Walworth parish provides opportunity and challenges

[This article first appeared in Carmelite Review Volume 38, Number 1 - Spring 1999]

It is a typical inner-city parish in many ways. The area contains high rise apartment buildings. There are few places where children can play. Those who live there are burdened with high unemployment and low income. There is serious drug abuse. About 700 people attend Mass at the parish. Many are single parent families.

The area is also rich in cultural diversity. Probably the largest group attending the parish is from Nigeria. But the Afro-Caribbean, Phillipino, Arabic and Sudanese, as well as many other areas of Africa are well represented too. The Maltese, English and the Irish groups (including many travellers) are also there.

Because of the people's needs, food and clothing for the poor are a priority in the everyday life of the parish. Parish visitation is a priority  although it is sometimes difficult to get access.

There are bright spots amidst all the negatives. Participation in the liturgies and catechesis has increased. The liturgies can be quite colourful at times with the variety of dress and songs. While there is a long way to go, ministries include Welcoming, Reading, Offertory, Eucharistic Ministers, Music and Serving. Everyone stays on the sanctuary at the conclusion of their ministry.

Catechists are also involved in Baptismal, First Reconciliation, First Eucharist programmes. First Eucharist and Confirmation programmes and the  RCIA have brought over 30 people into the Church in the past few years. Catechists run Sacrament of Initiation programmes for the children in schools run by the government.

The hope is to have the people take more responsibility for the running of the non-liturgical aspects of the parish.

The pastor, Pat O'Keeffe, O.Carm., took over for six months to give the Province time to find someone on a permanent basis after the previous Carmelite became ill. He is still there over 7 years later.

Pat says the "Option for the Poor" has been acclaimed by the Order for a good while - so how do we prepare our people to minister in this way which includes a strong element of collaboration (between clergy and lay people)? Most of us are not from poor inner-city areas and it is not easy for most to adapt, let alone 'feel at home.'

But the challenges go beyond adjusting. "We need knowledge in so many fields other than what is so often looked upon as 'spiritual'. Supporting people in their everyday real struggle by being able to identify with them - being wise to the system. To have to learn this 'on the job' is not the best way to go."