Listening Process in Down and Connor: What are the People in the Irish Catholic Church Saying?

Last month, Bishop Noel Treanor initiated a ‘Listening Process’ in the Diocese of Down and Connor, designed to encourage laypeople to have their say about the future of the Catholic Church in their diocese. Last night I attended one of the listening sessions at Clonard Monastery in West Belfast.

The sessions are facilitated by specially-trained laypeople, and will be continuing until the end of March (for a full list of the sessions click here). Last night’s session included prayer, small group discussion, and feedback from the wider group of about 45 people. Discussion centred around two main questions, paraphrased below:

  • What would our diocese and parishes look like if the Catholic faith were being fully lived?
  • What needs to happen for the church to start fully living that faith?

More than an hour of the two-hour session was taken up by the first question. To make a broad generalisation, those who spoke from the floor wanted to see more of what I would call the post-Vatican II church: more lay involvement, more meaningful liturgies in the vernacular, more accountability from the hierarchy, a preference for the poor and marginalised, and the elimination of class and privilege from the structures of the church itself.

One participant said what was needed was a re-formation of the Catholic Church, which would involve the church becoming more ‘democratic.’ He did not necessarily mean that the church should follow the political fashions of the day; rather, he thought that the community that Jesus Christ and his apostles were a part of seemed to be a lot more collegial and equal (democratic, if you like) than what is seen in today’s Catholic Church.

Others said that laypeople themselves needed to take responsibility for their own faith, to seek to become more involved in the church rather than waiting for the clergy to ‘do church’ for them. This, they acknowledged, would involve a somewhat seismic shift in the culture of the Irish Catholic Church, where historically, they thought, laypeople had been encouraged to believe that sitting back and shutting up was the way to salvation.

For the second question, we broke into small discussion groups and then during the wider feedback session presented three ideas about what the church could do. Among the suggestions were:

  • Create a ‘listening structure’ at the diocesan level, in which laypeople are directly involved
  • The hierarchy should initiate services of lament and repentance for the clerical abuse scandals throughout the diocese, similar to the recent service at Dublin’s Pro Cathedral
  • The hierarchy should partake in a three-day pilgrimage of prayer and fasting at Lough Derg –without telling the media beforehand
  • When future bishops are appointed, they should have some experience of parish-level pastoral care
  • Encourage the bishops to stand up to Rome and, if necessary, dissent from the line set out by the Vatican, as the ancient Celtic Church was known to do on occasion
  • Place a greater priority on developing meaningful, joyful liturgies. Several participants said that they appreciated the effort that went into the liturgy at Clonard – it seemed to be seen by some as a bright spot in a sea of liturgical mediocrity
  • Be willing to learn from the witness of Protestant churches, i.e. Presbyterians for their democracy and accountability, Methodists for their social justice, Quakers for their contemplative life, pacifism and social action. Some thought that Christian Eucharistic fellowship should be extended to all Christians who believe the gospel
  • Involve and recognise the gifts of women at all levels of church life

There were numerous other suggestions and doubtless the other sessions are producing further ideas. The results of the Listening Process will be disseminated at a Diocesan Congress at Pentecost 2013, where a ‘roadmap for the future’ and ‘pastoral priorities’ will be set out.

But chatting with some of the participants at the coffee time after the meeting, it was more obvious than it had been during the public discussion that not everyone was on the same post-Vatican II page. For some, there was bewilderment at the type of church being advocated by those who spoke from the floor. They wanted to go back to the basics, to focus on ‘simple’ homilies and the catechism. The less-hierarchical, more ‘democratic’ church that was being advocated was simply a foreign idea for them. Others doubted that the Diocese was really serious about the listening process, and thought that it had been initiated simply as a public relations exercise.

Pentecost 2013 seems quite a long time to wait to see if the hierarchy in the Diocese really hears what people are saying.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com