Engaging laity in social justice issues and helping them discover how to express the Gospel message is the work of one Armagh mother who discovered a more “adult Faith” when she was faced with the death of her parents.
Dympna Mallon, a native of Antrim town and now living in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, was appointed as the Laity Coordinator for the Society of African Missions (SMA) in 2013.
Her desire to better understand her Faith came when Dympna’s parents both became ill. Speaking to this paper she says: “My mother was diagnosed quite unexpectedly with ovarian cancer and lived for about 18 months.
“They had moved to live beside us at that point and because I had a very close relationship with her it was a very difficult period of time. At the time Mummy died my sense of bewilderment, in fact almost abandonment, was really very profound.
“It was during that period I began to ask hard questions of myself in relation to my faith, at that point it wasn’t enough for it simply to be something that I did, which in a way it had become a bit mechanical because life had been so busy and there were so many demands on time and energy.”
The only way she was able to cope with the reality of the situation and support her mother was to believe there was “something greater at work and that there was some purpose in everything that was happening rather than just her life ending prematurely and in a very difficult way”.
Dympna’s faith journey began long before this, with her parents being one of the main reasons she had a strong grounding in Catholicism. They would go to Mass every Sunday and sometimes during the week and adhered to days of fasting and abstinence, but it was not these practices that shaped her, it was that Dympna and her four siblings were encouraged to ask questions.
“My parents would have been very open with us as we got older about their own struggles and challenges within their own faith lives and I think that honesty made an enormous impact on me.
Her family would frequently gather together, one person would pick a Bible passage, and they would discuss it.
In addition she spent four years in Kenya when she was 12 years old. Dympna’s parents were part of a Marriage Encounter mission which was a “huge learning experience for all of us as a family”, she explains.
School life in Ballymena with the Sisters of St Louis was another formative experience. Her principal, Sr Sheila Canty, referred consistently to the importance of knowing and using everyone’s name, of respect and the fact that a school is also a form of faith community. In a school of 800 pupils, Sr Sheila could name everyone.
Dympna says: “It certainly made an enormous impact on me about the importance of the individual dignity of each of us as created by God. I would say my school environment was very important in shaping my faith in a broader context than simply within our family home.”
After this she went to university to study law and then travelled to New York where she lived for two years. It was after Dympna returned she met her husband Paul. They moved to Dungannon after marriage where he worked, and they had five children together; three girls and two boys.
Over that period Dympna spent the next 15 years raising her children and working in a variety of jobs along the way, some of which tapped into her law qualification. Three or four years after the death of her Dad she took the opportunity to study a course in theology geared at pastoral leadership which had been advertised in her parish bulletin run by the Archdiocese of Armagh.
The six year part-time course moved from a certificate, diploma and then a degree. “When I began to study theology I felt for the first time like I knew what my purpose in life was, I felt I was finally doing what it was I was supposed to be doing,” she says.
Two years before completing her degree the SMA advertised for a laity co-ordinator based in Dromantine, which was an opportunity she took.
Speaking about her role she says: “I suppose initially the emphasis might have been the coordination of about 14,000 lay supporters that they would have right across Ireland in different groups.”
It became apparent that many of these people were happy with the role they had, some for 30-40 years. There wasn’t a desire to move into a different relationship with the SMA.
What began to emerge was the fact they needed to develop new ways of engaging people, a primary vehicle for this became social justice and care for creation. Although aware of the fact Irish people have a “very strong social justice conscience”, Dympna says, many don’t see this as an expression of Faith or the Gospel message.
Speaking of the Pope’s encyclical on the environment she says: “Laudato Si’ has been a tremendous resource in that respect, it is inviting people to see much of what they do but thinking through a faith lens.”
Dympna is currently working on their Thumbprint Campaign, which promotes climate justice. They have 10,000 thumbprints to date of people dedicated to responding to the “ecological crisis” facing the planet. One of its spin-off initiatives is aimed at helping families make connections between the importance of dialogue and Christian values within the home, while also taking the idea of family and applying it in a broader sense to include their school, community, the global family and the family of creation.
The SMA’s also devised the Laudato Tree programme, while relating to planting trees in Ireland it is primarily aimed at helping to plant a ‘Great Green Wall’ of greenery 8000km long aimed at halting desertification across the Sahel region in Africa – spanning the entire width of the continent.