God has plans for His people.
Join in the Mission of Prayer, Exploration and Renewal.
A Pastoral Letter from Bishop Donal McKeown Diocese of Derry January 2023
‘I know well the plans I have made for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, not for disaster! Plans to give you a future full of hope. When you call me, when you go to pray to me, I will listen to you. When you look for me, you will find me. Yes, when you seek me with all your heart, you will find me with you, says the Lord.’ Jeremiah 29:11-13
Where we are
The prophet Jeremiah lived some centuries before Christ. In his lifetime, the Jewish people saw Jerusalem destroyed and their leaders exiled to Babylon. That seemed to be the end of the Chosen People.
But the prophet was told to proclaim that, despite all appearances, God had great plans for His people – and a future full of hope.
I share this scripture passage with you as we in this diocese today face a time of change and a change of time. Sometimes, we can be tempted to believe that all is lost. In such a negative narrative, some frightened voices talk of coming disasters and judgement.
But the message of the scriptures is always one of hope. God has plans for His people. Faith means believing that God is at work, even in difficult times. Faith involves discerning where God is in the middle of fear and loss, anger and division.
It is very clear that, like much of Europe, the Diocese of Derry faces many difficulties.
- The model of Church that seemed so confident 50 years ago is no longer marked by large numbers at Mass. Where smaller numbers attend Mass, there is a lesser chance of bringing people to know and love Jesus, of numerous vocations to priesthood and religious life.
- The scandal of abuse and cover-ups from the past have damaged our ability to speak about Jesus with moral authority.
- To a large extent we have failed to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus to young people.
We face a secular culture which has little time for faith communities. Along with other Christian churches, we know that the problem in the future will not be religious difference so much as religious indifference.
A future full of hope will involve change
But the key question is not merely how we change so that we can maintain the current model and structures. With that model we have been failing in our mission of bringing people to know and love Jesus.
If we ask the right question, we discover that renewal is not only a question of managing changed structures and rescheduling parish Mass. This is a time where we need to make space for grace so that God’s plans – and not our limited imagination – can renew the mission of the Church. Merely tinkering with the current system is not the divine solution.
So, what is the right question to ask?
At the end of St Matthew’ Gospel, Jesus gives the apostles a commandment – go, make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19). In renewing the diocese, our main question has to be, “How do we use our resources and people so that we make new disciples for Christ in this diocese?”
And, in seeking that way forward, the New Testament tells us that there is another vital consideration. Since the Church belongs to God and not to us, we have to discern where God wants us to go in 2023. That is why all parish conversations need to be synodal and steeped in prayer. Otherwise, we end up merely with our limited answers to our narrow questions.
What structures best serve the mission?
How might we review our current parish structure so that we are better prepared to bring Christ to our contemporaries?
One of the challenges is that, by 2032, we might expect to have about 35 priests for the current 51 parishes in our diocese.
The large city parishes will remain as individual parishes with at least one priest. But, for the parishes outside Derry city, we have two choices. Either, we plan to load multiple rural parishes on individual priests, or we aim to create missionary pastoral communities with at least two priests in each.
Having talked with clergy, I propose the second of these.
This would mean that we will have:
- In County Derry, five pastoral communities with 14 parishes;
- In County Tyrone and Finn Valley, five pastoral communities with 17 parishes;
- In Inishowen, three pastoral communities with 8 parishes.
- (Malin, Carndonagh, Clonmany and Bocan being one pastoral community) In Derry City, because of the larger populations, the parishes will remain distinct.
All of this implies major changes for clergy and lay people regarding:
- The celebration of Masses, funerals, baptisms, etc;
- How parish communities work to teach and hand on faith;
- Developing new ways of learning and practising our faith;
- Developing new ways of gathering as parishes for prayer in the absence of a priest;
- How Parish Pastoral Councils and Parish Finance Councils work to plan the ministry of their community.These challenges and changes will involve letting go of some of the familiar. It will give parishes more of an opportunity of working cooperatively with neighbouring parishes, sharing their gifts, talents and resources. Parishes will retain their individual parish identity but will share a priest. These changes will involve imagination, training and a gradual introduction over a period of time. In some parts of the diocese, however, sudden changes have already been forced on us.
A future full of hope and renewal
As we face the future,
- We have the conviction that Christ is with His Church until the end of time.
- We have many people of good will who are keen to be involved in the mission of the diocese and its parishes.There is a beautiful phrase in the Book of Revelation ‘behold, I make all things new’ (21:5). Christ renews His Church in every generation to make us more like what we should be.
On their journey through the desert from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were often tempted to go back. But they discovered that God was with them and that the Promised Land always lay ahead of them, never behind them.
In 2032, Ireland will celebrate the 16th centenary of St Patrick’s arrival in this country. We walk forward in hope, as our national patron did. A hurting world still needs to hear the message of God’s abundant mercy revealed in Jesus.
In a context of prayer and of openness to the Holy Spirit, I invite the parishes of the diocese to set out on this mission of renewal, believing that if we listen for the voice of the Lord, we can enter into His peace. Like generations of missionaries before us, we walk into the future, filled with hope, that the Lord has already prepared for us.
Donal Bishop of Derry January 2023