationship with Christ
To reach out to young people and provide them with a peer community that supports them in entering fully into the life and mission of the Church
To ensure that the diocese has the capacity and resources to welcome and form new members of the Church and support renewal of adult faith.
With this pastoral plan, the people of Down and Connor have a guide which they have developed themselves as a whole Church community. It is a plan, to quote Bishop Treanor, “that lays down a roadmap for the realisation of co-responsibility”.
However comprehensive this plan may appear, it is important to note it is not exhaustive. It is something the people of Down and Connor will have to work at and constantly craft if it is to be successfully implemented.
A courteous glace to the extensive acknowledgements section at the back of this impressive pastoral plan reveals the wide ranging involvement from dedicated people every level of the diocesan life. Inclusivity is what separates this plan from the rest and it is inclusivity that will undoubtedly ensure its implementation for years to come.