I live in Kildysart. The parish includes about twenty small islands on the confluence of the Fergus and Shannon rivers. These islands were inhabited until the 1970s and most are still farmed today. One island, Canon Island, has impressive ruins of a 12th century abbey founded by the Canons Regular of St Augustine. It was once a very busy place. It is mentioned several times in Papal letters. For many centuries St Mary’s Abbey on Canon Island was the centre of pastoral care for communities along the estuary. When you stand among the ruins of the old abbey, you can still picture the canons coming and going, visiting communities, preaching the gospel, celebrating the sacraments. However, there came a day when all that stopped. The light went out, the candles were blown out for the last time.
The candles on Canon Island are extinguished, but the light of faith continues to illuminate. One model of pastoral care died and over time another took its place.
What happened when the abbey on Canon Island died is happening again in our own day. The system of pastoral ministry that we all grew up with in Ireland is coming to an end. Already, important parts of it have almost ceased to function. The great lay movements of the recent past have faded. The Legion of Mary, the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, Confraternities are no longer a significant presence in our dioceses or parishes. Religious women and men, nuns and brothers used to provide pastoral care especially in the areas of education and healthcare. The number of diocesan clergy has dropped precipitously.
Times of transition are both difficult and exciting. The old form is dying but can the substance find a new expression? Our faith is so much more that buildings, structures, titles, territories. These things may have their own charm but are essentially a means to an end. The beginning and end of our faith is friendship with Christ, our saviour. During our history a variety of structures have helped Christians along the path of discipleship. Christians inspired by the Holy Spirit and helped by courageous leaders and prophetic voices have always found new ways to keep the flame of faith alive.
How will we keep the flame of faith alive in our world, our communities, families and hearts now that our existing structure is increasing not fit for purpose? The future is beyond our vision, but there are emerging signs of what the key building blocks might be.
The foundation is our personal relationship with Christ, our savour. For Christians, nothing makes sense unless it is born of and strengthens our friendship with Christ. He is the light of the world. The raison d’être of the Church is to live in that light so as invite people to the light. The most tragic moments in the history of Christianity and in the lives of Christians are when we lose sight of Christ. The most inspiring, glorious moments have Christ at their heart. We strive to serve Christ but we can never control or limit the outpouring of his love and grace. Where charity and love is, there is God.
A vital building block is the conviction that we have something of value to offer, which the world needs. Christians do not have a monopoly of truth or love. Nevertheless, the gospel helps people along the journey of life giving us a sense of direction and meaning. Our friendship with Christ broadens our horizons and opens our eyes to the eternal glory of the Lord. This we have to share.
Respect is core. We are made in the image and likeness of God. Human weakness might tarnish that dignity but it will never obliterate it. Pope Francis promotes a synodal Church where every voice is heard and respected. In society respectful conversations between people of all faiths and none, is fundamental to creating a caring country.
As a Church, we need to free ourselves from the things that weigh us down. We inherited a wonderful structure of dioceses, parishes and churches that nourished the faith of generations past. We now live in a different age. People take priority over buildings, a vibrant, praying communities over nominal parishes.
The person who blew out the last candle on Canon Island had no clear idea what form the new structure would take. Today, we are in a similar situation. The contribution of every person, every generation and every praying community is a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. In the words of Pope Francis, let us not clip the wings of the Holy Spirit.
Albert McDonnell is a co-parish priest in the Radharc na nOileán pastoral area.
This was the fourth in a series of articles for the Clare Champion