Parish missions were a common feature in the Irish Church up until about the 1960s and for many the idea of a mission brings up the old stereotypical image of a judgmental, hellfire preacher. However, parish missions today are a gentler, communal affair and while they are less common, they still attract big crowds and are perhaps the very thing disheartened Catholics need to feel energised in their faith.
The traditional parish mission consisted of the installation of several priests in a particular parish for up to perhaps two months, to preach and teach the people in order to strengthen their faith.
Lively preaching is still a major factor in missions today, but they tend to only last a week or less and involve a lot of preparation and consultation with the parish priest and pastoral team in advance and a greater lay involvement in presenting the liturgy. There is also an element of reaching out to the community through visits to the schools and nursing homes.
In the 19th Century the Vincentian Community and the Jesuits were seen as pioneers of the parish mission in Ireland. This year actually marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Vincentian charism. “St Vincent de Paul regarded a mission he gave in the countryside of Northern France in January of 1617 as the foundation of the Vincentian community,” says Fr Paschal Scallon CM, director of the Vincentian Parish Missions.
“The Vincentian mission has always had a reputation for an emphasis on reconciliation and the model has always been a very gentle approach,” he says.
“We try to give people an experience of encountering Christ. We take very seriously the challenge of making that a real experience, whether it happens in the liturgy or in our preaching or in an element of a discussion or simple catechesis outside the liturgy or a social event. We look at how is this going to be an event that people can look back on and say ‘that affirmed me in my faith in Christ’. That is the thing about a mission.”
Building up faith
Fr Paschal says the key is the “building up of the faith of the local core community”. “It is not about bringing back the lapsed. You may feel you are preaching to the choir but that is important because it is the regulars who are going to be there after the mission team leaves town. It is what radiates out of them afterwards that hopefully makes a lasting evangelisation on their neighbours.”
Fr John Harris OP from the Dominicans also sees parish missions “very much as building on what’s there already”. “It is very much to encourage and renew the spiritual life of the people of the parish,” he says.
The Dominicans are known for their preaching and Fr John says this is a strong characteristic of their missions. “It’s the way we preach in the sense that it’s more theologically-based than sociologically-based in the way we present issues,” he says. “We put a big emphasis on personal Confession. We find a lot of people just need to talk. One day of the mission is given over to Confession and one of the team will be available all day in the church.
“I would like to think from my own experience very often a mission gives parishes an opportunity to regroup and be more faithful to what they are about, their own identity. We want to give them a sense of purpose and the work being done. The gift of Church and God’s grace is nowhere else but Church-based and our message is a positive message of what’s good and what’s happening in the Church. And it’s an opportunity for people who have been away from the Church to reconnect. It’s an excuse.”
The Passionists were founded by St Paul of the Cross with a special emphasis on the Passion of Jesus Christ, so it is no surprise that the focus of a Passionist parish mission is the cross.
“It about a reawakening, rediscovery or a renewal, but the central focus is the cross and we bring in the mission cross. We take the theme of the cross as the greatest work of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness,” says Fr Charles Cross. “It is basic Gospel, charismatic preaching.
“But a parish mission is not a cure all. People say what about the youth etc. But if something is not working in the parish, it is not going to work for the mission. We look at what is going on and we try to listen. We talk to the people about where they are at and what are the issues in their life.”
In the case of the Redemptorists, who provide the most parish missions in the country at the moment, the approach has changed in recent years and lay involvement has become a huge factor.
“The parish mission has developed over time but the core elements have stayed the same,” says Fr Laurence Gallagher CSsR. “It is a celebration of faith and community. It celebrates the best that brings a community together. It is a renewal and a rekindling of faith. So it is an opportunity for people as a parish to step back and reflect on what it is that we believe, the values we hold and how important we believe God is in our ordinary everyday experience.”
Fr Laurence says the Redemptorists use a collaborative model where they “encourage the parish to take more ownership of the mission”. “We would meet six months or a year in advance and share what is it we do generally, but also plan it with the parish team. They would begin to take ownership of the different areas of hospitality and promoting the mission, and some of the liturgical or ritual side.”
Preaching is still a core element and the emphasis is on “the unconditional mercy of God”, but also to “make it relevant to what people are going through in their lives. How our faith has something powerful to say to it, even now in the Ireland, the Church or the politics of 2017”.
Fr Laurence says missions give people a wider and deeper experience of Catholicism that they wouldn’t get every day. “You wouldn’t have a mission every month. It is a bit like Christmas, it is one of those special moments and it draws people like a magnet. They feel welcome, nourished and empowered, and blessed in a way.”
The Redemptorists held a mission in the parishes of Conahy and Ballyragget in Co. Kilkenny in March. The parish priest Fr Eamonn O’Gorman has held a mission in every parish he has served in and says that while “it’s tiring, it’s well worth it”.
“It was a great success. We invited everybody. We sent out maybe 400 flyers in Cohahy, 800-1,000 in Ballyragget and it was advertised well on billboards and roundabouts,” he says.
“It was 38 years since there was a parish mission in Conahy and sometimes there is a misconception that it is all brimstone and hellfire, but people were pleasantly surprised. They really enjoyed it. People were saying wasn’t that a great tonic.”
In Conahy, which is a small rural parish, the mission started with around 70 turning up, but this increased to 170 by the Friday as word got it, and it has greatly influenced the participation of lay people in the Church.
“The collaboration with lay people was very important,” Fr Eamonn says. “I couldn’t do it on my own. I played the music for both missions – guitar and keyboards – so it was a different role for me. One lady got up at 5am to bake biscuits for the 7am Mass for those heading for work, which was beyond the call of duty. Things like that you’d remember, apart from the preaching. It is well worth doing every 3-4 years for renewal.”
Christine Kelly, a member of the liturgy group and pastoral council in Conahy, says the mission “brought new life to the parish and brought all the different sections of community together”.
“I think what struck me most was the amount of people who took on roles after the mission. It gave people confidence to become Eucharistic Ministers or Ministers of the World and the liturgy group came alive. Also I think people want more now from their liturgies. They don’t want it to stop at the mission. People were saying don’t let the momentum die, keep the flow of good liturgies and involvement, and that’s the challenge now for the parish.”
Fr Seamus Enright CSsR says one of the things that has amazed him in his years of working on parish missions is the “amount of energy, talent and creatively” in parishes that “we are not always as a Church tapping in to as much as we should”. “I have seen extraordinarily rich and creative things going on in parishes during a mission. Preparation is key. There is a lot of hard work in it, but the more work that goes into the preparation and promotion – the more likely it is to go well.”
He says a parish mission gives the faith community “a boost and uplifting experience”. “It is an energising experience that shows the parish what it is capable of.”
The challenge for all the religious congregations who offer parish missions is the ageing profile of their members and the decrease in new vocations, which means there are less priests who can be called upon to offer a mission.
“We have a shortage of personnel. We used to have 4-5 men going out but we are so tied up in parishes ourselves we have to be booked far in advance. If we had more men, we would do more but there are many invitations that I have to turn down,” says Fr Charles from the Passionists.
“It is more and more difficult to put a team in the field,” says Fr Paschal of the Vincentians. “I am the only permanent member of the team now, which reflects on the diminishing numbers, but I do call on colleagues and lay people to come with me.”
The Dominicans had been less active in parish missions until recent years, which have seen an increase in vocations. “In the last number of years our preaching band went down but with vocation numbers better than they were and younger men available to preach, we are more willing to accept invitations,” Fr John says.
The Redemptorists have recently restructured their mission team and they are actively looking for lay people to join them in offering parish missions.
“The challenge is that there are less missioners, so we are trying to pool our resources as much as we can,” says Fr Laurence.
“We have moved to two central anchored teams for mission, one in Clonard, Belfast and one in Limerick. The Belfast missioners under Fr Johnny Doherty cover the North and East, and I am in charge of part of the West and South with the missioners based in Cork, Limerick and Esker.”
The Redemptorists also have lay people working in partnership on the mission teams. “We had two women working with us full time on missions. They did everything except celebrate the sacraments. They visited the schools, they led the singing, they would reflect on the Word. They were full partners with us,” he says.
“But they have moved on and we are looking for people who will have a background in ministry, in singing, in youth development, a background in faith or theology that would join us in partnership and commit to a few missions a year, so we can create a panel to work from.”
Sarah Kenwright worked on the Redemptorist mission team for over four years and says it was “the most rewarding and happiest in work that I have ever been”.
“When you are invited into a parish as part of a mission team, people are placing their trust in you and you meet them at their most vulnerable or their most joyous, and they share things with you. It is a great privilege. But you also have great craic. Every single week is different. You’re in schools, day centres, sometimes in people’s homes and every week is a new challenge.”
Sarah’s experience of parish missions is that people are still engaged in their faith. “That engagement is not the same as 20 years ago, but they are still searching for some sort of nourishment and a parish mission revitalises and rejuvenates not just parishes, but families and family homes. It is a real joyous time and brings back a sense of community and it also supports the priest. It gives them a sense of ‘I’m not on my own’. That is what parish missions are doing, bringing people together.”