Renewing a ‘Living Church’


Martin O’Brien discusses initiatives to revitalise the Irish Church with Fr Alan McGuckian SJ


Father Alan exudes passion and earthy realism when talking about the vision of Living Church and like fellow members of the order around the world is buoyed by the shock election of a fellow Jesuit as Pope. “I never thought it would happen,” he says.

An able and genuinely modest man one can recognise the qualities that made him an obvious choice when Bishop Noel Treanor appointed a director of Living Church. He has a deep faith, can talk about it in refreshingly clear terms, a strong intellect and does not take himself too seriously.

Great team 

He is quick to stress: “When you’re talking about Living Church it’s important to capture the sense that there is a great team: Paula McKeown, Jim Deeds, Geraldine Mullan and I working along with the three bishops, (including auxiliaries Tony Farquhar and Donal McKeown) priests and people all across the diocese. That is what makes it so good.”

So how did Living Church emerge as an initiative to revitalise the Church in Down and Connor against a backdrop of emptying pews and fewer priests? And how will its success or otherwise be measured?

Father McGuckian recalls that more than three years ago Bishop Treanor asked the Council of Priests to help him with pastoral training and a small group of diocesan priests invited him to come on board as facilitator.


“The notion of listening came up very early,” he says and there followed ‘Listening Days’ involving priests and religious culminating in a Listening Process involving 3,000 lay people in all 87 parishes during Lent 2011.

According to a November 2011 diocesan report the lay element of the process was inspired by the words of 4th Century St Paulinus of Nola cited by Blessed John Paul in his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio: “Let us listen to what all the faithful say, because in everyone of them the Spirit of God breathes.”

A sceptic might be forgiven for thinking what may be perceived as a rush to welcome lay participation has been catalysed by the urgent need for the faithful to give a helping hand to a diminishing number of priests although, in fairness, the idea of lay participation is fully in line with the spirit of Vatican II. The degree to which the council has been properly embraced by successive papacies is of course a controversial issue on which opinion is divided.

Father McGuckian recalls five key messages emanated from the process with people wanting:

  • Greater lay participation
  • To support and where appropriate challenge their clergy
  • An open welcoming Church
  • To pass on the Faith to their children
  • Liturgies that are a more dynamic expression of the Faith.

He says a pastoral plan is being formulated taking account of what emerged from the Listening Process in time for a Diocesan Congress in the Waterfront Hall, Belfast scheduled for September 27-29 next. He cites Bishop Treanor who said the plan “should be bold enough to make a difference but humble enough to be realistic.”

There will be ‘a congress within a congress’ for children who are being confirmed this year.


He speaks with passion about the transforming energies released when a priest and his people come together in prayer, in the presence of the Holy Spirit, to reflect in a spirit of ‘co-responsibility’ – a new buzzword to describe a more creative relationship between clergy and laity.

In a foreword to the November 2011 report, Bishop Treanor wrote: “Co-responsibility on the part of laity and priests was clearly called for in all listening sessions. This echoes Pope Benedict XVI’s assertion that the laity ‘must no longer be viewed as collaborators of the clergy but truly recognised as co-responsible for the Church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity’.”

Alan McGuckian says Benedict was rejecting the old idea that lay people would “help Father” replacing it with the principle of “co-responsibility”.


Without being misty eyed he has a dream for Living Church: “The dream comes out of those five areas. That a lay people who genuinely come to know their faith and live it, along with renewed clergy create a community that celebrates our faith with dynamism and life that is open and welcoming and has the energy to pass on the Faith to a new generation.

“Our dream is when priests, religious and people come together at parish or diocesan level, [they] discern God’s will. Some of that dream – let’s not get carried away – will be realised.”

Modest man that he is Alan McGuckian stresses the creation of Sacred Space was a partnership between himself and a gifted young Jesuit student, Peter Scally, who came up with the name.

But pressed he does confirm what is widely known in Church circles if not among the public generally: “Yes, it was my idea.”

It occurred to him in the summer of 1998 that websites were becoming the rage but they needed to “give” something to people and he thought of the elements of Ignatian prayer.

“One day I was clicking around and this idea of the mouse in your hands, you are looking at something, click, you are looking at something else, click, you are looking at something else, and I said, you could lead people through a prayer experience, [with Scripture readings] that will have lots of pauses, silence as much as you want, and when you are ready click and you then move on to the next thing. Ignatius lays out a prayer period in quite a structured way.”

He also established and other initiatives during an extremely productive period at the Jesuit Communications Centre.

Fr Alan was hearing Confessions in Bunscoil an Chaistil, Ballycastle when his fellow Jesuit Jorge Bergoglio was elected Pope. He has been deeply committed to Irish since school days under the late Monsignor Thomas Bartley in St MacNissi’s Garron Tower and was editor of An Timire, an Irish language version of the Messenger of the Sacred Heart from 1999 to 2011.

He thought a Jesuit would never become Pope because of the distinctive role the Jesuits have in the service of the Pope. After all they were founded “to serve the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on Earth”.

“After a great philosopher and then a great theologian we now have  a great pastor as Pope. The powerful thing about Francis is he brings a pastor’s heart to the role of Bishop of Rome and all the authority that comes with his ministry.”

He was touched by the new Pope’s prompt visit to the Basilica of St Mary Major and his exhortation to the Dominican confessors there to “show mercy to the people, that is what they need”.


Although “obedience to the Pope is at the core of the Jesuits’ identity” he accepts this “tight relationship” has “allowed Jesuits to push the boundaries” and he points out that as early as the 1600s the great Jesuit Matteo Ricci was “doing inculturation in China”.

An accomplished communicator and broadcaster Alan McGuckian – who was trained in radio production in St Louis, Missouri during his formation – uses opportunities such as Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Ulster to invite people, including himself to see the beam in their own eye.

He has already contributed to the Decade of Centenaries which commenced last year with the centenary of the Ulster Covenant by helping Philip Orr, a teacher and historian from the unionist tradition to write a drama 1912, A Hundred Years On. There was general agreement that between them they achieved their objectives by portraying the events of 1912 in a factual, fair and balanced manner.

Fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement he hails it as “a fantastic achievement” and “please God we will never resile” from its commitment to “parity of esteem”. But he warns: “You really have a feeling that we as two communities could sit on our hands and not do the work necessary to make the principles of parity of esteem a reality.”

Returning to Pope Francis, Father Alan says: “Francis brings a freshness. He makes living the Gospel sound something dynamic and fresh.

“He doesn’t go behind the door. He speaks about the centrality of the Cross but he does it in a way that is full of joy. But the real work is going to be done in small local parish communities with small groups of people and priests trying to discern God’s will. That’s where it’s at.” Indeed.