This homily was preached at a Cathedral Mass to mark the closing of the 2012-13 Year of Faith. It remains an important statement of Bishop's Peter's vision for the future of the Diocese.
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Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This Mass in honour of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady is a celebration of the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.
As Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854, "The Most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, saviour of the human race, preserved immune from the stain of original sin." The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person 'in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places' and chose her 'in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love.' (Eph 1:3-4)
That mystery of God's grace and God's choice become incarnate in today's Gospel of the Annunciation as the Angel Gabriel presents Mary with God's will for her and she responds with complete faith.
In Mary we have the model of the faith which we have focussed on particularly in the Year of Faith for which we thank God today. We thank God for the many initiatives undertaken at Parish, Pastoral Area and Diocesan level to celebrate and deepen our faith. Pope Francis in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, quotes his predecessor, Pope Benedict, who spoke of our faith as 'an encounter with an event, a person, which gives us a new horizon and a new direction.'
In her encounter with the Angel Gabriel Mary displays a confidence that enables her to enter into a conversation and ask the meaning of what the angel is telling her. That, in turn, leads to the ultimate connection between God and ourselves as Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit, conceives in her womb the only Son of God, Jesus Christ, who gives us a new horizon and a new direction.
The confidence, conversation and connection, which I have highlighted in our Gospel, were and are key concepts in the pastoral vision, Walking Humbly with our God, which I presented to the Diocese six years ago this weekend.
So much has happened since then in the Church, in the world, in our own lives, and in the Diocese.
We now have thirteen Pastoral Areas which to a greater or lesser degree have enabled our parishes to work more closely together. I have experienced at first hand the new energy that has been released through these new structures. Of course, there has been a variation from pastoral area to pastoral area but on the whole I have witnessed a new desire to work together. Much of this has stemmed from the Groundplans which were prepared collaboratively within each pastoral area and which have helped to give shape to local pastoral developments within Diocesan guidelines. We have also seen the emergence of broadly representative Pastoral Area Councils through which local aspirations can be realised and coordinated. The Walking Humbly process also provided a template for renewal identifying some of the characteristics of a ‘A Thriving Catholic Community’ against which the health of a community can be measured and choices made about where to place time and energy. The process has also helped in re-focusing Priestly On-Going Formation with an emphasis on helping our priests live out their priestly calling against a backdrop of rapid change in the world and in the Church. I think we have also had a renewed sense of making more use of the permanent diaconate. Over the last six years 11 men have been ordained to the permanent diaconate and 9 are in training. Of course new opportunities for adult lay education and formation have also been developing : the Micah Conversations – a pastoral development process designed to engage parish communities in reflecting and conversing about the future together – has been successfully piloted and used in a number of Pastoral areas. The new online resource for adult faith development and education – Pathways of Formation – is still in the process of development. But a successful pilot module has already been tried. I feel that this area of adult lay formation still needs a great deal of effort and energy put into it for it to have a greater effect across the diocese.
Other areas of development also need to be mentioned : NYMO, our Youth Ministry team, has been restructured. A group of priests and catechists have been looking at the Sacraments of Initiation, especially the Sacrament of Confirmation, to see how we might use these sacraments to greater catechetical and evangelistic effect. The Together in Faith campaign has enabled us to have the confidence that many key areas of Diocesan life will be properly resourced in the years to come.
A key component in the life and mission of our Diocese is our schools, and it is good to see representatives of students, staff and Foundation Governors here. Our schools serve about 20,000 children and young people and their families. And I cannot stress sufficiently the role of Foundation Governors and senior staff in maintaining and developing the Catholic character of our schools.
As I explained in my Autumn visits to the Pastoral Areas, the reality of fewer priests is beginning to bite. Prayer for priestly vocations is a must. In the past six years seven priests have been ordained and two more good priests have joined the Diocese. Training for the priesthood we have six students. But I am going to struggle to provide a resident priest for every parish and this coming year, with at least three priests expected to retire, there will inevitably be gaps. The Groundplans will help me in my decision making as I make strategic decisions for the pastoral provision of the Diocese, but change is now definitely upon us.
In striving to meet my duties as shepherd of the flock with oversight both for the parish communities and for my principal co-workers, the priests, I want us to work towards fulfilling our mission as the Church with about 39 priests. Rather than waiting for things to happen, I would like us to begin organising ourselves now with that number.
Naturally, I am concerned for the well-being of our priests. As they become fewer, I want them to do less! I want them to be freed up to focus on feeding the communities through the Word and the Eucharist , preparing homilies and good teaching, supported by deacons, catechists, leaders in other areas of parish life and people responsible for administration.
In step with present Canon Law, I do not want any priest to be celebrating more than three Sunday Masses as a maximum. While I am happy for Services of Word and Communion to be celebrated occasionally on weekdays, apart from emergencies and holiday periods, I would not want those Services to be the norm on Sundays.
Clearly, Sunday Mass cannot be provided everywhere as at present. In principle, where there cannot be a regular Sunday Mass, the Mass Centre or Chapel should be closed or retained as a local centre for prayer and catechesis perhaps with a weekday Mass.
From my visits to the Pastoral Areas, four points struck me. Firstly, we need structured training available for lay assistants in parishes and for lay people who can join chaplaincy teams in our prisons, hospitals and schools. Secondly, we need skills to ask for volunteers, to train them and, yes, manage them. Thirdly, both priests and people need a change of mindset about what we can and should expect of each other. Finally, we all know that some change is needed but we do not want it to affect us or our own community. If Mary had adopted that attitude rather than accepting God's will, she would not have given birth to Our Saviour! Like her, we need to be open to the Spirit leading us to a new horizon.
In these areas we need to prompt and perhaps prod one another with confidence that God has blessed us, and that he calls and sends us as his disciples.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!
+ Peter DoyleBishop of Northampton