If anyone is qualified to take the pulse of the Church on the ground in Ireland, it would be someone in Gemma Mulligan’s position. As Diocesan Pastoral Coordinator, the core part of her job is to visit parishes in the Diocese of Ossory on a daily basis, talking to priests and pastoral councils and addressing congregations at Sunday Mass. The good news is that although she is very aware of the challenges the Church faces, her diagnosis is that the future of the Faith is bright.
“I feel really positive because when I’m going around parishes I see every week the amount of people actively involved. The numbers are small in comparison with the past, but in their own right there are still large numbers of people coming out every weekend to worship and celebrate with their friends and neighbours.
“I was at a meeting recently and a man said to me that parish is like the beating heart in their community. People that I am meeting are really willing and active and want to be there participating,” she says.
Active in faith
Now living in Tulloroan with her husband and five children, Gemma is originally from St Patrick’s parish in Kilkenny, where faith became an important part of life from early on.
“My mother was very active in her faith”, she explains. “She was always welcoming people in the house and she really lived out her faith. We were always encouraged to get involved in things.”
At about the age of 14, Gemma joined the folk choir and from there became involved in the liturgy group, Taizé and “all kinds of youth ministry programmes”.
After completing a degree in Theology and Philosophy in Milltown Institute, Gemma worked for Catholic Youth Care in Dublin for a number of years in the area of evangelisation. “I was also part of the World Youth Day (WYD) team,” she says, “which involved bringing young people to WYD but also huge spiritual preparation. I went to WYD in Rome and Canada. It was an incredible experience, on a personal level, to see our Church so alive and away from what you were used to. There was an incredible sense of the universal Church.”
When Gemma started her family she left her job to take care of her children full time but “stayed involved all the time with the parish”. She says even when she had her hands full with small babies in her house, “it was always important to me to be connected to my parish in an active way, doing something to help in any way”, and ultimately this led her to her current role.
Gemma became involved in her Parish Pastoral Council in Tulloran. She was appointed as the rep for her parish on the deanery pastoral council and subsequently became the deanery chairperson. After a number of years in this role the job of co-ordinator came up and “I decided to go for it”.
Taking up the position last August, Gemma has been busy travelling the diocese to prepare parishes to implement the diocesan pastoral plan.
“The plan has nine strands and I am concentrating on strand two at the moment which is ‘Re-imagine parish leadership in light of today’s reality’. So I am preparing people for parishes without resident priests. We are starting this conversation where I suppose we are all trying to get our heads around the changes that are taking place, that’s the first part. The second part is looking at ways we can be prepared, and parishes can continue to be strong faith communities, where people can continue to worship and come together to celebrate,” she says.
“A huge part of my job is to try to encourage more lay people to take on leadership roles, rather than leave it to others. That trough their baptismal call people will recognise the need to step up and be trained if necessary in leading lay lead liturgies or maybe some formation.”
For Gemma the only way we can face the changes taking place in the Church, from the decline in vocations to the secularisation of society, is to work together. “We need to learn to work more together as a diocese and with neighbouring parishes, because that is the way it is going to have to be. We have to be move outside of ourselves a little bit,” she says.
After having such a positive faith upbringing herself, Gemma is driven in her work by a desire to secure a vibrant and active faith for her children. “The work can be difficult sometimes but I do it for them, so there is a future in their parish or in our Church for them,” she says.
“I feel that the Church that I see and meet is a very authentic Church. The people are there because they want to be. That only has to be a good thing. I am very optimistic. I think ultimately people want to continue having faith communities and want a future for their children but also for themselves. They want to keep their Church and Faith going.”