Looking forward to the future?

I recently attended the annual conference of the WCCM in the UK.  The WCCM (World Community for Christian Meditation) was founded in the last century by Fr John Main, a Benedictine monk who sought to rediscover and reclaim meditation as a Christian practice, a practice which has in fact been undertaken by Christians since the times of the early desert fathers in the third century. The desert fathers (and mothers) were men and women who sought respite from the busy world – not within the walls of a monastery but in the isolation and hardship of the desert.  The desert was their sanctuary, the place they met with God, prayed and talked with God .….. a lonely, isolated and hard place where nevertheless they met God.

Under John Main’s successor, Father Laurence Freeman, the WCCM has become a significant presence in the world community of Christians.  In Britain it has attracted Christians of all denominations and the particular speaker at this year’s annual gathering of Christian meditators was an Australian Anglican priest, Sarah Bachelard, who has pioneered the concept of a Contemplative Church, a community that makes meditation the focus of its liturgical activity.  Because she is an Anglican priest speaking of her Anglican parish community, and specifically to a vision for the future of Anglican parishes, there was a large number of Anglican priests at the gathering.  The different denominations have slightly different issues to manage stepping forward to the future –  for Catholics it is a shortage of priests, but for Anglicans it is the dwindling numbers combined with the exorbitant costs of maintaining historic, old and ancient buildings.

I was drawn to a attend a particular workshop drawing attention to the Catholic perspective held by Father Jim Caffrey , priest of the RC parish of Balally in South Dublin.

Father Jim spoke movingly of his personal spiritual journey.  He was called to the priesthood from an early age and worked for many years as a parish priest before being drawn to the contemplative life and making the decision to join a community of Cistercian monks in the US.  He stayed there for 5 years until he reached the period of discernment preceding final vows.  At this point he was prompted to return to Dublin and his work as a parish priest.

During his time in the monastery he no doubt had time to reflect on the future of the Catholic church in Ireland, an institution that has changed dramatically over the last 50 years, perhaps more so than in the rest of the British Isles.  As in the UK, there are now very few vocations to the priesthood or the religious life.  Thus he spoke in quite stark terms of the future, when, after his day, he feels sure, there will be no priest to succeed him in his parish, and where, like many other parishes in Ireland and in the UK, we may assume that many parish communities will have to manage with even fewer priests to guide us, and very limited access to the sacraments which we have come to take for granted and to accept as the foundation, the cornerstone, and the whole structure on which our faith is secured and maintained.

Father Jim’s message was, that in the future we are going to have to find new ways of holding and anchoring our faith and our community, and new ways of expressing our commitment to our faith, and new liturgical practices that can sustain our journeys, both individual and as local communities, and as part of the Catholic community of the world.

This is where the vision of Father Laurence Freeman and the WCCM comes in.  Meditation as a personal practice offers personal resources for its practitioners.  It builds a strong and non-reactive, calm and detached character.  It develops a sense of vision, an ability to see the bigger picture, an acceptance of limitation and failings in self and others, an attitude of non-judgement.  It fosters acceptance of difference and change.  It also develops community in those who meditate together.

Father Jim Caffrey and his parish are building a way forward into the future with a programme called Building Hope, focussing on meditation and service within the parish.  Inspiration has also been found in an important book written by Polish priest and theologian, Tomas Halik.  In his book, The Afternoon of Christianity, Halik writes of the opportunity this crisis offers us, the opportunity to experience a more authentic faith held without the scaffolding of the Church; and points to a future in which we may become the community we are called to be.

Within Balally parish, the way forward has been identified as a new monasticism.

Some changes have been made in the liturgies to introduce the way forward.  Every mass includes a few minutes of meditation with a quote from John Main and encouragement in prayer using the maranatha mantra.  Children are also encouraged to meditate and this work with children has been identified as important for young people as they negotiate our world, full of noise and busyness where some of them have very little access to silence.

A parish-led recitation of the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer has been introduced and this is live-streamed.  This has had a very encouraging response, starting with only 3 or 4 regular attenders, with now 12 or 15.  It will be remembered that these offices of Lauds and Vespers have traditionally been said in monasteries and do not need to be led by the clergy.

Volunteer roles have been identified as ministries that include the formation of disciples so that skills can be passed on and parishioners can learn and experience new roles of leadership.  Above all, in the words of Father Jim, this is a school of contemplative leadership.

Ecumenical partnerships are also seen as important to the stability of the parish, as anchoring it in the wider community of Christians.

Fr Jim stressed that the parish is not about turning the church into a meditation group but a place where meditation and service go together to create a new understanding of monasticism for parish communities to step forward into the future.

Further new ways of understanding ourselves have been identified: we are learning pilgrims; we can share our faith, especially mystical wisdom;  the parish can be seen as a field hospital, a place where we can offer service to those in need;  the parish is a way of accompaniment where we are walking a common path.

Father Caffrey was accompanied by one of his parish pastoral council, Cinzia Angius, who had provided the inspiration and put in much of the work to create the meditation room or Icon Chapel in a separate room they were able to make available in the parish. She showed us pictures of the chapel which has seating and icons on all sides.  Cinzia reminded us that icons are windows to the divine.  Some of the saints represented are Padre Pio, St Benedict, St Therese of Lisieux and St Columba, all of them saints with stories and lives of resonance with the project.

Fr Caffrey also mentioned the connection that Ireland has to Celtic spirituality, providing an important link with the past.

As I listened to Father Jim I felt a certain sadness.  Times are changing and are going to change more.  I feel I have been very fortunate as the years have gone by.  Parish priests have come and gone in my life, and almost without exception they have been generous, compassionate and inspiring.  Knowledge and wisdom has flourished, and my faith has been able to grow and mature.

In the future our calling will be to support each other as we grow into true disciples of Christ.

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