Getting dialogue going in a parish community
One of the suggestions that came across quite strongly from the Regency Hotel assembly in May was that dialogue groups be set up in every parish.
I want to share my experience about such a group.
As a consequence of the publication of the Murphy Report in November 2009, my immediate, strong desire was to talk about it within my parish community. I was part of a community building team within the parish at the time and circulated the members of that team – together with the PP- to the effect I was going to be raising the issue at the forthcoming meeting, which, coincidentally was scheduled for the Tuesday after the publication of the report.
On the morning of the meeting, I got a phone call from the PP, who was with the chairperson of the parish pastoral team, informing me that I was not to raise the issue of the Murphy Report at our meeting. I was told there would be a parish forum called early in the New Year and the topic would be discussed then,
I was horrified – I had never felt such censure before and felt deeply hurt and offended by it. I had thought I was a proactive, positive member of my parish and felt I was considered such by my fellow parishioners and my pastors down through the years. My reaction was to say I could not be part of a church which forbade me to speak; a fact my PP seemed quite happy to accept. I decided I couldn’t even go to the meeting, but sent word with another team member, explaining why I felt I couldn’t attend. I was heart-broken – I felt my parish had abandoned me.
Much to my joy, the rest of the team members were horrified by the ‘silencing’ and assured me of their support. Because of their reaction, I felt I could return to my parish activities.
To be fair to the PP and the Pastoral council, they DID hold a couple of open fora (forums?) for the parishioners where people could air their feelings. The fora were very structured and guided by experts at the ‘top table’. While they were very worthwhile, and I truly appreciated them I felt that we needed on-going dialogue – and dialogue as equals where we were totally free to voice whatever was in our hearts – not just structured sessions, where we were guided by leaders.
I began trying to set up such a group within the parish. When I approached the chairperson of the pastoral team, I was told there was nothing stopping me from setting up such a group but it didn’t have the go-ahead of the pastoral team. However, I WANTED it to be a parish initiative so that it could be publicised it through the parish bulletin and use the parish hall for its gatherings. I didn’t want a private little gathering of a few like-minded friends getting together in each others’ houses. And I certainly didn’t want it to be MY group! What chance would such a group have of being heard ANYWHERE?
Together with other parishioners, we began the quest to set up a group under the auspices of the parish in the spring of 2010 and it took from then until June of 2011 to actually get ‘off the ground’. During that time I had to become quite ‘pushy’, I had to stick my head up over the parapet, I had to keep reminding other people that things would not happen unless we made them happen; I had to hold my nerve when I wondered if anybody else actually cared that such a group be set up. It was a very lonely place to be a lot of the time. I realised that other people DID care about such an initiative, but they were busy people, leading very full lives and a parish dialogue group was not at the top of their agendas. I actually had to MAKE it be (and stay) at the top of MY agenda or it would fizzle out!
Our little group has now been in existence since June of last year (the first actual gathering took place in July) and I wish I could say it was worth all the hard work to get it off the ground. But I can’t.
I am still the only person who arranges gatherings – if I don’t call meetings, they will not be called. There is no established core group who attend regularly so that our ‘conversation’ can develop and deepen. Anywhere between three to eight people (on a good night!) may turn up, but invariably the same issues are aired because somebody has come along for the first time and needs to voice his/her concerns. While I am deeply conscious of the benefits that each individual gains by being able to do so for the first time, it does mean that those who wish to move on from that stage become frustrated. And so we hobble on from month to month.
I am now at the point where I wonder, should I just let it go? It would be good to be able to say that it is a necessary and worthwhile venture and that it is important to keep it alive and active. But the evidence seems to indicate otherwise. I don’t think my fellow parishioners would notice if it didn’t happen this month – not even the few who would have attended!
I ask myself if I’m doing something wrong – I’ve tried to get those who come to the gatherings to suggest alternatives, but nothing has been forthcoming.
It is wonderful to attend gatherings like the ‘Towards an Assembly of the Irish Church’ and other previous and subsequent meetings, where I am surrounded by equally passionate people. But I then have to go home to my parish community and try to effect change there. And that is such a different proposition!
The general body of parishioners would seem to fall into two ‘camps’ – those who support the notion of dialogue within the parish but are too busy to become actively involved and those who view the whole venture as something rather suspicious – peopled by those who wish to destroy the church from within! I, personally, seem to have gone from being a ‘respected member of the parish community’ to a trouble-maker who, in an old-fashioned phrase, has ‘notions beyond her standing’!
And all of this because I firmly believe that, in order for my beloved church to survive, we have to talk about where we are so that we can see a way forward. And we can’t leave it up to the ‘authorities’ within the existing structures to do so. That is what has got us into this horrific mess in the first place.
I have given my name to the ACP, but I have asked them to ensure this posting goes up anonymously – not for MY protection (those within my parish community who read this will know exactly who we all are!) but for the protection of that parish community – the people I live among and work with and love.
If anybody out there has suggestions as to what steps I might take, I would dearly love to hear them.
I’ve always accepted that, as a Catholic, I might be expected to ‘stand up for my faith’ someday. Never, in my wildest imagining, did I suspect that the people I would be ‘standing up to’ would be others WITHIN the Catholic family. Yet that appears to be where I am now – nobody from outside of my faith – nobody in the scary secular world – has ever tried to banish me from anywhere because I hold the views that I hold. There’s an incredible irony in all of this, isn’t there?