Creating a Church open to change

Creating a Church open to change
Personal Profile
The African Church can teach us more about Ireland than we think, Colm Fitzpatrick learns


With over 30 years of missionary experience in Ghana, a Kerry-based priest believes the Irish Church can learn a lot from its African counterpart.

The second eldest of eight children, Fr Patsy Lynch who serves as parish priest of Ballinskelligs (Prior), began his vocational life in 1974 after he was ordained an SMA Father (Society of African Missions). The Catholic missionary organisation is motivated to give witness to the Christian message chiefly among Africans and peoples of African origins.

“I was appointed to Ghana where I worked for 31 years. It seems like a long time, as you know time flies. It was very challenging and very rewarding to work in Ghana,” Fr Patsy says, adding that it’s one of the few sub-Saharan countries that’s stable and is even used as a model for other similar places to emulate.

While 50 years ago Ghana was in dire need of missionaries, Fr Patsy explains that during his time there the Christian population became much stronger, making his work more-or-less unneeded. Indeed, around 71% of the country is now Christian, three million of which are Catholic.

“I could see the whole situation changing from being dependent on missionaries to becoming self-sufficient, and you know the goal of a missionary is to make himself redundant.”

“…I said our job here is done and we moved on to another pastoral situation and then left the indigenous to take over.”

This realisation prompted him, after plenty of reflection and prayer, to return to Ireland in 2005 where he worked for his society. However, a life cut off from parishioners didn’t “satisfy” him and so Fr Patsy was appointed to Kerry’s St Brendan’s parish – the same place he was ordained over three decades prior.

His decision to become a priest was strongly influenced by the religious who frequented the primary schools to speak about vocations. Pupils were asked to write a letter if they were interested in religious life, and while he initially got cold feet, Fr Patsy explains that when his headmaster suggested “without even looking” at him that he should think about the letter, he chose to write it.  After secondary school he decided that the priesthood was the best choice for him and he never looked back.

He was one of five people ordained in St Brendan’s church that day in 1974; an event which he vividly remembers given that the parish priest had “a massive heart attack during the offertory procession. He was carried out and after the service was over, we were informed that he had passed away”.

Having been a priest for 45 years, most of which was spent in Ghana, Fr Patsy believes that Irish laity can learn from their Christian brothers and sisters in Africa. In particular, the biggest difference between the two is that those abroad are “way more active”, he says.

“We are gradually being compelled because of the scarcity of priests for the lay people to become more and more involved and I find it very difficult…it’s very challenging,” Fr Patsy continues.

“I just don’t seem to understand – some people are very good – but we’re not getting the level of involvement and commitment that I would like to see.”

His quandary cannot be ignored; Ireland has seen a sharp decline in clergy in the last three decades and if traditional structures and practices are not refined or completely changed to take this into consideration, then the Church will no longer be effective in its evangelical mission. For Fr Patsy, lay people are instrumental in the future well-being of the Church and a Ghanaian model is perhaps a good starting point to see what this route could look like.

“[In Ghana] each of those churches had their own community, they saw the priest maybe once every three months, but they had their community, there was morning prayer, there was evening prayer, they visited the sick, funerals were organised, fundraising was organised,” he says, adding that that same type of involvement is not present in Ireland.

Stressing that the Church is the ‘People of God’, Fr Patsy notes that we are still living in an era where the “priest does everything” but that the Church would thrive with more help from lay people who have incredible gifts to offer.

“We have such talented and gifted people, some of them are retired civil servants, they have a wealth of experience and the Church would benefit enormously to tap into that and get them to take ownership.”

While Fr Patsy isn’t tending to his parishioners and encouraging more lay people to get involved in Church life, he’s snapping photos of “beautiful scenery” like landscapes and wildlife. Explaining that photography derives from the Greek ‘drawing with light’, Fr Patsy says he’s been repeatedly told he has “the eye” for the craft. It’s certainly true that a picture can speak a thousand words, but that doesn’t mean his advice for the Irish Church isn’t worth listening to.