03 June 2021, The Tablet

'We need to talk about a voice for the laity'

'We need to talk about a voice for the laity'

Is it time the laity were heard? Pictured: Sean Fitzpatrick, sacristan of Carlow Cathedral.

The synodal pathway which the Irish Church is embarking on may be the “catalyst” for greater inclusion of the laity, a webinar organised by the Association of Leaders of Missionaries and Religious heard last week.

In his talk, Shane Halpin, CEO of Viatores Christi, an organisation for lay missionaries, addressed the theme: “We need to talk about a national voice for the laity.”

He called for a strategy that would bring about a coherent national plan to allow formal engagement between the laity and Church leadership in Ireland to take place.

Under current diocesan structures, he explained, there is no canonical obligation to implement any agreed framework emanating from the Bishops Conference as the ultimate authority for taking forward a national framework relies on the goodwill of individual diocesan bishops. He cited the chequered rollout of parish and pastoral councils as an example of this.  

“There is a real challenge in developing a coherent national plan and strategies for engagement at various levels,” he said. 

All dioceses are “battling with reduced vocations, stressed out and overworked clergy and very poor morale”. While lay groups are present and continue to work with the blessing of dioceses, he said, many feel that they are forging a lonely furrow, with little support from the mainstream Church.

As to how the voice of the laity is heard by the Church leadership, Shane Halpin said there was a lack of a coordinated or representative voice. “Our Church leaders rely a lot on the media and feedback from their priests on the ground to get the pulse of the nation.”

He added: “By the time the message gets heard at the top, there's a great chance that it will be a reactive response with the inevitable result of creating an ‘us’ and ‘them’.”

Drawing on his experience in community development, the lay missionary said that in this sector, the first step to inclusion is to identify and remove barriers so that the excluded can participate.

Inclusion meant being “given a voice at the table and recognised as being a necessary part of the body, no less or no more important than the other”.

He emphasised that inclusion would build trust between all parties and lead to innovation, engagement, ideas and growth.

But, he asked, would there be a willingness to share the decisions at the top table with the laity, would there be a willingness to change structures so that excluded voices are heard?

“When we hear our Church leaders say that ‘we are all Church’, yet not include us in so many key areas, are we really being true to the Gospel?” he said.  

Referring to Pope Francis’ teaching on synodality he recalled that the Pope had stressed the need for everyone in the Church, from the Pope down, to listen and to learn from others.

This was based on the conviction clearly laid out in the Second Vatican Council that through baptism and confirmation, all members of the Church have been anointed by the Holy Spirit and that the entire Christian community is infallible when its members discern together and speak with one voice on matters of faith and morals. 

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