Transforming the parish into a monastery without walls

Transforming the parish into a monastery without walls Balally parish and pastoral centre.
One Dublin parish is looking to contemplative prayer as the way forward for faith in Ireland, writes Jason Osborne

Balally parish in south Co. Dublin is staking its future on the power of prayer. As the Church wanes in Ireland, parish priest Fr Jim Caffrey and chaplain Fr Dermot Lane insist that the decline in the Church’s power and prestige are actually an opportunity – an opening through which prayer can slip.

Their parish is “moving from maintenance to mission, grounded in contemplative prayer,” Fr Lane says by way of introduction to their new way of doing things. Christian meditation and contemplative prayer and living are becoming the parish’s new centrepieces when it comes to their approach to faith formation, with an array of activities and events to reinforce it – such as “Desert Days” and monastic, silent lunches accompanied by spiritual reading.


“The archbishop has launched the Building Hope programme, and he asked every parish to reflect – because there has to be radical change within the diocese for various reasons that we’re all aware of – so rather than seeing it as a negative, we’re trying to see it as a grace, as an opportunity.

“So Building Hope is at the centre, and our mission is called ‘Building hope through meditation and service’. So that’s that framework,” Fr Caffrey tells me.

What practical changes is this resulting in in Balally parish? Well, Fr Lane is putting his theologically-trained brain and spirit to work, and Fr Caffrey is bringing his five years’ experience at a Cistercian monastery in South Carolina in the US to bear, on the task of making their parish “a monastery without walls”, as they call it, making reference to the book by popular Christian meditation specialist John Main.

“We see this really as a last chance to rescue the parish from oblivion, as an opportunity rather than a negative, because a lot of people say, ‘Oh, it’s a terrible time and everything’s terrible. The Church is finished’, but we see this as a time for renewal,” Fr Caffrey says.

Getting into the details of their contemplative parish revival, they tell me about some of the events and practices on offer.

Tuesday is their Desert Day, which begins with morning prayer in the church from 10 to 12, and sees exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, Morning Prayer in the style of the Benedictine Glenstal Abbey in Co. Limerick, a contemplative recitation of the rosary, a period of Christian meditation and then some silent time of adoration.

Noon sees a “monastic meal” of home-made soup and brown bread, eaten in silence in their pastoral centre while listening to spiritual reading.

Fr Jim Caffrey.

And every Desert Day finishes with a contemplative end in the Lane Room – named in honour of the parish’s long-time pastor, Fr Lane – a Taize-style Mass, incorporating Lectio Divina of the following Sunday’s Gospel and finishing with another short period of Christian meditation.

They’re also hosting “first Friday” talks and meditations, given and led by a variety of people from different backgrounds. For example, an upcoming talk will be given by Consultant Haematologist Dr Barry White, an avid proponent of Christian meditation, who will speak to those assembled of the practicalities of addressing stress, sleep, ageing, mental health difficulties, and of course, spirituality.


While many of their parishioners have been “very supportive” of the new approach, they’re also reaching beyond their regulars in an attempt to live out their calling as “fishers of men”. They’ve already begun to teach children in the surrounding schools Christian meditation – focused on the age-old Christian prayer of “maranatha” (‘Our Lord, come’). Not content with offering only the children some formation, though, they’re interacting with parents on a deeper level too.

❛❛We’re trying to get elders to reflect prayerfully on what it means to grow old”

“We’re gathering with their parents, because we realised that a lot of the people involved with the parish are aging and won’t be with us forever, so we’ve to form a whole new generation of disciples,” they tell me. Rather than only speaking to parents of the practicalities around sacramental formation for their children, as has perhaps been the usual in Ireland in recent decades, Frs Caffrey and Lane are speaking to them “about their journey, their faith journey, getting them to reflect on that, and hopefully leading them into what the Christian tradition offers, rather than just giving them lectures,” about their children’s sacraments.

Learning to meditate happened to Fr Caffrey for a purpose, he believes, as it’s vital if he’s to go on and form the next generation of “lay-leaders” of their parish.

In truly Christian fashion, they’re seeking to leave no one behind, as I’m told they’re also putting a special focus on helping the elderly to embrace spirituality at their specific stage of life.


“We’re trying to get elders to reflect prayerfully on what it means to grow old. What it means for your body to be diminished. What it means to prepare for your own death. Fr Ronald Rolheiser talks about the latter stage of our life….the spiritual quest is preparing for your death, and also that involves letting go. Letting go of responsibility, letting go of your body, letting go of running everything, letting go of leadership in the parish. So we’ve started that journey with the elders,” Fr Caffrey says.

Asked about the contemplative, meditative approach they’re taking, they’re quick to say that Christian meditation is entirely different to mindfulness in its approach to spirituality.

“Christian meditation is quite different to mindfulness. Mindfulness is about myself. Christian meditation is getting through that stuff but also reaching out beyond yourself, so becoming a more compassionate person. Meditation then leads to service,” Fr Caffrey explains.

“Prayer is at the heart of everything,” Fr Lane adds, “Start by meditating, and that leads into service.”


They feel their parish, and the purpose of its pastoral centre, somewhat lost its way, but they’re keen to get things back on track with this prayer-centred approach.

“It became, kind of, like a lot of other pastoral centres…there were businesses there, there were groups there that had nothing to do with anything. We’re really reclaiming it and saying this is a centre for meditation and service. This is a centre where you can learn to meditate and where you can meditate. This is a centre where the poor will be welcome. So we’re going to have an icon chapel in it, we’re going to have a meditation room….this’ll be the heart of it.”

All good works take time to bear fruit, but Frs Caffrey and Lane are optimistic about the work they’ve set out to do. Despite the diminished Church of the moment, they believe it’s actually a better time, more full of opportunity, than they’ve seen so far in their long ministries.

“For us, it’s a really challenging, but joyful moment, and I think for both Fr Dermot and myself, in our priesthood, neither of us are spring chickens anymore – we’re both extraordinarily excited and I find this to be the best time of my priesthood. The best time in the Church, rather than when everything was going really well”, Fr Caffrey finishes.