Frequent Questions and Challenges from across the Diocese

1. Why can’t we stay as we are? We are thriving as it is.

In his response to this myth, Steven Webb quoted some stark statistics from a 2014 report by the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University in Twickenham. It found that 56% of people raised as Catholics identified as Catholic in adulthood. This compares to over 70% in 1993. Moreover almost 50% of weekly or more mass attenders are aged 65+.

 
In our own diocese numeric decline has been masked by a significant number of immigrants and the general increase of the population in the south east but we are losing children and young people at an alarming rate. Many of your responses to the questionnaires speak of ageing congregations and, according to our Annual Report for the year 2016/17, our Mass attendance fell by 10% in one year. In reality it was less than that but still a decline.
— Steven Webb
In summary, we currently retain about 56% of those raised as Catholic and of those only just over a quarter attend Mass once a week and nearly 40% never attend. In terms of simplistic recruitment and retention this is not a good result.
This is our status quo. This is what we have now and I would suggest that this is not good enough to hold on to at all costs. In any environment these statistics should lead anyone to think that an overhaul of how we do things is necessary — and this has nothing at all to do with a diminishing number of priests.
 

2. How can we cope with all these changes when we have a large property development on our doorstep?

Our population has been growing across Essex and East London for years but even with this significant increase in our population our church numbers have never matched the increase in general population. The last census in 2011 put the population in our diocese at 2,661,600 and in 2017 even by a conservative estimate it was at least 2,826,000. Our overall Mass attendance has not increased during that time. It remained steady until 2016 when it started to decline.

3.  Why not just bring more foreign priests in?

According to the Pontifical Yearbook 2017 and the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae, our European ratio of people to priests is far, far better than India or Asia or Africa. It may be acceptable for us to accept priests from abroad when those places choose of their own volition to send priests to us to serve immigrant communities with some sort of national chaplaincy; it is far more questionable whether it is right for us to actively seek to deprive countries of their priests when they need them more than we do. Moreover, in recent years every one of our visas has been used. We do not have any margin to bring in many more foreign priests even if it were right so to do.

4.  Why co-operate with the consultation exercise when it is a sham and the outcome a fait accompli?

I do not think Bishop Alan could have been any clearer about the fact that he wants to hear what parishioners have to say BEFORE he makes the difficult decisions that will fall to him as our bishop. Listening to people and hearing what they have to say DOES NOT necessarily mean that comments or suggestions will be agreed. Furthermore, even those that are agreed will not necessarily be implemented simply because Bishop Alan will have to look at the big picture across our diocese and do what he thinks is best for all of us.

5. Surely we just need to pray for vocations?

I agree entirely that we need to pray for vocations but this must be as well as this initiative (part of which is aimed at the promotion of vocations).

 
the number of seminarians, after reaching a maximum in 2011, has suffered a gradual reduction. The sole exception remains Africa, which does not yet seem to be affected by the crisis in vocations and is confirmed as the geographical area with the greatest potential
— Pontifical Yearbook 2017
 

In Africa the growth in the number of Catholics has been 19.4% and the number of priests has increased almost as quickly by 17.4%. This demonstrates that priests tend to come from their home Catholic community and in Africa birth rates are far higher than they are here. One son out of several might get more encouragement from his family to listen for God’s call to serve as a priest. Our families tend to be smaller these days. Factor in also that we are losing young people (men and women) at an alarming rate and the position is compounded.

6.  Could we ordain more married men?

I set aside the rights and wrongs of ordaining married men and focus simply on the total number of priests that we might expect. So, while at first sight this may seem like an attractive argument in numerical terms, one needs to exercise caution because there is no evidence to support it. However, the issue itself is outside our control. Some might pray that the Holy Father will allow married men to become priests and some might not but if it were in his heart today it would still take years to bring it to being and then many more years before any new married priests were ordained. We cannot justifiably plan for a scenario that shows no prospect of coming to pass and even if it did would be years in the making.

7.  Could we ordain women?

Again the same points arise. We cannot justifiably plan for a scenario that shows no prospect of coming to pass and even if it did would be years in the making.

8.  Change is necessary — but not here please

At worst this attitude is selfish; at best it assumes that ‘our parish’ is more special than ‘your parish’ and should be given preferential treatment. We need to move beyond this sort of defensive parochialism towards an attitude that wants to serve the common good. I would suggest that we need to move beyond thinking of our neighbour as people we are friends with and start to love the neighbours we do not know personally.

9.  Is there any point in doing the renewal bit when we have a shortage of priests?

Africa and Asia are where our Catholic church is growing the most. They have a priest to people ratio that is over three times worse than ours. Every priest in Africa has about 3.5 times as many Catholics to minister to as a priest has here.Moreover, the distances those priests have to cover are huge by comparison, with far worse infrastructure and far fewer material resources. Yet it is in Africa and Asia that our church is finding a way to grow and to thrive.

Even if the forecast of having half as many priests as we have today comes to pass we will still have a much better ratio of priests to Catholics than they do in Africa today.We do not have to copy what happens there: indeed I don’t think we could or should but we should take heart from this statistic alone. We can and we should find new ways to use all of our time, talents and treasures for the greater glory of God and the salvation of humanity in our diocese.

 
 
 

Update following the Parish Meeting held on the 17th February 2018

Dear Fellow Parishioners

Once again, a thank you to those of you who attended the meeting and for the contributions you made to the debate.

For the benefit of those who attended and for those who were unable to come along, it was agreed that a summary of the key points raised would be made available to:

  1. Ensure that we have captured the important points and our feedback to the Diocese is reflective of our Parish’s views shared during the meeting.
  2. Inform those of you who were unable to attend and provide a further opportunity to make your views know.

As Bishop Alan said in his DVD message, it’s not too late to get involved and engage in the initiative.

Purpose of the Meeting

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the First Formal Proposal (FFP) issued by Bishop Alan and his team.

Structure of the Meeting

Following feedback on the Draft Working Plan provide by our parish and parishes throughout the Diocese, it was decided to continue with the two-part strategy for evangelisation, that is: Renewal and Restructuring.

At the meeting, both these aspects were discussed and below is a summary of the key points raised.

Renewal – 12 strand plan

 It was noteworthy that despite the challenging proposal relating to restructuring and the significant impact this could have on how Parish is served in the future, there was a great deal of focus on and enthusiasm about Renewal and what we can do to become more effective evangelisers within our Parish community and the wider community in Southend.

This has been a constant characteristic from the very early stages of the SoG initiative.

The 12 strands of work for renewal are wide-ranging covering a broad range of initiatives to assist in the deepening and enlivenment of our faith as individuals and as a collective parish community. Some of the strands are supported at Diocesan level and others will need to be initiated at Parish level.

Whilst not each strand was discussed individually it was acknowledged that the SoG initiative has encouraged us to re-examine our response to many these specific areas.

This has already resulted in a redoubling of our effort in areas such as adult formation (strand 5-Frormation) and acted as a catalyst for new initiatives e.g. the formation of our Family Group (strand 4-Family) and in collaboration with neighbouring Parishes we are actively exploring the feasibility of employing a youth worker as a shared resource. (strand 11-Young People)

Deacon Richard shared with us information about the activities of the Vicariate for Education and his role within it. It was greatly encouraging to hear about the work which is being undertaken to assist the faith journey of our young people including the relocation of the BYCS to the redeveloped facilities at Abbotswick. It was suggested that this positive message should be shared more widely with the Parish. We will be asking Deacon Richard to assist us with this. (strand 11-Young People)

It was suggested that a Parish visit or possibly a retreat to Walsingham House at Abbotswick open to all parishioners should be arranged – Abbotswick is not solely for the use of our young people. (strand 7-Leaders)

 The newly launched Bishop’s Certificate in Catechesis & Youth Ministry was referenced. The course is a series of on-line modules and one of our Catechesis’s has offered to explore the course. (strand 5-Formation)

Related to this, the need to encourage more young people to serve on our altar was raised (again) and how we could link this to our First Holy Communion Program.

 The excellent relationship Fr Jeff has developed with St Thomas More School was mentioned and it was suggested that we could build on this platform to foster stronger ties between our Parish and the staff and students at the school. (strand 3-Education).

Whilst we are in many ways a thriving Parish and already active across several of the strands of work referenced in the FFP, there is more we could do. Furthermore, falling numbers of serving Priests is in part is driving the need for restructuring, and greater participation by the laity, particularly in leadership roles, in the daily life of our Parish will be essential. (strand 7-Leaders)

It is becoming increasingly clear that if we are to create real momentum across a broad spectrum of initiatives, we shall need to bring together a group of people with diverse skill and enthusiasm to make things happen. The formation of such a group was endorsed by the meeting. (strand 7-Leaders)

Restructuring

  • There was considerable doubt expressed that it was physically possible for one priest to serve both Our Lady of Lourdes and St Peters.
  • There was a fear that the workload would be overwhelming, placing an unreasonable and unsustainable burden on the Priest.
  • Concern that St Peters would simply become “the other parish” and that the positive trajectory of St Peter’s would be halted and even reversed
  • Concern also that the personal relationship with our Parish Priest would be lost if we no longer had a dedicated, resident Priest
  • Serious consideration should be given by the Diocese to the gifting of St Peters as the permanent home of the Ordinariate, the Ministry of which has been a great success during the past 7 years
  • A reduction in the aggregate number of Sunday Masses across the 2 parishes would lead to an increase in attendance per Mass and would exceed the seating capacity of the churches (Mass attendance 2016 – 426 plus 831 = 1257) 3 mass average of 400+
  • The proposal is built around a “long-range forecast” of the (declining) number of serving Priests and concern were expressed regarding the reliability/accuracy of the forecasts. A process of ongoing revalidation of the plan should be put in place to recognise interim changes which may impact the forecast.

However

  • We must have a positive outlook and consider new structures with open, generous hearts
  • It is acknowledged that we must find new ways of working if we are to fulfil the Diocesan Mission
  • The Diocese is building a support network as outlined in the 12 Renewal work strands to enable us to participate more fully in parish life and support our clergy. We as laity must step up, take advantage of these resources and embrace the opportunities we now have to shape our future.
  • We need a strong leadership group and more active laity to make things happen
  • Regardless of whether the proposal goes ahead we should look at ways of collaborating with Our Lady of Lourdes and other Parishes in our location. For example: shared worship & witness, joint charitable works, socially and so on. We should be acting on this now with the full endorsement of the respective Parish Priests.
  • The Parish would like to extend our thanks to Bishop Alan for his courage in adopting the consultative approach and the opportunity for our voices to be heard

Next Steps in the process

  • There was further meeting of Clergy and Stewards with Bishop Alan and his team at Brentwood on Saturday (24th February) when the FFP was discussed
  • We will be submitting our formal feedback on the FFP to the Diocese by the end of March
  • During Spring and Summer 2018 the Bishop and the Bishop’s Council will transform the FFP into a more developed document which shall be published in the Autumn
  • Following further discernment and consultation, the final version of the Proposal will be published during Advent 2018

Next Steps for Us

  • As the discernment process continues to guide us towards decision on the future structure of our Diocese, the (even more) important work of continuing our journey of Renewal must continue
  • We need to continue and build on the good things we are already doing and find ways of embracing the 12-strand plan
The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few
  • We all have a role to play - Prayer, reflection, dialogue and action
  • We will continue to work together with Father Jeff to agree our priorities and what immediate steps we need to take together to ensure we create greater momentum
  • Please pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us in our discernment to discover new ways to spread the joy of the Gospel

David O’Ryan
Steward of the Gospel
Email: Davidoryan@talktalk.net

 
 

Stewards of the Gospel

Coming Soon – the First Formal Proposal for Renewal and Restructuring of our Diocese.

Following our last Parish Meeting at which we discussed the Diocese’s Draft Working Plan, Fr Jeff and I met with Bishop Alan along with Diocesan Clergy and Stewards to discuss the feedback received from across the Diocese. At the meeting we were advised that the next document, the First Formal Proposal, would be available to us all in time for the First Sunday of Advent.

What will the First Formal Proposal be about?

The Proposal will build on the Renewal and Restructuring Framework outlined in the Draft Working Plan along with feedback which you provided through the earlier consultation. It will to go into more detail about how the Diocese will restructure itself in the short to medium term to address the decreasing number of Priests in our Diocese and to ensure that we more effectively evangelise within our parishes and surrounding communities. It is expected that it will include details on what impact this will have specific to each parish.

We can therefore be certain that the proposals will effect St Peters' and our neighbouring parishes.

How can I view the Proposal?

We will be posting the document on the St Peters Parish website during the week leading up to the First Sunday of Advent (3rd December)  and would ask everyone who has internet access to view the document in this way.

For those who are unable to access the website, a limited number of copies of the document will be available for collection from the Narthex on Sunday 3rd December.

Video Message from Bishop Alan

We will also be provided with a DVD containing a filmed message from Bishop Alan to all parishioners which will also be posted on our parish website so that you can watch or listen to it at home.

We also plan to organise a viewing of the DVD available for those without internet access. More on that to follow once we’ve figured out how and when!

Will I have an opportunity to discuss the Proposal and share my thoughts with Fr Jeff, our Steward and fellow parishioners?

Yes. This is the “First” Formal Proposal, not the final document.  Bishop Alan wants every parishioner to continue to be offered an opportunity to have their say in the future of our Diocese. So when the document is available, please read it carefully and prayerfully.  We intend to hold a further Parish Meeting early in the New Year to debate the Plan so we can provide representative feedback to the Diocese. Invitations to the meeting will follow soon.

Final Thought

We are now entering what shall be an exciting but challenging phase of the initiative. We shall no doubt continue to discover positive new ways of working within our own parish community and collaborating with neighbouring parishes to renew our collective evangelical mission of sharing the Good News.

Difficult decisions will also be taken concerning the future of Parishes and their Priests. This will almost certainly involve merging or linking existing parishes and/or closing certain church buildings and relocating Clergy. We should all be especially mindful of the anxiety that many of our Clergy are experiencing in this time of uncertainty. Please continue to pray for Fr Jeff and his family that they may receive the love, care and support from us all to see them through this difficult time.

David O’Ryan
Steward of the Gospel

 

Dear Parishioners

Since we undertook our own Parish consultation and provided our feedback to the Diocese, much work has continued behind the scenes. 

In our Parish we have started to take some small but important steps by acting on what we heard during the consultation earlier this year. We now have ‘meeters-and greeters’ at the Sunday Masses; Fr Jeff is running catechesis sessions on a Monday evening with further courses planned for the autumn and we are in the early stages of forming our Parish Community Group to provide greater opportunities for us to come together as a parish family.  

From a Diocesan perspective, the Diocese has now concluded its initial review of the feedback from all the Parish Questionnaires from across the Diocese and in turn is now able to provide us with an initial Diocesan-wide view in the form of Steven Webb’s “Preliminary Observations” document. 

I would like to share this document with you all. The full document is available on our Parish website, and, if your email address in on the Parish database, will also be emailed to you. For those that do not have access to the internet or email, copies of the document will be available in the narthex from Sunday 23rd July.

You will see that there were four very clear issues to which importance and priority was attached by many Parishes which very much mirror the views of our own Parish which we outlined in our post-consultation feedback to you in May of this year, namely:

  1. Young People
  2. Adult Formation
  3. Lay Training
  4. Succession Planning

Steven also reiterates in his document the 2 separate but interrelated aspects of the SoG initiative: 

Renewal

How can we become better evangelists in spreading the Gospel within our Parish community and beyond. 

Restructuring

How we should (re)organise ourselves across the Diocese to respond to the shortage of Priests and other resource challenges we collectively face now and into the future.

Here is what Steven has to say, particularly on the latter subject.

"It is time to think beyond the constraints of the parish." This was the blunt message from Diocesan Director of Development Steven Webb to Stewards of the Gospel at a recent meeting at Campion School to discuss the way forward for the Diocese. He said that while responses to the parish questionnaires showed a recognition of the need for change, the scale of the challenge was being hugely underestimated. “The typical responses to the question ‘How does your community feel about being part of a new parish?’ were not positive,” he said. “People want ‘access’ to a priest but the stark truth is that in 20 years’ time, we will have half the number of priests.” 

He showed a graphic representation of the change in numbers which clearly demonstrated his point. “Restructuring is going to impact on every parish – that is the scale of the challenge we face. It is time for a new human response, time for a change of heart so that we stop looking inwards into the parish.” 

Alongside the necessary restructuring, however, is the inspiring element of renewal. “The two are separate but interconnected and interdependent. We must never lose sight of the fact that we want to be the best Church across Essex and East London that we can be.” 

Renewal is the way to ensure that promise. “It is part of our new human response to God’s love for us. It is about evangelising and stewardship, doing things differently and doing them together. And, based on parish responses, we must focus on young people, adult formation, lay training and succession planning for tasks in the parish.” 

He said the Church has a three-fold responsibility: to proclaim the word of God; to celebrate the sacraments; and to exercise the ministry of charity. 

The last is particularly important for the work of the Stewards, he added. “Going forward, we need the generosity of spirit that Bishop Alan has talked about. We must love and care for one another, priests and people. Our expectation of our neighbours needs to be realistic and generous.” 

In Exodus, he said, Jethro tells Moses that he is taking on too much and how to delegate. And in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, there is advice on changing ways of doing things. And both are applicable today. “We are facing changes in circumstances too. New ways of doing things are needed. It is not just about priest numbers - the ways things are being done in society as a whole are changing.” 

In practice, he said, life for all of us needs to change. “Priests cannot go on with more and more responsibilities – they will tire themselves, like Moses. We must ensure that doesn’t happen. We need to ‘select people of good reputation’, as the Apostles advised, and develop and train them to help with those tasks.” We need to cherish priests and recognise each other’s contributions to Christian life, he added. 

“The key is keeping Christ at the centre of everything we do,” he concluded. 

Whilst we may feel secure with the status quo with the ‘embarrassment of riches’ we have here at St Peter’s through the Ministry provided by our Ordinariate Priests and Deacon, we will not be immune from change. No decisions have been made as to what this change may actually mean to us so I would encourage you again to consider again how you feel about the possibility of our Parish become linked/joined to a neighbouring Parish and how this might work in practical terms to ensure we have access to Priests, the Sacraments and the spiritual and pastoral care we need for our Catholic community to thrive. Please discuss this with your fellow Parishioners and share your thoughts with myself or any member of the SoG team. We would very much like to hear from you.

Please continue to pray for our Parish and Diocese that we may be guided by the Holy Spirit to meet the challenges we face.

David

SoG Team

Anna McCormick

Brian Holt

Deacon Richard Cerson

Russell Munro

Jim Wate

Mary Laverty

Maura Kohle

 
 
Almighty and merciful Father,
bestow your grace upon the Diocese of Brentwood
as we celebrate our Centenary Year.
We give thanks for the witness of past generations
and pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit
that we may be ever more faithful to proclaiming the Gospel of Christ.
Bless Alan our Bishop, the Clergy, Religious and Faithful of our Diocese,
and graciously grant plentiful vocations to the Priesthood,
the Consecrated Life and the Sacrament of Marriage.
Strengthen us in the communion of faith, hope and charity,
united in prayer with our Holy Father the Pope and the Universal Church.
We ask this through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.
Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us.
Saints Erconwald, Cedd and Edmund of Canterbury, pray for us.
— Diocesan Centenary Prayer

Introduction

In his recent Pastoral Letter on the Centenary and Future of our Diocese, Bishop Alan concluded with these words:

“I entrust the future of the Diocese to the care of Our Lady of Lourdes who because she was “full of grace” knew that nothing is impossible to God.”

Let us move forward together with the Stewards of the Gospel initiative conscious that the future is entrusted to Our Lady of Lourdes who is our diocesan patron.

Nothing is impossible to God but quite often things can be difficult for people. Our future is going to present us with many significant challenges that will test us. We will need to be generous to each other and even make sacrifices for one another; we will need to love each other, rely upon and care for each other. We are blessed to have a clear instruction on this: Love one another as I have loved you.

Pope Francis reminds us that any “proposal of goals without an adequate communal search for the means of achieving them will prove illusory… The important thing is not to walk alone, but to rely on each other as brothers and sisters, especially under the leadership of the bishops, in a wise and realistic pastoral discernment.”

The Responses to the Questionnaire are a key part of our communal search and those that have come in have been prayerfully read as we start to move from listening to the “proposal of goals”.

The Holy Father’s words guide us as we work together to seek and implement new ways to live our communal church lives. The search is to be communal: that is entered into jointly with our sisters and brothers and our Bishop. The search is to be adequate: it must be thorough and sufficient so as to find the best possible response to the context that we are in. We will try to make the proposals wise and realistic: together we will work hard, pray hard and entrust our work to Our Lady of Lourdes so as to present what we think is in the best interests of our diocese as a whole. 

Please remember that when proposals come later in the year; they will be “proposals”. They will not be final decisions. Our pastoral discernment is ongoing and no decisions have yet been made, nor will they be made until next year.

Thank You

We have received Responses to the Questionnaires (Responses) from the vast majority of parishes. The few who have not yet sent their Responses back will hopefully do so soon so that we can complete the diocesan picture. In this document I set out some feedback based upon my Preliminary Observations for you to consider in your parish.

The first thing to say is simply: “Thank you”. 

Thank you to everyone who has put so much into these Responses. They represent a significant investment of the time and talents of people right across our diocese. They also represent a huge amount of prayer and discernment from many wonderful people across Essex and East London. It is plain to see that the Questionnaire has triggered a great deal of very worthwhile activity. Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this process so far. 

The information you have provided will prove invaluable as we walk together and work together to evangelise our diocese in the next one hundred years!

Preliminary Observations for Your Consideration

Having analysed the Responses to the Questionnaire these are my Preliminary Observations for you to discuss in your parishes.

There are two connected but separate elements to this Stewards of the Gospel initiative. 

The first one is finding ways for us to evangelise better at a local parish level and the second is how we can best renew our structures so that communally, across our diocese we find the best way to evangelise and provide the sacraments and pastoral care for everyone in East London and Essex. They are both important and we should try to make it clear to our parishioners that they can progress independently to a large extent.

  1. Almost without exception the Stewards of the Gospel initiative has provided parishes with a great way for each parish to look at itself. From this “self-appraisal” exercise each parish has realised a lot about itself. Your Responses should be “living documents” that help you to evangelise in your local parish community. They must not be put on a shelf and lie unread but rather they should form a foundation stone in the building up of your parish community. There are so many good ideas in them that it would be a huge shame not to take them forward. I would suggest that every Parish Pastoral Council now has an agenda for the future. Prioritise your own suggestions for what you can do and then revisit what you have done: monitor your own progress towards those things that you have identified as priorities and keep track of that progress in your minutes as you go along. I would suggest that you revisit your own good ideas as frequently as you can.

    For the majority of things that you have discerned about yourselves, you can do this independently of what is going on at diocesan level. Obviously some things will need to be considered across our diocese but many things can and should be followed through right away. By starting this right now you will begin to create the positive environment that will allow evangelisation to flourish.
     
  2. For all that is so positive and informative in the Responses, it is also evident that in relation to the extent of the restructuring that will be needed; the scale of the challenge has been radically underestimated.

    This understandable but from now on we all need to be very clear in our understanding of the situation.

    There is an overriding sense that most people would prefer their parish to remain as it is. Changing parish communities, even if the change is to a better parish community, is not something that fills people with joy at the moment. Quite understandably the local church that most people experience is their parish and quite naturally the attachment to our parishes is very strong.

    However; things cannot remain the same. Change is coming to us all. Our decisions are not about whether we should change but rather how we will change.

    Given all of the information that we have at the moment we must assume that:
    1. by 2025 we will have about 76 priests able to cover 57 locations (one or multiple existing parishes)
    2. by 2035 the figure will be about 52 priests covering 33 locations. By 2035 we will have about one half of the number of priests that we now have and they will be living in fewer than half of the locations they do now.

The reason why there is a difference between the number of priests and the number of locations that can be covered is complicated but a large part of it is due to the fact that priests who are part of Religious Orders live “in community” in one place. These priests offer themselves in service to our diocese. We are very grateful for that and we must always respect their individual rules and charisms.

Therefore, we are all planning for a future that will contain significantly fewer priests in even fewer locations. That will impact on every parish community in our diocese. We all need to work together generously to discern how our diocese will look in the future.

So the challenge we have before us is how to structure ourselves in such a way as to achieve three things:

  • evangelise, 
  • provide sacraments and pastoral care AND
  • foster more vocations and grow our church and bring more people to God. 

This is not simply an exercise in managing how to spread fewer clergy ever more thinly because that exercise will not provide a flourishing environment for our Church to grow in the future. 

Instead we need to think creatively about how to do things differently with the very many resources we have. Our proposals should focus not just on how we manage the present but also how we will grow in the future. We must be understanding of the situation and look forward confidently in hope, knowing that the Lord is with us in all we do and will bless our efforts in unforeseen ways.

Our diocese is unusual because while most dioceses are facing the prospect of fewer priests ministering to fewer parishioners; that is not the case for us at the moment. Our parishioner numbers are currently holding steady and even increasing slightly. We have a lot of people able to pray for the future of our diocese and to work in His vineyard. However, our demographics are changing. We have an ageing church population but far longer life expectancy than in the past. We have a much more diverse ethnicity than in the past and we have quite a lot of mobility around our diocese as the population in specific areas changes in its makeup. We have a lot of housing development going on and that should bring in more Catholic families. We also have far more technological resources than past generations and transport links (while tiresome at times) are more comprehensive than in the past.

This also creates an additional challenge to us. Whereas in some dioceses fewer priests are shepherds to smaller flocks that is not the case for us. Our priests, though fewer in number will be shepherds to bigger flocks in the short/medium term. How do we provide shepherds for the flock and ensure that we properly care for those shepherds?

We need to find a way to use all of our resources in a combined way that will both serve our current needs and prepare us for growth in the future. Pope Francis often talks about us being an attractive church. Being attractive is a part of evangelisation. How we live our communal church lives is evangelisation of itself. Attracting people to come to our Father through our Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church will (among many other obvious benefits) increase the number of people who might potentially hear the call to a priestly vocation. We plan with the prayer that more people will hear God’s call to become priests and so that more priests will be shepherding to even bigger flocks.

One fairly common comment is that it is better to have travelling priests than travelling communities. Is it reasonable to expect this or does it inherently risk the health and wellbeing of our priests? Remember that the average age of our priests will be going up during this timescale.

Arising out of your Responses to the Questionnaire are four very clear specific issues for us all to consider as priorities:

  1. Young People
  2. Adult Formation
  3. Lay Training
  4. Succession Planning

In each of these four areas rest assured that you are not alone in your concerns.

  1. People are unsure how best to keep our young people in the faith but everyone recognises that it is essential for us to do as much as we can in this regard. Quite a few parishes mention the possibility of a Youth Worker while others have considered local initiatives delivered by parishioners and others think that simply integrating young people into parish life more and giving them roles and responsibilities is the way forward. Your thoughts on how your parish feels about this will be helpful.
  2. There is an almost universal desire for us to be better informed about our faith and practice. Catechesis is thought to be not good enough. We need better formation to enable us all to better pass on our faith and in order to be able to defend our faith with confidence in the public arena. How do you think this will be best achieved in the future? There are on line and video based programmes that can be delivered in parishes, there is the possibility of training either locally or centrally or you may prefer discussion groups. 
  3. Similarly, there is a strong feeling that we need to have training for lay people. Most people think that if lay people are to properly work alongside our clergy and fellow parishioners in the new reality of fewer priests, then we need to have more training of lay people. It should also be noted that our priests may also require help in this regard as new ways of running a parish evolve. We need to set some priorities for the areas where training is thought necessary and then how best that training can be given. It may be best done locally or in clusters or it may be best done centrally. It will almost certainly be delivered differently for different areas of practice. Your thoughts on specific areas where training is needed and how you would like it to be delivered will be helpful.
  4. Succession Planning is finding a way in your parish to ensure that when those people who are currently doing things stop for whatever reason, that there is at least one new person ready, willing and able to take over. A lot of good work and momentum can be lost in a parish if things stop and no one else steps up to take on the role. Many Responses recognise that older people currently have responsibility and they worry about who will take over in future. May I suggest that one of the best things you and your parishes can do in the immediate future is to begin to think about practical ways to ensure the succession of roles. There is no right and wrong way to do this. In one place it may involve a committee or group of people working together so that no one person has to take overall responsibility, in another it might involve a “buddy” system where one person does things and a new person is involved and knows what is going on so that they can step up in due course and in another it may be that an older person works with a younger “apprentice” so that in time the apprentice is ready to take over while the older person currently doing the work steps back and helps in the background. Now is the time to decide how best to ensure succession in your parish.

Given that these four topics are so widely mentioned and so clearly important to the future shape of our diocese I would ask all parishes to look at them again and feedback your ideas through your Steward of the Gospel.

I have reflected that each of these topics may well have been anticipated even before the arrival of the Responses on my desk. They are not specific to our Diocese and on revisiting the words of the Holy Father in Evangelii Gaudium you can find them all referred to. I would encourage everyone to read it:

These three extracts from Evangelii Gaudium reflect the concerns raised by your Responses:

105. … Young people often fail to find responses to their concerns, needs, problems and hurts in the usual structures. As adults, we find it hard to listen patiently to them, to appreciate their concerns and demands, and to speak to them in a language they can understand. For the same reason, our efforts in the field of education do not produce the results expected. The rise and growth of associations and movements mostly made up of young people can be seen as the work of the Holy Spirit, who blazes new trails to meet their expectations and their search for a deep spirituality and a more real sense of belonging. There remains a need, however, to ensure that these associations actively participate in the Church’s overall pastoral efforts.

160. The Lord’s missionary mandate includes a call to growth in faith: “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). Hence it is clear that that the first proclamation also calls for ongoing formation and maturation. Evangelization aims at a process of growth which entails taking seriously each person and God’s plan for his or her life. All of us need to grow in Christ. Evangelization should stimulate a desire for this growth, so that each of us can say wholeheartedly: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

102. Lay people are…the vast majority of the people of God….. We can count on many lay persons, although still not nearly enough, who have a deeply-rooted sense of community and great fidelity to the tasks of charity, catechesis and the celebration of the faith. At the same time, a clear awareness of this responsibility of the laity, grounded in their baptism and confirmation, does not appear in the same way in all places. In some cases, it is because lay persons have not been given the formation needed to take on important responsibilities. In others, it is because in their particular Churches room has not been made for them to speak and to act, due to an excessive clericalism which keeps them away from decision-making. Even if many are now involved in the lay ministries, this involvement is not reflected in a greater penetration of Christian values in the social, political and economic sectors. It often remains tied to tasks within the Church, without a real commitment to applying the Gospel to the transformation of society. The formation of the laity and the evangelization of professional and intellectual life represent a significant pastoral challenge.

We are not alone in our challenges but we are the ones challenged to find a way forward in our Diocese, and remember that challenges exist to be overcome!

Once you have discussed these issues with your parishes can you please send me one coordinated response for your parish. These will be helpful in formulating the proposal that will follow in the autumn. Your response may be a reflection or a practical suggestion for what we might do. It does not need to be a long document and bullet points are fine.

Finally, may I thank all of the Stewards of the Gospel for their valuable contribution to our communal church life both locally in your parishes and at a wider diocesan level.

Steven Webb
Director of Development
stevenwebb@dioceseofbrentwood.org
May 2017

Merciful Father, author of creation,
your Spirit enriches our world.
Through your Son, who shares our humanity,
you have called us to participate in your divine creativity
and to build the kingdom of God here on earth.
Form us, we pray, as one community
under the leadership of our Bishop Alan,
to serve the people of our Diocese of Brentwood.

Inspire us to discover new ways
to spread the joy of the Gospel.
Open our eyes to see Christ in others,
especially the poor, the sick and the marginalised.
Empower us to be the hands and feet of Christ
in our parishes and communities.
Help us to welcome all into His embrace.

Guide us in our discernment.
Give wisdom to our Stewards of the Gospel
who will help us in each parish
to see new paths of possibility:
for a spirit of mission that invigorates our every effort;
and for the strength to be unafraid of what is new.
We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
— Stewards of the Gospel Prayer