Bishop Seamus launches Forward Together in Hope - July 16th 2014
The hall of Cardinal Hume Catholic School, Gateshead was packed twice on Wednesday 16th July when the Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, Seamus Cunningham, met priests and people of his diocese. He had called people together to outline a plan to develop an active, empowered and engaged Catholic Community. Lay-people, deacons, religious and priests listened intently as the Bishop presented the framework of a plan to make best use of diocesan resources. The idea had been discussed initially by the lay and ordained Diocesan Directors and the plan has been worked on by a sub-group of two priests and two lay-people.
Bishop Seamus said that he has been hearing for some years that decisions have to be made in the light of fewer priests and smaller congregations. This new project will look at ways in which to encourage Catholic communities to flourish with or without a resident priest. In time, hard decisions will have to be made about buildings and communities/parishes which are no longer sustainable. Each congregation will be asked to evaluate themselves by answering the big question: what makes for a flourishing Catholic community? This will mean an audit covering every aspect of parish life: active involvement of people and how many people there are, leadership within the community, worship with and without a priest, distance from another Catholic church, maintenance and use of buildings, outreach to and support of young people, and of course, finances. Following the audit there will be time for prayer, study and reflection which will lead to action.
Fr Jim O'Keefe, who once worked for CAFOD, is a former President of Ushaw College, and presently a parish priest and Episcopal Vicar, has been released by the Bishop for three years to direct the project. It will be underpinned by prayer and resources for special services and reflection will be made available. He will be assisted by a Diocesan Development Officer who will manage the project; charitable trusts are being approached for funding.
'I am aware of fears,' said Bishop Seamus, 'but I also have a strong sense of hope,' and he stressed, several times, the importance of priests and people working together. 'The process cannot be pain free', he warned, 'but it can be fruitful. The day is approaching when we will not be able to supply Sunday mass in every parish, but we must not get depressed because we have many committed priests and people. I'm trusting in the Holy Spirit to guide us through the next three years, and I ask you all to pray for the grace to let go and let God!' In three years' time the Bishop will be 75 and must offer his resignation to the Pope; his hope is that by then the diocese will be stronger and fit for purpose. He reassured a priest who asked if his successor would be made aware of the new foundations that are being laid. He insisted that with goodwill, trust and imagination the diocese can move forward.
Reactions from those present were enthusiastic: a deacon thanked the Bishop 'for making my heart sing again.’ There were calls for parishes to share good practice, and to stop propping up old models of church life which are no longer working. Someone who asked how to reach those who are not yet on board was told that the project will encourage people to discover ways of sharing faith. A new and exciting chapter in the life of the diocese.