The Archdiocese of Birmingham - The Parish of the Immaculate Conception

Visitation Report Banbury Deanery 30th March 2017.
A recurring event for an Auxiliary Bishop in this diocese is that each winter there are visitations to be carried out in some part of the pastoral area.   These give a great insight into the work and life of the diocese and what is going on at the level where the Church really matters, where people are trying to live their faith in the midst of their daily lives.  I enjoy this, even if at times it is tiring as you try to cope with the many different impressions and ideas which you are presented with.
This year in the Banbury Deanery Archbishop Bernard carried out the visitation in Bicester and in Hethe, and I have carried out the visitation in all of the remaining parishes in the deanery.  The situation in the parishes seems to be excellent. 
Youth Ministry
As is very usual in our parishes the situation of young people was brought up in many of them.  There is a comparatively new Youth Officer for this area, and I was a little disappointed that when we organised a meeting to enable the parishes to meet him only four or five people turned up at the meeting in Banbury.  As concerns are often expressed about the pastoral care of our young people I do hope that the active participation in this ministry is higher. 
This ministry is always challenging.  The form of this ministry is changing in that many young people are attracted to large events in which they wholeheartedly take part. At the same time they are not always particularly interested in the weekly or everyday events.  This suggests that there may be interest for events which cover the whole deanery or even several deaneries.
In parishes where there are schools then they are usually used for sacramental preparation.  This is to be encouraged.  In parishes where there are no schools this can lead to the need of a parish based programme for catechetics.  Finding properly trained catechists is not always so easy.  With the help of the Maryvale institute the deanery might consider a tailor-made course for this purpose.  This would probably need to go beyond the bounds of the Sowing the Seeds course which was so successfully carried out in Banbury.

The number of clergy in this deanery has been expanded as the area expands.  (I will return to the question of this expansion in a moment.)  This means that so far in Bicester and St. John’s, Banbury parishes new curates have arrived.  It needs to be understood that they will not being staying in these parishes for ever.  They will move on in order to gain experience of different types of parish before being assigned after some years as Parish Priests themselves.  We will be attempting, however, to at least maintain the number or priests and deacons within the deanery.
It is necessary for all areas of the Church to encourage the idea of vocation.  This means presenting the idea of vocation as a calling from God to the service of our sisters and brothers in marriage, religious life, the diaconate and in the priesthood, as in any other way that serves the common good.  There is probably the need in our own times to present that so that it becomes a conscious idea.
It means especially in this context that we are encouraging people to take seriously the possibility of becoming religious, priests or permanent deacons.  There possibly need to be even more conscious effort to pray for vocations and to talk to suitable people who could fill these roles.  In the whole of Oxfordshire, including the sick and retired, we now only have nine permanent deacons.  This is quite simply not enough
Social Needs
It was very positive to see many types of social work being carried out in the various parishes.  I was often deeply impressed by what was going on in what is mainly a rural deanery.  It was not only the local needs which were addressed, but also needs in other parts of the diocese, and also various international projects.  I can only say ‘well done’, and encourage the continuation of these projects.
This in our times, as various Popes have said, is one of the major forms of evangelisation as people see in concrete ways how we are willing to try and take care of those who are in need.  Again it might be helpful at times if these efforts were coordinated at deanery level while not losing the local feel that many of them have.  CAFOD groups, Justice and Peace groups and SVP groups all contribute to this, and the founding of such groups where they do not already exist should be considered if they would enhance the work which is going on.
Ecumenism and Inter-faith relations
The quality of ecumenical relations seemed to differ widely.  This is not always something which we control, as it depends on relationships.  I would point out that this is not always a matter just for priests or deacons.  We are all as members of the Church called in our time to be ecumenical, and perhaps what is need is a greater commitment and enthusiasm for this work.  At the local level this often consists in discovering our sisters and brothers in other churches and doing things together, which as a side-effect will mean that we are have greater knowledge of them.  There is already a great deal of ecumenical cooperation within the social work sector, which I have already mentioned
Liturgical Matters
There is a good standard of liturgy in all of the parishes I visited with liturgies being well prepared.  Liturgy was well carried out often with a surprising number of altar servers considering the rural nature of much of this deanery.  It is good to see that young girls and boys are engaged in this way in what is the central role of our parishes.  The standard of music is also good particularly considering the limited resources which are available.  .
One point which I believe needs some attention.  The number of people in several parishes who did not receive communion in the correct manner was above the average.  This was not children but mainly adults.  The most common things were people taking the host off me in their fingers rather than it being laid on the hand, and the number of people who wish to receive communion on the tongue, but there being no tongue made available to put it on!  I would suggest that, as suitable, appropriate instruction be given again.
Another point worth making is that in some parishes vestments needed to be dry-cleaned.  This should be part of the normal sacristy routine.
The Future
This deanery is in the midst of an areas where there are considerable developments taking place, not least in the form of major extensions of the amount of housing in the area.  This is going to impact the future of our Church structures.  There is now a group within this southern pastoral area of the diocese looking actively at this and considering the way forward.  We have tried to keep this group as small as possible so that it can be effective, but it shows the importance of this deanery in that both Fr. John, your dean, and Fr. Richard from Banbury are members of this group.
Let me repeat something which I have felt it necessary to say in several parishes.  We are not going to close any parishes.  That does not, however, preclude changes in how these parishes are run and organised.  I said earlier that we have sent new priests to this area, but some of the brethren are nearing retirement.  This means that I can say even now that for the immediate future there is only going to be one priest to cover the parishes of Charlbury and Chipping Norton.  This will in its turn mean adjustments to things like Mass times and perhaps to other things as well.  These matters will have to be decided locally as it is there that the knowledge exists to decide these things in a sensible and orderly way.
Change can frighten some of us, and yet it is unavoidable.  Change is, however, also an opportunity for us to renew are lives as parishes and churches in this area.  We are uncertain what the future holds, but we have all seen the developments taking place in Bicester and Banbury.  We are possibly aware of discussion and tension arising around us, as I am even in Woodstock where I live.  In Woodstock the parish is planning development to take account the changes being made, though this is not in this deanery.  The Diocese is trying to be aware of the changes which ae taking place.  Not only will change happen in parish structures but also in our provision of schools and of social ministry.
We are going to have to look even more across our parish boundaries. There are going to have to be new alliances between parishes and also across the whole of the deanery. This is not easy in this deanery where distances are great and where it can be necessary to drive for up to an hour to attend a meeting or event in another part of the deanery.  We are going to need imagination, effort and commitment.  There is plenty of evidence that this deanery is capable of that.
We are a pilgrim people, on our way to God’s Kingdom.  That is going to be experienced as even truer in the future.  We can never stand still.  This will lead to conflict and tension, hurt and disappointment.  When we get hurt, when it is not as we would wish, when I do not see any reason to continue, then we need to consider that it will also lead to new life, to a new witness to our faith and to finding new sisters and brothers with whom we can share the journey.  We need to commit to the journey now in prayer and in a renewal of our intentions to live a Catholic Christians in the places where God has placed us.
The warm welcome which I received in all of the parishes I visited convinces me that this is possible. Over the next ten or twenty years this deanery will change beyond recognition.  That is largely outside of our immediate control, depending on political decisions.  God has placed us in this situation and undoubtedly given us the gifts we need in order proclaim His Kingdom in this situation. Your gifts of hospitality, prayer, imagination, and love of your neighbour, will enable the Church not only to survive but grow and evangelise on this stage of our pilgrimage.
May God bless us all.
(Rt. Rev.) William Kenney CP
Auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham