Building a diocese 
fit for mission

Building a diocese 
fit for mission Bishop Phonsie Cullinan with Pope Francis.

The last two Mondays have seen representatives from two of the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore’s pastoral areas meeting at the Granville and Woodlands hotels as part of an ambitious listening process with a view to updating the diocese’s pastoral plan.

The context for this, according to Bishop Phonsie Cullinan, is Pope Francis’ vision for the Church.

“Before I came here there was a listening process that took place between 2007 and 2011 and out of that came a pastoral plan,” he says, outlining the plan’s themes of living as a Christian community, growing in Faith, celebrating who we are, and caring for one another.

“Obviously things have changed,” he continues. “One of the main things, of course, is that we have Pope Francis with a new push in the direction of mission. Now of course this was also very much in the mind of John Paul and Benedict, with the New Evangelisation, but Pope Francis is giving a new impetus to the Church becoming missionary.”

Noting how in Evangelii Gaudium, 2013’s apostolic exhortation on evangelisation, the Pope says “in our time humanity is experiencing a turning point in its history”, Bishop Cullinan says “Evangelii Gaudium is an urgent plea for a missionary church to break out of old ways of thinking and to get out there –  it’s a time of tremendous opportunity.”


While he praises the diocese’s previous pastoral plan, which entailed a lot of good work and the subsequent creation of, for example, parish pastoral councils and a family ministry service, the bishop says Francis’ plea in Evangelii Gaudium is something that calls for a rethinking and updating of the plan.

“So we’ve had this listening process then, in an effort to give a new push around the diocese to becoming truly missionary so we can become missionary disciples,” he says, explaining how the diocesan pastoral council was reconstituted last year and has prepared discussion documents for the diocese’s various pastoral areas, with him meeting representatives from all the diocese’s parishes over six different venues, a process that will continue until late March.

Sr Antoinette Dilworth, who is coordinating the process on the ground, explains how the meetings and process take place.

“Naturally the bishop welcomes everyone, and then I begin with a prayer just bringing everybody to the space,” she says, before recalling for people the process that has led up to this, starting with the 2007 pastoral plan and the listening process that had followed that.

“That whole plan was evaluated through a diocesan survey and questionaire around the diocese,” she explains, with this being done around 2012.

“When the feedback came from that a group looked at the feedback and then that group of the diocesan pastoral council went around to three areas of the diocese to all the parish pastoral councils and gave them the feedback,” she continues. “Over 2000 people filled in that questionnaire in evaluating the first pastoral plan and from there we kind of collated all the information that came in on the headings and it was taken back out then to all the parish pastoral councils.”

The process came to a standstill when Dr Cullinan’s predecessor Bishop William Lee became ill, she says, but once the new diocesan pastoral council was established an immediate priority was to pull together the main themes that had come from that evaluation process, with this eventually leading to a draft for a new pastoral plan.

“Last year that went out to every parish council again for them to know where we’re up to, and to give feedback if they needed to on it, which they did,” she said, explaining that the plan was then modified with a section on vision and three headings under which everything fell.

“These were ‘Becoming an Evangelised Church’, ‘Enriching our Liturgies and Spirituality’ and ‘Establishing new models of Leadership and Governance’,” she says.

On the evenings of the listening process, she says, this is explained and then the tables around which parish representatives are seated are divided up into three sets, each of which examines one of the three headings.

“Then they’re asked ‘how do you think we could do this now in 2018 forward – and how could we put this into action?’” she says.

“So they sit down as a group of six and have personal reflection first, then they discuss, then they write out the main points they’d like to give to the group, and they give the feedback from the group on that topic for whatever that topic is,” she continues.

After a tea break, there is an open forum, she says, which allows people from tables which had focused on one area to express views on the other areas.

“From the floor, with a microphone, people can then say whatever they need to say that they hadn’t been able to say before because they were confined to the group,” she says. “The bishop leads that section, responding and listening, but basically it’s a listening process. It’s not really them hearing the diocese coming back: we just want to hear it from the floor.

“And he affirms it, which he did last time, and maybe says a few little things, and all of that is recorded by myself,” she continues, explaining how she then collates what was said at the meeting, so this can be brought to the diocesan pastoral council and the next stages be mapped out.


“We will make a timeline of the way forward, asking when do we think the end product is, and what do we need to do in between,” she says. “We need to feed back to the people quickly with what they said, and then we can come up with a new pastoral plan – hopefully!”

At the same time, she stresses, it’s important to see what comes from the people, and that the diocese not try to speed up and shortcut the process by imposing its own ideas.

“We’re not rushing it. We’re in a new age, and this has to be done with a lot more care. There could be another listening process – we don’t know. It’s all about what we collate at this stage. It’s so important that it’s the people’s voices who are heard – the people on the ground,” she says.

One concern she has is that the whole diocese should be represented, with voices of the future being heard as well as those with more experience, the latter of whom making up the bulk of those at the first listening evening.

“When I take this forward I will get a youth group, gathering young people to look at the same questions,” she says. “Maybe because I’m in schools I’ll get a group of teachers in their 20s and 30s to look at the same questions. I’d get maybe people in WIT [Waterford Institute of Technology]. Teenagers are different, but it’d be important to get a group of TYs or maybe fifth years who are not under pressure of exams, just to see what they’d say to me.”

After some younger groups have been factored in she’ll be in a position to collate the findings of the whole process, she says, expressing the hope that all the meetings will show real imagination and creativity.

“The biggest thing on the night is to think outside the box – definitely affirm what works well, but how could we do it differently than we do now? We really have to risk ‘what if?’ Anything could come out of that – to take the challenge of ‘what if?’ – that’s the big one,” she says.

A willingness to take risks is of course a hallmark of the current papacy, even if this can unnerve people used to processes that have worked well in the past. Pope Francis’ vision, though, is absolutely core to how people should approach the questions raised in the draft pastoral plan, Dr Cullinan says.


“One thing that I will be really trying to impress on people is really Pope Francis’s vision, where he says ‘I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation,’” he says, quoting Evangelii Gaudium.

Expressing the view that the Church really needs a “root and branch look” at how the Faith is transmitted, Dr Cullinan points to an important observation that he heard in the months after becoming Bishop of Waterford and Lismore.

“An old wise priest here in the diocese said to me two years ago that if you read Scripture you’ll see that our Lord blessed children and formed adults, and that in Ireland we do the exact opposite,” he recalls.

“We form children in the schools – and that’s great and we have so many wonderful teachers – and then the adults come in to receive the sacraments and they get a blessing and go out the door,” he says. “I wonder if we have it the wrong way round – we really need a very serious look at adult faith formation.”

In connection with this, he says, the diocese is arranging for a delegation of five priests and five laypeople to be sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia, this June for the Divine Renovation Conference organised by Fr James Mallon, who at conferences in Maynooth and Cork last year mapped out what Dr Cullinan calls “A new vision of parish renewal – it’s a system that’s bearing fruit.”


“Not that you can transpose Canadian culture into Ireland but we can certainly get broad principles,” he says.

“Certainly we have to take adult faith formation seriously,” he continues. “Let’s put it like this: it’s worth a try, because we all must admit that our congregations are diminishing – people are going and following other philosophies and very often leaving the treasures of the Faith without ever having truly known them.”

With religious practice in decline across Ireland, the Pope’s approach as outlined in his 2013 exhortation certainly seems a worthwhile strategy to try. “So what I’m trying to do is trying to put across Francis’ vision,” Dr Cullinan says. “And he is a visionary and I think he has his finger on the pulse of where it’s truly happening – and I think there are many things happening where the Holy Spirit is pointing in the same direction.

“Benedict was talking of this constantly too, of the need to know Christ and bring him to others, and John Paul too of course also,” he adds.

“If we look around our society right now we can see the huge need for being really properly formed in the Faith, and then to live it in our ordinary lives,” he continues, adding that the Church really needs to take seriously chapter four of Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which deals with the laity and the universal call to holiness.

“I’ve also been listening in Ireland to where the growth in the Church is, and there are groups inspired by the Spirit who are becoming very missionary,” he continues.

“Pope Francis is very strong on the need to break out of mentalities of self-preservation. He has no time for people being too introspective. He speaks of course of the Church as a field hospital – to roll up your sleeves and if you get your hands dirty, well, it shows that you’re working.”

Maintaining that “in Ireland we do need to do things in a different way”, he notes that Fr James Mallon would ask the question of where churches put their resources.


“I mean, a parish will quite happily renovate a church for half a million euro, but I would have to ask the question of whether it would be better to employ a parish worker or a catechist or a youth officer.

“Where we put our resources shows where our values are, where our priorities are,” he says.

“Personnel is key,” he says. “Of course we need beautiful places in which to worship, but we have a lot of them already and they’re only half full – on a good day!”

Describing this as “an exciting time in many ways”, Dr Cullinan says that while the diocesan pastoral council has mapped out the listening process where the people’s voices will be heard, he says: “The context for me is Pope Francis’ vision of where we should be going – and people can disagree or agree or comment, but it’s to raise our sights.”