20Jun The parish community is a smile on the face of God

Is ‘the parish’ the home/heart of the Community or is it a Service Provider? It can be all things to all people or it can be a useful ‘convenience store’ for the moments of need. Those of us who work in a Parish, find that we never complete our work. The work is endless. The day is forever. The major discipline is to be able to define what must be done and what can be done or what can’t be done today. We can never do everything. Our work is always unfinished and our objective is to be ‘a presence’ which is somewhat a whisper of ‘something more.’ We are truly sacramental. The whispers of God are hinted at and are ‘rumours of angels.’

The Parish is a place (church= meeting point) where certain key moments of life are marked. For many now – this place is useful but often fairly irrelevant. Baptism can be essentially a social occasion which is celebratory for the family and has little to do with Church or God. Holy Communion marks a precious and emotional moment in a family life when a lovely time in a child’s life is celebrated. Confirmation is the end of Primary school and again probably has little to do with God. Marriage in Church marks the occasion but very little of God is caught. One delightful bride said to me in all seriousness (many years ago in Dundee) – “The Church is a lovely entrance to come out. “ She meant it and she was right in many ways. Funerals are a moment which still marks the Departure Ceremony but is only part of the convenient structure of life. We serve a need. And some of us do it well.

What do we do as parish professionals?
1. Our job is to ensure that the ordinary work of life goes on in the Church for those who attend. We make sure that daily Mass is prepared and celebrated and that something of God happens. We prepare the weekend Celebration and once more try to reach into the lives of those who turn up. We hope something of the very mystery of God is shared and caught. We mark the other significant moments as best we can; always trying to touch every person with something of the faith we share. We present a warm face so that the ‘visit’ to Church is intimate, real, homely and Godly. We are there as the counsellor; as the letter-writer; as the trouble-shooter at times; We can say ‘the few words’ when needed. We have a walk-on role in many lives.

2. Our Church is getting old and grey and tired. The Sisters and the Priests are getting old and grey. The Congregation is getting old and grey. Our Service can never get old and grey. God doesn’t. We can’t. We don’t need cosmetics; we need a change of heart. We must deal with what is and not hanker back to what was. We often are an appendix to life rather than central. But that too is also fine. We cannot whinge about being ‘used’; or even try to ‘exploit’ those moments when people need our services. We cannot present those who come to us with hoops to jump through or indulge in making them feel ‘guilty.’ We are not the guards at the home of God.

3. We move in a very privileged environment. We still have access to the inner lives of many. If we bring the light touch of God; if we bring the warmth of care and compassion; if we bring the humility of being grounded in reality without having too many answers – then our place is very holy. We have to ensure that when people reach Church; they are welcomed. We cannot indulge (poor me!) in the cheap moan that ‘we are being used.’ (‘People only come because they want something or need something or haven‘t found a satisfactory substitute as yet.’) Is anything of the ‘gentle breeze’ caught or the ‘burning bush’ when people meet us? Is this ‘conversation’ an oasis of hope and Good News? Can we hint at beauty and poetry and wonder and marvel and miracle? If our own faith is alive; then we aren’t just ‘doing something’ for the Parishioners but essentially a Parishioner ourselves. We too are searching and praying people, being helped to meet our God everyday. We can’t be mechanics of mystery. God has to be met by me before I dare act as leader.

The Local Church.
1. Life in Finglas feeds my spirit. I know I am doing something good. The folk around here give me life. I find God in the homes especially (a day without several house calls – feels as if something is missing); in the schools where the very atmosphere with children, staff and parents is inspirational; in the banter of life around the streets; in the shops where we meet more people than in the Church; in the happy occasions and the sad ones. There is fun and nonsense and laughter and tears in the amalgam of life around here. My spirit is lifted by the hospitality of homes; by the occasions I feel able to bring a little something extra to the Celebrations; by the easy relationship with everyone; by the goodness and spontaneity in Church; by the taunting and teasing we all go on with; by the weekly Team Meeting; by the PPC; by the morning Masses and the arguments and fun; by the sheer honesty of everyone; by the wonderful and appreciated opportunity I have, to being in such a warm and cheerful place, even if ‘practice’ is not plentiful but humour and humanity is everywhere.

2. Life is a prayer. And prayer is a lifting of the mind, heart, imagination to God – that happens around the Parish and happens for the people of the Community and happens for me. I have come to the view that running around is not the challenge of the role but rather being around and presenting a face which I think is a glimpse of God. I try to do my bit in being a community builder and helping folk find a place and their place in the Community. I am a facilitator and an enabler. We all try to give people the confidence to speak – to let them know that their experience in life is a profound education and doesn’t need certification (by exams). . I am amazed daily at the confidence people have now in their own reflections. This is always the challenge – confidence-building!

3. I am blessed. It is a blessed place to be. My own faith is stirred. I don’t indulge in sadness at the collapsing edifice of the Church (good riddance in some cases); God is bigger than any moment and any time and any place. It doesn’t all depend on me or us or now. I don’t have to dredge the highways and byways. The door is open. I am always around. Church is ‘more’ than being at Church! The world of God cannot be defined by simplistic formulae. Humility is essential in all we do. In many ways this is a wonderful time in Church life. We are at home in homes. We are at home in the privileged story of a family preparing a funeral. We create a space for the story to emerge. We ramble around the schools. There is no great project. At least my project is not great and doesn’t have to be. In everything I do; I recall all the people who have been around long before me – I think of the local community; I think of the real saints of the parish; I think of the work of heroines and heroes who keep the place ticking over now and over the years; I think of my own family. We are part of the long stretch of faith down the centuries and down the years and down the byroads of life. We do live and I live on the shoulders of giants and I am grateful.

Yes. The parish is a holy place. I take off my shoes. I don’t have to feel responsible for those who don’t attend church – I wonder if I would attend myself in different circumstances. I enter their world and also find God. The real Table and Altar is the multiple of Tables in every home and the story of every family. It is the struggle and the gift. The formalised version of Church is really of little interest to me. I don’t need the pompous language and archaic ritual. Real Eucharist happens when bread is truly broken and the Christ is obviously present in the very mystery of our lives. What a wonderful time it is? Let Teresa of Avila have the last word: “How did those priests ever get so serious and preach all that gloom? I don’t think God tickled them yet. Beloved – hurry.” We need to be tickled.
Seamus Ahearne osa

11 Responses

  1. Donal Dorr

    Thanks very much, Seamus, for this thoughtful and very moving piece. Have you thought of submitting it to ‘The Furrow’ as well as here?

  2. Seamus Ahearne osa

    Thanks Donal for your comment. I think my scatter of thoughts and my sharing may help others to tell their story. Together we can help to make each other strong. In the scrum of life, that is the present day Church; we need the strength of each other. In regard to submitting the article elsewhere – it would take too much time and work to tidy it up. And my writing needs more discipline than I am willing to give it! Seamus

  3. Darlene Starrs

    Wherever God is…….is Holy…….I have loved to sing that song for years….that says….This is Holy Ground….We’re Standing on Holy Ground….For the Lord is present….And Where He is…is Holy” and so on….One of the last times, I sang that….was on the land of my ancestors on Tattyreagh Glebe, Tyrone…My family were called the Ferry Fort Starrs…because ours was the land with the all to well known Rath…of Tattyreagh Tyrone…I climbed to the crest of the land where the ‘Ferry Ring’ is…looked down into the valley all around…and looked up to the Sperrin Mountains…ah, that was my Church, my holy ground…that’s where God was…for that time and space….For most of my young adult life, I would have experienced the Church parish as Father Seamus describes…but, alas…things are different today.

  4. Maire

    Thank you ,Fr Seamus, for this moving, and honest article. It is such articles,which reflect the thoughts and feelings of so many,which keeps me going. It should be read by the wider public,and especially by the leaders of our Church. Maire

  5. Chris McDonnell

    I am indebted to Seamus Ahearne for sharing with me an earlier draft of this thoughtful reflection on parish experience. Below is part of a comment I wrote after reading that draft. It was printed else where under the title of the parish community

    Over my years, I have lived in a number of different parishes here in the UK , the last thirty five years have been in what was originally a small rural community in the Midlands , north of Birmingham.

    The societal changes that followed the post-War years have been enormous and have affected every aspect of our lives. It would be presumptuous to assume that the community we call ‘Parish’ might have somehow escaped this change.

    We could list many influences on parish life over the latter half of the 20th C and on in to the 21st C. I would like to comment on just three.

    First of all, let’s look at the age profile of many parishes. Increasingly, it is an aging population. To paraphrase Pete Seeger’s song, “Where have all the young ones gone?” Their absence is noticeable. So we must ask why. Parents with a young family are under great pressure, they can’t always make it to Mass even if they want to. But when they do make it, what is offered them by way of a welcome? How do we make their children feel at home? It is a matter where we must look both ways, not just pointing a finger at them for not coming – “It’s your fault” – but also at ourselves- “what might we have done to help?” To quote from Seamus Ahearne,

    “We don’t need cosmetics; we need a change of heart. We must deal with what is and not hanker back to what was”.

    Secondly, there is the matter of our increased mobility. At one time you could be fairly sure whom you would meet at Mass week after week. That is no longer so. We move around, go away for a long weekend, visit our extended families who have moved away. The parish population is much more fluid. Within my own parish there are some who have lived here all their lives, and have stability within the community, but they are a very small minority.

    And thirdly, it is about relationships and change. In so many dioceses the number of priests is reducing as they too age. The overall number is further affected by the loss of those good men who have left the active priesthood in order to marry. The stop-gap solution is often the combining of parishes, asking one man to serve two communities and at the same time diminishing community identity. But that is all it is, a stop-gap. The title of Brendan Hoban’s new book asks “Who will break the bread for us?” It is a pertinent and urgent question.

    We need to recognise the precious nature of our local Christian Communities, the inter-dependence we have one for another, the relationship between priest and people which must have at its heart a mutual trust and respect. All of this has to be set within the new framework of where we are and where we are going, not looking back to some idyllic existence that might have worked then, but won’t work now.

    We need to be active, alive, vibrant and caring, centred in worship on the Risen Christ, aware of the universal church yet living out that experience in our local communities.

    “The parish is a holy place. I take off my shoes”


    What finer, yet simple, summary of the place that you and I call home, our Parish? A place of sustenance and refreshment. Like our family home, our parish is indeed a sacred dwelling. We disturb its balance at our peril.

  6. ger gleeson

    You may not believe it Fr Seamus, but I truly believe that many people like me are “hanging on in there” because of Priests like you. Priests who work at the coalface are the true heroes of our Church. The Hirearchy and career Priests are really for the birds.

  7. Paddy Ferry

    Ger and Seamus, I concur completely.

  8. Chris McDonnell

    Just read some of the comments on the site
    Makes you realise just how far some people will go to vilify the testimony of Francis after only a hundred days. You really begin to wonder what makes some people tick. How come we get a fine light and all they want to do is to blow it out?

  9. Jim Mc Hugh

    Your Smile on the Face of God does us a mighty service, with a smile. Albeit my parish practice is from a different time, C20th and place, Minna Nigeria, life was lived among and for the Peoples. Now, changed status qualifies me to celebrate All seven sacraments! Donal is so right, your Contribution merits a wider readership. Your respond, “it would take too much time and work to tidy it up”. Well, here sits a Ready Redactor, should Furrow so demand. Susan joins me in honouring your Intention.

  10. Maureeen Mulvaney

    WOW! What a splendid, reflective, hopeful and thought – provoking article. This should reach a much wider audience than “The Furrow”I love the part that says, “We are not the guards at the home of God” Maybe that should reach Cardinal Sean O’ Malley ears!

  11. aoife molloy

    I have the honour of a bishop-cousin now deceased, His Grace Michael Harty(RIP) and also a cousin a priest
    Fr.Nicholas Flavin
    I know Nicholas minds three parishes and is ageing.
    I have been blessed with meeting, knowing and having had support from fabulous priests.
    We need to show the youth that mass need not be boring, stuffy etc through the ‘Youth alpha’, Youth 2,000
    and ‘Life in the Spirit’.

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