Feature

Faith & Life Convention: building a toolkit to share the Gospel today
Family was central to this year’s Down & Connor conference, writes Greg Daly

Cardinal Kevin Farrell speaking at the Faith and Life Convention.

With the World Meeting of Families now less than a year away, it wasn’t surprising that this year’s Faith and Life Convention in the Diocese of Down and Connor should have focused in large part on the theme of family, not least as expressed in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ exhortation on marriage and the family.

Now in its fourth year, the convention drew over 450 people last weekend to Our Lady and St Patrick’s College, Knock, there to reflect on what Bishop Noel Treanor called “the interconnection between the challenges of our time – complex as they are, and becoming increasingly complex – and the inspiration, the community dimension, and the orientation that our Christian faith gives us, rooted in and sourced in the Word of God and also in our collective communal worship on Sundays and weekdays”.

The convention’s keynote address, by Dublin-born Cardinal Kevin Farrell, since last year head of the Vatican’s new dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, focused on the papal exhortation, opening with the startling claim that no papal document has ever entailed as much consultation as Amoris Laetitia, whether this took the form of popular surveys – there were 15,000 consultation responses in his diocese of Dallas alone, a two-day consistory of cardinals, or two synods of bishops.  

Simplicity

Stressing the simplicity of the document’s language – despite its length, he said it was short on jargon and written for ordinary, everyday people – he urged people to read the whole document for themselves, and to do so in order, from beginning to end, without plucking footnotes and passages from the text out of context.

This, Bishop Treanor remarked later, could be a lonely exercise for those who are not much into reading, “but it could become a fascinating thing to constitute a group of five or six people – it could be even done ecumenically, it could be done with people who are simply interested in family and spend time in the long evenings of November or of Advent or later in the course of the year, just exploring that document and chatting about it”.

Describing Pope Francis as one of a triptych – a complementary trio – of successive great Popes, the cardinal said that while St John Paul had codified and clarified the Church’s teaching, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had explained the reasons for the Church’s teaching, Francis is now tasked with embodying this in person, as “a living parable of how we should live what we believe”.

He explained how witnessing poverty and family breakdown in his native South America had helped form Pope Francis, as can be seen in 2007’s ‘Aparecida Document’, the pastoral manifesto of South America’s bishops which the then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio had been in charge of drafting.

Among the things that became clear then was the extent to which the Gospel was not always preached with joy, and also how broken families could be marked by hopelessness. His response, according to the cardinal, was to think “let’s look at the situation, let’s judge that situation, but let’s do something to improve it”.

This approach was carried forward into his papacy, the cardinal said, with the Pope constantly encouraging us to take this approach. “We all know there are difficulties, but don’t come along and make the situation worse than it already is – improve it, make it better,” he said.

Calling for all Catholics to open up the fruits of the synod in their homes and dioceses, Cardinal Farrell stressed that Amoris Laetitia contains no doctrinal changes, observing that the pastoral emphasis on conscience in the – for some – controversial eighth chapter is rooted in the writings of Ss Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

The challenge, he said, was less to remind people about doctrine than to preach the word of God and accompany people in their struggles, describing the Emmaus story as a lesson in this, and adding that this is not a quick process but can take days, months, even years.

Other scriptural examples he cited as key to Amoris Laetitia were the episode with the woman caught in adultery and the parable of the Prodigal Son, with him later adding that the Samaritan woman at the well is significant too.

Overall, he later said, as part of a discussion with Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Sharon Haughey, and Julieann Moran, he said the imitation of Christ is our guiding principle and underpins Amoris, with a central point to be remembered being the fact that no one is truly worthy, and yet Christ came to save us.

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There was, however, much more to the convention that the two main headline events, and two sets of hour-long workshops filled the afternoon. Many of the workshops ran twice, and all told 25 topics were covered, ranging from ‘The spirituality of the small child’ to ‘YOUCAT: A tool for evangelisation not a dust collector’ and ‘Gender theory: questions for Catholic theology’.

As Dr Treanor later observed: “The workshops were animated by people coming from all sorts of different backgrounds – people who’ve experienced the refugee camps in Calais, worked in universities, our parents, lived in monasteries, all sorts of different places reflecting the mosaic that is the People of God, the Church that we all belong to.”

One of those who led a workshop was Fr Brendan McManus SJ, who, with Jim Deeds, ran a workshop entitled ‘Finding God in the Mess’. “What we were trying to do was get people to reflect on the mess in their own lives – the difficulties, the challenges, the things that are not ideal – and get them to bring God into that,” he told The Irish Catholic.

“Often people have a tendency to separate things, as if I have God over here, and all the things that are going well, and I have my life over here,” he continued. “We’re trying to bring all that together in order that we can find what God wants for this, to bring God’s healing, to bring God’s light, to bring God’s life into those situations.”

Explaining how the workshop had explored meditations around the Sacred Heart and around Peter’s encounter with the risen Jesus by the lakeside, Fr McManus spoke warmly of the transformation that can happen if people can get over their resistance to letting God in and bring God into their darker moments

The problem of suffering was a big theme today, he added, noting, “Everyone wants to live on the mountaintop – one guy said ‘I want the Transfiguration experience – why do I have to come down the mountain and walk through the valley, through the muck and the mess and all of that?’”

Suffering, he said, is always very difficult, especially when linked with how people can find it hard to feel God’s presence in their harder moments.

“It’s a very difficult question to answer,” Fr McManus said, “so I was quoting the experience of Jesus on the Cross, and there’s a moment where Jesus says ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Not that God has gone away but he experiences that very human experience of feeling God’s absence. The irony is that this is the moment when God is working most powerfully – and then there’s the Resurrection. This whole thing turns around, and all the transformation that happens through that, moving from death to life.”

Similarly, he added, God can transform things for us if we can persevere in faith during our moments of greatest suffering and God’s apparent absence.

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Such difficult moments are common both for those suffering from dementia and those caring for dementia sufferers, said Prof. June Andrews, who for 10 years headed the Dementia Centre at Scotland’s University of Sterling and who was speaking on ‘Faith and dementia’.

“There’s a lot of increased public awareness about dementia, though people are still confused, and although the awareness has risen, the fear is as high as it ever was. For some people the level of support hasn’t increased at all, even though the awareness is up. They’re still stuck,” she told The Irish Catholic.

As part of a ‘Reframing Dementia’ project she has been working with churches to listen to problems and gather ideas. Although the original plan had been to deal with a wide range of faith groups, the Dementia Services Development Trust, which she now works, decided instead to focus on Christians in the short term. “Dementia’s really about the end of life, often, it’s about questions of your personality,” she said. “There’s quite a lot of ethical challenges in there which are looked at differently by different faiths, and we thought that at least by getting all the Christians together we’d be achieving something. “

Explaining how a resource pack for churches – entitled ‘A guide to supporting people with dementia in the local church’ – had been assembled, she said it could be used for personal reflection or in discussion groups.

“The thing that your faith teaches you is that death is not the enemy,” she says, with the resource pack giving key advice on this and the whole area of end of life especially. “When facing a dread diagnosis, the person might fear that they will forget God, and must be assured that God will not forget them. If families feel the person they love has died because they stopped recognising their families, they must be assured that this is just the disease, and the person is still there.”

People of faith live in communities and are called to care for each other, so family members and friends of people with dementia are given huge chances to communicate about the problems the illness might raise.

“The thing about the rhythm of Church life is that it actually creates opportunities,” Prof. Andrews says, adding, “you’re going to get together at least once a week; what are you going to do when someone doesn’t turn up, how are you going to tackle those sort of things?”

Dementia

Raising the question of how understanding of dementia can be raised in Church communities so people can best respond when things happen, she says that sometimes people with dementia or their families can withdraw from Church life. “In the course of talking to people we heard things like a lady saying ‘I didn’t like to come to Church anymore because when my husband came with me he behaved inappropriately, so that meant I couldn’t come’. So how can we, as Church people, accommodate that?

“The key thing,” she says, “is how do you make people feel loved and wanted, even if they’re on their knees with exhaustion caring for somebody? That’s a really important thing.”

Similar points had been made and phrased better a few weeks earlier, she said, by Fr Michael McGinnity in a talk at St Malachy’s Church, which seemed fitting praise seeing as he was at the time leading a workshop of his own further along the corridor on the subject of ‘Amoris Laetitia – a road map for the pastoral care of families’.

Describing chapter four of the exhortation as the document’s “engine”, and maintaining that it at least can be read in isolation, Fr McGinnity  reminded the gathered audience that families are agents in the missionary work of the Church, and that when there are problems within families it is important to take the necessary time to help heal these problems.

In isolation this could easily have been a vague platitude, but Fr McGinnity then turned to the most controversial part of the exhortation – chapter eight, ‘Accompanying, discerning, and integrating weakness’ – and considered in detail what complex cases and discernment might entail, as a sincere search in line with a commitment to living the demands of the Gospel.

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The convention’s range went beyond various aspects of family life, with one of the more fascinating workshops focusing on a different type of discernment, with Francis Campbell, onetime Ambassador to the Holy See and now Vice-Chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, talking to a rapt audience on ‘Faith in an unstable world’. 

Asking whether religion is a friend or foe in a time of turmoil, Prof. Campbell told those gathered that the members of such an audience would typically have a high degree of religious literacy, better positioned than most to evaluate the extent to which things like the Troubles were religious in nature and by extension better prepared than most to apply such intelligent critiques to news stories about various events in the Muslim world.

Religious literacy, he said, can help us see where religion is sincerely in play or when it’s more a pretext or veneer, noting that over 20 years of diplomatic work he constantly found that religion was less likely to be an obstacle than a bridge or dictionary.

Drawing on a recent exploration of Margaret Thatcher’s online archive, he said he found a long discussion between the then Prime Minister and Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich in 1981 utterly fascinating in how it showed how profoundly Mrs Thatcher had misunderstood a conflict on her own doorstep. She didn’t grasp, he described the cardinal as having said, how her military response was radicalising people who had never been radical, and then, noting how that someone so close could get something so wrong, asked what are we getting wrong that’s further away.

In his concluding address, Dr Treanor commented on the New Evangelisation, and said how we often hear people saying we have to develop a language adequate for our times.

“That’s very true,” he said. “But another thing that we have to do is develop the tools and the means to promote and achieve this process of presenting the good news of the Gospel, and presenting it in ways that are credible, yes, but that are also experiential.”

It’s in this, he said, that much of the value of conferences such as the Faith and Life Convention can be found, drawing together and bonding together people of faith and goodwill in sincere attempts to engage with the challenges of our time.