Parishioners must be trained and prepared in innovative ministries to keep parishes alive, the new bishop of Ferns tells Chai Brady
Every diocese has a unique set of challenges but there is a “definite trend” all are experiencing in Ireland which is the continued decrease in priestly vocations, with the new Bishop of Ferns saying his experience in his native diocese will help him prepare for the future in the southeast, in dialogue with all the Faithful.
Consecrated as the new chief shepherd of Ferns on Sunday, Bishop Ger Nash has first-hand experience in tackling parish decline due to depopulation and aging priests and says he has plans to counteract the negative effects in close collaboration with parishes and priests.
“I’m coming from the Diocese of Killaloe where we have 18 parishes with no priest out of 58. The numbers in relation to priests and parishes in Ferns is where Killaloe was maybe 10-15 years ago,” Bishop Nash tells The Irish Catholic.
“I think the challenge I see in Ferns is being able to say this is a definite trend, there will be vocations in the future but there won’t be vocations to replace the system built on a large number of priests.
“Parishes [in Ferns] have already been talking about working together, supporting each other but there’s no parish in Ferns without a priest. That doesn’t mean the problem isn’t visible because a lot of these people are in their 70s-plus and the number of students does not match.
“There are two clerical students at the moment for Ferns,” he says.
However, he adds that although his previous knowledge will be useful, it won’t be the sum total of the solution because just because something worked in one area, does not mean it will work in another.
“I think the most useful thing I’ll be able to bring with me is the experience of being able to sit down with parishes and priests and laypeople in parishes and say ‘What is the future likely to hold? How can we best address it? What economies of scale can be achieved if two or three parishes work together? Are there things that can be done better or more efficiently? Are there ways in which a smaller number of priests will be able to minister effectively, without burning themselves out?’
“Of course, that means very often a change in the perception of what ministry is, and priests don’t want to be just sacramental ministers alone, just to provide sacraments, priests as well are human, they want a relationship with people. It’s not just about the efficiency of priests providing services to parishes, it’s about priests building a meaningful community and a sustainable community,” Bishop Nash says.
Supporting and building up lay ministry is an area Bishop Nash says he is “really interested in”. There are currently more than 50 people in the Diocese of Ferns who have been trained in pastoral ministry.
It is the new bishop’s vision to continue training people and promoting the sense that it is not only priests who can conduct school and hospital visitation, visitation of the elderly and working with children who are preparing for the sacraments; ministerial roles which are non-sacramental.
“As priests get older and scarcer these are sometimes the tasks that get done less frequently, so we need to be able to have lay people and priests working together to keep all those really important touchstones of Church life,” Bishop Nash said.
Asked about the permanent diaconate and its role in the diocese’s future, the bishop said while they have a permanent deacon and another in training, he is more “anxious to move away from a clerical model of Church”.
“One thing that I’m really interested in is the Pope’s development of the new ministry of catechist, which is a commissioned ministry and that is sort of giving all people the ability to build up the Christian community,” he says.
A new ministerial role, Bishop Nash says is “waiting in the wings” is that of a parish manager or administrator, who would work alongside a priest but take many burdens off his shoulders.
“I’ve been talking to different bishops previous to this who would be saying that the burden of safeguarding regulations, financial regulations, charity regulations and data protection regulation has become a huge task, which is totally non-ministerial but absolutely has to be done, it is inescapable and is non-negotiable: we don’t want to be draining the energy of ordained ministers doing that so far as we possibly can,” Bishop Nash insists.
“Parish administrators, to be effective, would have to be working beside the priest, not for the priest, taking full responsability within the community for that area of life and there are people who would like that too, who would have skill in that who might not like a public profile. It’s an area for exploration because these regulations are not going to become less, they are going to become more.
“I’ve come across examples of it in Australia and New Zealand but I think doing it here, it would be a mixture of training people in the practicalities but also to train people for ministry they have to have an understanding of what Church is about. They’re not just administrators,” Bishop Nash explains, “It would be giving them a vision of Church as well and low-level knowledge of Canon Law and civil law. I could envisage maybe a one- or two-year training programme with practical experience built-in.”
He adds that finding people to train parish managers is not something he is concerned about as there are many individuals who are qualified.
“I know from past experience it’s easy enough to get trainers because you don’t have to get a trainer to stay with somebody for two years, you can get a trainer to do modules, so if you put together a programme you can have eight different sections and it’s reasonably easy to get somebody to take one of those modules because it might be their area of expertise, they might know nothing about the others,” he explains.
Safeguarding has become part and parcel of all branches of the Church and will undoubtedly need continuous oversight and management and parishes are no exception. The Diocese of Ferns has a troubled history, after the 2005 Ferns report revealed widescale abuse and mismanagement.
For Bishop Nash, the price of good safeguarding is “eternal vigilance” and that must be kept in mind as people take up Church roles such as sacristans, parish secretaries, readers, Eucharistic ministers, choir leaders and all people who will be interacting with young people or vulnerable adults. An inescapable part of their induction is safeguarding training and regular updates. It is for this reason he says the diocese has come a long way and huge strides have been made.
“Ferns had its history, but I think every diocese has its history of light and darkness,” Bishop Nash says.
“Undoubtedly it has been a trauma for the priests and people of Ferns. I would have to pay great tribute to the work of all my predecessors, the bishops who tackled it early on, Bishop Eamonn Walsh and then Bishop Denis Brennan who came after the worst of the crisis but who did a huge amount to restore the faith of priests and people in Church structures and in parish structures.
“I have heard since I came, Bishop Brennan has worked tirelessly on that with a gentle healing presence over the last 15 years and that has assisted in a big way to help people move on. You never forget, and it’s right not to forget, but you also need to move on.”
Before Bishop Nash took over, Dr Brennan had already put a committee in place to further the synodal process in the diocese this month. As the preparations continue for Ireland’s national synod, Bishop Nash says at the heart of synodality is conversation.
“It’s about hearing where people are at, hearing what the real issues are on the ground but also bringing to people some of the reality of what it means to be Church,” he says, “It’s not just what I feel or what any one individual feels, Church is about being together and it’s about finding a way forward. On one hand you have Church teaching and regulations, the things that hold us together as Church, and on the other hand then you have the reality of people’s lives.”
Part of the process is acknowledging peoples’ unique realities but at the same time encouraging them to ask questions, Bishop Nash says, such as “How can we have a common Christian community here? How best can we give all sorts of people a feeling that the Church is for them, beside them, that the Church hears and understands their life and that the Church calls all of us, every one of us.
“It’s not the Church calling people, it’s all of us together being called to a better way because no matter what your role in life is you are called to be better and you are called more into communion with people and there are so many people we are not in communion with.”
He gives examples of people experiencing homelessness and others on the margins, perhaps “due to their marriage relationships, their lack of marriage relationships, their sexuality, their economic status or even people who might have a real passion about the way we’re treating the planet, do they also feel that the Church is on their side or that it’s just a disinterested player?”
The blessing of gay couples has often come up as a subject of debate. Asked about this Bishop Nash said there will be “a lot of pastoral conversations”. At a worldwide level I suppose the Church will have to say, holding everybody together, how can we recognise the reality of people’s lives?”
Leaving aside other issues, he says it’s about “being able to hold conversations with people and make people feel welcome first, that they don’t feel excluded”.
Honest conversations need to be had about what realistically can be expected after the synodal process according to Bishop Nash, including what can and can’t change and subsequently finding common ground.
“There’s things in all of our lives that can change, I’m not talking about Church teaching, I’m talking about an ability to engage more with the world, be more present to the world we live in, while not compromising any doctrines or teachings,” he says, “but certainly being open to people because there are great people who are not Church people. It’s not about making them Church people either but actually saying we can work beside people whose motivation is not Church or Christianity or faith or the Gospel who are doing wonderful work.”
Speaking about the issue of climate change, Bishop Nash says it’s not something for future generations to tackle.
“One of the things that’s fascinating here, thinking about climate change, this is an extremely flat diocese, I’ve moved away from the mountains of the West, there’s very few mountains in Ferns diocese other than in the northern part,” he says.
“If climate change was as dramatic as the scientists tell us it might be, now it won’t happen in my lifetime, but if we don’t change, then parts of Ireland – whole coastal areas that we’ve always lived for thousands of years – will not be inhabited. It will be no good to say ‘well the generations alive at that time will sort that out’ because they won’t be able to sort that out, it can only be prevented not solved, so the prevention happens now.”
Last week the Minister for Housing asked the Church if it could identify unused land or buildings that could be used to tackle the housing crisis. While well-known Catholic housing activists supported the idea of the Church doing all it can to address one of the most difficult social challenges Ireland is currently facing, there was also criticism of the State’s role in alleviating the emergency as it has enough land to build more than 100,000 houses.
For Bishop Nash, he is open to assisting the crisis but admits it’s a complicated issue, adding any land the Church may offer to the State for housing must be for social and affordable housing.
“If you take the property in any parish, it actually belongs to the people of that parish in the first instance, so it goes back to conversations, it’s building an awareness in parishes and with people,” he says.
“The amount of property in most parishes, other than schools, the parochial house, the churches and the parish hall, is fairly minimal, but where there are bits of property, it belongs to the people of that parish so it’s about raising awareness that we have a Gospel calling to be generous and to be conscientious and to be good citizens.
“There’s a lot of property that different religious orders had at different times mostly in the cities. A lot of dioceses, parishes and religious orders have given land and property to the local council. You also have a controlling factor on this which is the charities regulator which means any charity cannot dispose of its assets for less than market value even to another charity.
“I know from my own experience where parishes wanted to give something, not just to the homeless, but to another charity, it’s not a forgone conclusion that the charity regulator will sign off on that.”
Asked about the use of the land provided by the Church, he said: “I think that would be a very important conversation, especially land that would have been bought for social housing, it shouldn’t end up being flipped in any way for the benefit of a developer.”
Facing into a challenging future with questions around aging priests, lay ministry, exigent social issues and more, Bishop Nash is hopeful as a new member of the hierarchy he can empower parishioners and maintain and develop vibrant Catholic communities, paving a way for a bright future for the diocese.