Keeping the show on the road isn’t enough

Church renewal requires more than parish clustering, writes Michael kelly

A few years ago ‘clustering’ was a word largely unknown by Catholics across Ireland. Today, parish clustering is the order of the day as it has been embraced by people within the Church as a response to the declining number of priests. I’ve often thought that clustering – joining a group of parishes together – sometimes begins from the wrong starting point. Parishes are clustered together at breakneck speed with a hard-pressed priest spending Sunday running from parish-to-parish to facilitate several Masses in a kind-of sacramental endurance test to ensure that everyone has access to the Mass within a short distance from their home.

About 15 years ago the famous Maynooth Sociologist Fr Liam Ryan observed that the Church was going the same way as the Gardaí quipping that there’d soon be two curates in a squad car covering half a county! A priest told me of his experience each Sunday celebrating four Masses. Himself and an elderly priest cover four rural churches with a smattering of people in each barely enough to make one full congregation. Is this what we call keeping the show on the road?

The Church of England has recently published research that should make for interesting reading for those involved in pastoral planning in Irish dioceses and parishes.

One conclusion that should lead to a pause for thought in Ireland when it comes to parish clustering is the finding that “the strategy of grouping multiple churches together under one leader has in general had a detrimental effect on church growth”.

Clustering has been embraced in many dioceses with gusto as if it is the only possible way forward. The research from Britain clearly indicates otherwise.

When you talk to parishioners, clustering is often seen as part of the ‘keeping the show on the road’ model of ministry. Groups of parishes are lumped together with various priest rotating between churches and parishes with little sense of responsibility or a single Parish Priest (PP) as a point of focus. There’s lots of talk of parishioners being co-responsible for the Church. In reality, and despite the sincere engagement, most people see this merely as a response to falling numbers of priests. Where the permanent diaconate has been introduced this too is often seen as a response to an aging priesthood rather than the restoration if a distinctive ministry.

I can’t help but thinking that we’re perpetuating a service-driven pastoral model of the Church in Ireland at a time when it is really a Pope Francis-inspired missionary and evangelical model of the Church that we really need.

What would a missionary Church look like? Well, it would be a Church that is open to the world. In Ireland, it would also be a Church that is pruned back and fit for mission. The old creaking model, conceived at a time when over 90pc of Irish people attended Mass every Sunday, is not fit for mission. Can we really say that when Jesus said ‘do this in memory of me’ he had in mind handfuls of people huddled in parish churches just a few miles from one another rather than celebrating the Eucharist together as a vibrant, living community?

Tough – and painful – decisions need to be made if the Church in Ireland it to become more outward-looking and mission-driven.

Irish Catholics also need to get over the myth that tweaking the Church’s more unpalatable teachings will have Irish people flooding back to Mass as if most non-practising Irish Catholics have walked away after decades of struggling with difficult aspects of the Church’s teaching. Some have, but most haven’t. Most no longer see the need for regular practise of their faith, others have been bored by terrible liturgy and substandard preaching. We’ll also have to face the uncomfortable reality that, in many ways, the tide has gone out on the Church in Ireland and religion in general. Irish Catholics aren’t setting aside their Catholicism in favour of another religion, they’re simply setting it aside.

Only a Church that is missionary, a Church that Pope Francis says he dreams of, a Church “capable of transforming everything” will be able to meet the challenges. It will require more than parish clustering.