Sunday, 16 November 2014

Pastoral Letter for Hexham and Newcastle

Pastoral Letter to be read in all parishes on the Weekend of 15 / 16 November 2014

My Dear People
We are living at a very important and exciting time in the history of our Diocese. When I reflect on the visits I make throughout the Diocese I am heartened by the commitment of clergy and laity to prayer, to service and to the witness of the Gospel. This week we will be praying for prisoners and their families. Next weekend we will be aware of the great work being done by our Youth Ministry Team on what is Youth Sunday. Young people will play a vital part in the project I will outline in a moment.
Today I want to introduce you all to a new initiative which will help every one of us to examine our relationship with Jesus Christ and the way we support one another in our worshipping communities to worship God and be faithful to the Gospel. It will be known as Forward Together in Hope.
Many of us have been saying for years that we are reaching a crisis point in our Diocese. The numbers of priests serving our Diocese is decreasing; we now only have 5 under the age of 40. The number of worshipping parishioners has declined from around 100,000 in the 1980s to around 40,000 now. You will see these facts on a leaflet being distributed to every parishioner in the Diocese today. We could be very despondent about this, but I am not.
The leaflet you will receive today is an invitation to everyone in the Diocese to become fully involved in the development and renewal of our Diocese. It is simply the beginning of the process which will affect everyone in Hexham and Newcastle. You are invited on a journey to explore how we become active disciples of Jesus. The leaflet will be made available to as many people as possible in the Diocese, and you are all invited to make the prayer on it your own, perhaps making it part of your daily prayers. Those who bring Holy Communion to the sick and housebound could perhaps encourage them to pray along with us.
In the late spring of next year, every worshipping community will be given a thorough questionnaire to complete which will help to provide a realistic picture of how each community can flourish in the future. I hope that it will provide an opportunity for reflection and discernment about the future. It will be the same in every parish, except for the unique information held centrally which will be made available to each community. This questionnaire will reveal the viability of each community, how it is planning to look ahead to provide lay ministers and leaders. It will examine finances, buildings and its involvement with young people. It will further help everyone deepen their commitment to the Gospel through prayer and reflection, worship and continuing formation. You will have the opportunity to respond to it all in the weeks and months ahead.

Pope Francis is inviting all of us to become ‘missionary disciples’ taking the risk we need to become more involved in outreach to the poor around us and the opportunities there are to witness with our sisters and brothers of other faiths. We will also have to look at numbers in communities and the geographical proximity of other worshipping communities.
This whole initiative will be underpinned by prayer and a call to the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us. In time, there will be special liturgical resources made available to open our minds and hearts to the inspiration of the Spirit. I am very struck today by the fact that the man with the one talent simply buried his talent, and his head, in the sand. Today’s Gospel is striking in that most of the emphasis is on how the ‘one talent man’ said ‘No’ to risk, and ‘Yes’ to things staying the same. In this parable, Jesus is inviting his followers to say ‘Yes’ to risk, and ‘No’ to safety, to say ‘Yes’ to an active response to God and ‘No’ to the way things have always been.
The servant who hid his talent, did not commit a sin, he did not do something bad – he simply did nothing at all. Jesus did not see his followers as ‘pious observers’ of a religion, but as ‘bold believers’ prepared to see things in different ways. One implication of this parable is to appreciate that to conserve what we have, is to avoid the invitation of God to move on.
I will be leading some periods of prayer and reflection during Advent and invite you all to join me in St Mary’s Cathedral on Tuesday 2nd December at either 10.30 am or 6.30 pm, or alternatively at St Joseph’s, Hartlepool on Wednesday 10th December at 6.30pm.
We are privileged to belong to a Diocese with an immensely rich heritage which has thrived and flourished over hundreds of years despite many difficulties – including Vikings and Persecution. But we can no longer presume that what has served us in the past will work in the future. Please keep this initiative in your prayers in the coming weeks and months. I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit is with us, giving us the courage we need to move Forward Together in Hope.
With very best wishes
 Rt Rev Séamus Cunningham Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle


  1. Why must we always 'manage' decline instead of making vocations a priority as has Bishop Mark Davies in Shrewsbury? This diocese has declined because successive Bishops have published scary statistics about priest numbers rather than addressing the issue by ensuring clear teaching in Catholic schools, good preparation for the sacraments, nurturing the faithful seminarians we had in training, inviting good speakers into our cathedral and diocese instead of dissenters from Church teaching. The list is endless. No wonder our young men do not see the riches the Church offers and to which they would want to dedicate their lives. Thank you Father Brown for your service and faithfulness. Sad times and infuriating that the same people who began the decline are being given the task of completing it.I have no doubt that Father Jim O'Keefe will have more success then even the Vikings.

  2. The main shortage is not of priests but of faithful laity. Priests come from families willing to encourage vocations at home.

  3. Well said Pat. I have already written to the bishop having just heard the he has refused to accept the traditional Orders into the diocese. Having written personally (not as LMS rep) I was able to be quite forthright about the fact that (IMHO) the troubles start at the top & pointing out the facts about Lancaster & Shrewsbury dioceses. the bishop is happy to celebrate Mass for every possible group in the diocese (including the 'Yoof" Ministry Team) but has NEVER celebrated the EF Mass nor joined one of our Masses in the cathedral. I appreciate that he was not educated in this form in seminary but nor were virtually all of the priests who do celebrate it. I suggested he learn to celebrate the EF which would confirm what Pope Benedict said that it has parity within the Roman Rite. His celebration could go a long way towards breaking down the barriers which OF parishioners build between our 2 communities - even in St Joseph's. Thankfully Fr Brown is supporting us.
    Anonymous is right too. The sad situation at St Wilfrid's would not exist if every Catholic supported their parish by ATTENDING! Sadly our religion is being 'dumbed down' & this can be seen by the perfunctory nod of the head whilst passing the tabernacle - & that isn't just the laity!! How many still believe in the Real Presence thanks to the way some of our Church leaders give very little proper guidance

  4. It's illuminating that the leaflet " Forward Together in Hope", which describes the catastrophic decline in priests and Mass attendance over the last 40 years, then calls for us to "continue to flourish" in the future. Eh? Who writes this stuff?


    1. One of my parishioners noted the same inconsistency of a flourishing Diocese that is diminishing in its number of Priests and in Mass attendance. Another asked "Why will what got us through the Viking Invasion and Roman/reformation persecutions will not get us through today? The only thing that will stop it working is lack of push from those in office now". I made (and make) no comment.

  5. David and Pat,
    you are both correct, except on one small point raised by David. He says the Bishop was not educated in the traditional rite in the seminary. Since he was ordained in 1966, then he most certainly was extremely familiar with the Old Rite. Not only was he brought up and probably served the Old Mass throughout his childhood, teenage years and Seminary. He was ordained in a Latin ceremony, and had been ordained 4 years before the final abolition of Latin in the Mass.

    Pat, a point about education. My daughter taught for 4 years in Catholic primary schools in this Diocese. She was required to teach from the "Here I Am" syllabus. She found it to be devoid of Catholic teaching, doctrine and feeling for the Faith. There was no way any child could possibly understand the Faith if their only exposure to it was through "Here I Am".

  6. Your bishop was badly advised to put this out in his name. It is replete with ideology, theological error and contradiction. For example, why can’t we presume that “what has served us in the past will work in the future?” is an un-evidenced assumption of what will and will not work and displays a clear refusal to consider that the traditions and teachings which brought us through Viking Raids and the Reformation persecutions cannot work for us today.
    “The servant who hid his talent, did not commit a sin; he simply did nothing at all.” is theologically wrong since it describes the sin of omission, and “We need to become more involved in outreach to the poor around us and the opportunities there are to witness with our sisters and brothers of other faiths” forgets that outreach to the poor has always been a mark of the Church. Our history of outreach in the missions (and at home where the monasteries proving shelter, education and health care was the beginning of Social Services) is second to none. Social outreach did not begin with Vatican II. But how do we witness to members of other faiths when we have been told for years now to see members of others faiths as members of the family of God (as ‘anonymous Christians’) and to work with them. What are we to witness to them about?
    English Pastor

  7. Sadly, Anonymous, your final comment shows how different is the Church today. In my younger days (when Victoria was queen) we were forbidden from attending the prayers & services of 'false religions' & that wasn't referring to Islam or Judaism but to Anglicans & Methodists etc. Ecumenism is good when we work together but we should always remember that Catholicism is the One, True & Apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ himself.

  8. If our diocese needs a new initiative then it is always a good idea to follow a model that is successful. In 2010 I was privileged to be invited to the ordination of an Englishman for the Fraternity of St Peter whose seminary is in the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, USA. While there I had a conversation with the diocesan chancellor. It was a revelation. In a diocese of 97,000 people the Mass attendance is about 80%. There are 152 priests for 134 parishes. There is a diocesan seminary which has 44 seminarians, and a religious seminary. There are 141 religious sisters. Fifty priests and 40 sisters teach on a part-time basis. The priests are obliged to wear clerical dress and must conform to the rubrics of the Mass: no off-the-cuff ad-libbing is allowed.
    The curriculum for young pupils includes the Most Holy Trinity, Saints, Belief and Doctrines of the Catholic Church, Stations of the Cross, the Holy Rosary, Novenas, Holy Days of Obligation, Teaching Reverence for the Most Holy Eucharist, Gifts of the Holy Spirit,and on it goes. Compare this genuine formation on the faith with such banalities as Here I Am.
    This diocese is successful and thriving. May I suggest that we simply copy what is being done in this diocese in order to find our way again and really give our children a proper grounding in the faith to set them up for the life ahead. If anyone is interested the diocesan website is


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