In September 2010 I commenced my training in Mater Dei Institute as a Candidate Parish Pastoral Worker for the Dublin Diocese. The Parish Pastoral Worker programme is an initiative set up by Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, whereby trained lay people work in partnership with the priests and pastoral councils of parishes, pastoral areas or diocese as they together promote the Gospel message and serve the mission of the Church at local level. The Parish Pastoral Worker Programme involves encouraging parishioner participation in existing and new initiatives that express the mission of the Church today. Other aspects of the role include enhancing the prayer and worship of the parish, and building community through relationships and being available to people.
It was a completely new departure for me , having spent all of my working life since leaving school at 17 in the civil service. In February 2010 I took the opportunity to avail of early retirement deciding I was tired of commuting from Rush in north Co. Dublin and feeling entitled to a rest. But life doesnt always work out as you plan it!
Within two months of retiring I saw an advertisement for the Parish Pastoral Worker job and just applied, I just thought if it was meant to be it would be! I had done some study of Theology some years before in Maynooth out of general interest, so I had enough theology to apply. I went through a fairly serious process over the next few months which included an interview, a psychological assessment, a health check and Garda check before finally getting the word that I had a place on the programme for September 2010.
When I commenced in Mater Dei Institute I was in a group of 10 which included men and women of various ages and nationalities. We attended lectures 2 days a week and were allocated to two different parishes over the year as part of our training. We all waited anxiously to see where we would be allocated to as our first placement, and eventually I was informed that I was going to work in Cherry Orchard and St. Matthews Parish, Ballyfermot. I had not been in Ballyfermot or Cherry Orchard before but the first thing I did was phone Sr. Cora in Cherry Orchard who was assigned to look after me! She gave me exact directions and I had no trouble getting there. I was given office space in a house in St. Matthew’s parish so I based myself there and worked between the two parishes.
I felt very happy in Cherry Orchard from the beginning, once I got over my initial awkwardness at being the stranger in a strange place! I introduced myself at Saturday evening and Sunday morning Mass the first weekend and was very warmly welcomed by the congregation. While Cherry Orchard itself is a large area with a huge amount of housing, the numbers attending church regularly are small enough in comparison. But those who do attend regularly are a warm and welcoming group who were very open to my presence and very supportive of anything I undertook in the parish. The parish team of Fr. Pat, Fr. John, Sr. Cora (and Sr. Ronnie, who arrived in November) were also so welcoming and helpful to me. I don’t think I could have had a better place for my first slow steps in pastoral ministry. I was encouraged to try things out, to put forward ideas and to stand up and be seen as part of the parish team, which was important both for me and for the community to see a lay person and a woman in a leadership role.
One of the main areas I was involved in with Sr. Cora was the organising of the First Communion Programme “Do This In Memory”. I had not had a lot of experience with small children for many years so it was a bit intimidating at the beginning. The attendance also at the special monthly Mass was not as much as we might have hoped for, but each of those Masses was very special to me. It was great to get to know the children as the months went by, to be able to talk to them about Jesus in ways that they could understand and for them to begin to get to know me and to regard me as a friend. I could see that in the beginning they did not know what to call me or where I fitted in – I wasn’t a “sister” or a teacher. Eventually I became just “Mary” which made me very happy. It was also an opportunity to get to know some of the parents and adults in the community – those that helped with the children’s procession, lighting the candles, providing the music etc. Some months Sr. Cora and I were like a “one man band” between us – meeting the children at the door, singing the hymns, doing readings, introducing the parts of the Mass, organising the children for a blessing at Communion etc. I don’t know how Sr. Cora did it – some days I was exhausted! Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this part of my ministry – my only regret was that I could not be with the children for their First Communion Day in May, as by then, I had moved to my second parish placement.
Other memorable experiences for me was sharing prayer with the Lectio Divina prayer group on Wednesday evenings, and assisting with the preparation of various liturgies in the parish, including the annual Mass for the dead which was always a very moving evening with the church full to the doors. It was heartening to see that at times of stress and challenge in their lives people still feel that God can offer consolation and hope. Coming up to Christmas I was asked to prepare the Sacrament of Reconciliation which was to be held in early December. I spent some time on this selecting appropriate readings and music and preparing the reflection. I was very happy with my effort and looked forward to the evening itself but the weather intervened (remember one of the big snow weeks of last year?2010) and I was advised to go home that evening at 6pm. The Sacrament of Reconciliation went ahead and I spent four hours in my car before eventually making it home at 10pm that night. I know that the parishioners of Cherry Orchard were praying for me that night and I was so grateful to Sr. Cora who phoned me a number of times on my mobile as I was not always confident that I would make it home that night. It was so reassuring to get a phone call and to know that people were praying for me.
The return of the snow before Christmas meant that I did not get to experience Christmas Mass in Cherry Orchard as I had hoped. In fact I was practically house bound for the week up to Christmas Day and was sorry not to have been able to share the joy of Christmas morning in what had effectively become “my parish” over the months of October, November and December.
I only spent another two months in Cherry Orchard as I moved to my second parish at the end of February but I have wonderful memories of my time there and the people I came to know – the people who volunteer their time to build up the faith community, the Parish Pastoral Council who meet regularly and are committed to making their church and their parish the best they can be, those who care for the church and the grounds, the children, and their parents who are doing their best to bring up their children with Gospel values, in a society that often pressurises them to live in completely opposing ways. All are doing their best to see Christ in each other and to bring Christ to each other in the daily struggles and celebrations of their lives and they do this by working together in community. In doing this they are gently supported by the wonderful parish team of Fr. Pat, Fr. John (who I know has since moved) Sr. Cora and Sr. Ronnie. It was a privilege to be part of that team even for a short time, and to be so warmly welcomed into the Cherry Orchard parish community.
Mary Kirk, Parish Pastoral Worker
(now working in the parishes of Skerries, Rush, Lusk and Donabate)