Frontiers and peripheries: Five go down to Cornish town

POST BY PRandall

The parish group in Falmouth
The parish group in Falmouth

Perhaps it was because we set out on a journey starting from Flanders that I was prompted to wonder about how a group of 5 Jesuits would have been received in Cornwall to carry out a parish mission a hundred years ago. My father went to a Methodist boarding school there not long after the First World War, and I remember his stories which gave a flavour of the religious sentiments of that time.

The parish priest at St Mary Immaculate in Falmouth was keen to reassure us that the local Catholics would be willing to travel from nearby towns like Truro and Penzance to participate in any activities we could offer. A parishioner later informed us that Gerry W Hughes SJ had been at the centre of a very successful ecumenical series of talks several years previously. Our plan was not specifically ecumenical, though some other denominations were represented among those who were to participate in the parish mission as it unfolded.

Thinking of being “sent to the frontiers”, our 5 man team (4 British Jesuits and a Flemish Provincial) only had vague ideas about Cornish devolution and the current resurrection of the language, but the black and white Cornish flag was in evidence, and most of all, the 5 hours of travel from London gave us the impression that we had crossed into less familiar territory. Our first Cornish pasty certainly confirmed that we were in a land with distinctive traditions.

St Mary's notice board The Sunday Masses which allowed us to meet the locals face to face proclaimed John’s feeding of the 5 thousand. The recurrence of the number 5 was not so obvious to us then, but we did note that 5 Jesuits and 2 diocesan priests were coming together in collaboration to feed what felt like a multitude. In fact it was never more than 50 people, but they had hearty appetites!

Like the disciples, what we could offer seemed limited. The composition of our team had changed considerably in the weeks preceding the mission, which made planning more difficult. None of us had experience of one-off short term parish missions. We possessed a jumble of skills, and only a vague sense of how each one of us was going to deliver whatever he had. Although we considered a Week of Guided Prayer, it seemed this would not offer anything significantly different, as the local Ignatian network had already shown its capacity to offer such a service in recent years.

That local knowledge and experience was encouraging, and in fact some participants had undergone courses at Heythrop College or at other places of theological or spiritual formation.  We also learned that Christian Life Communities have been in the area for some time.   
In an attempt to offer a programme with some coherence, and with an eye to current themes and concerns we offered the following plan for the weekdays:

  • Prayer experience with introductory preamble
  • Follow-up presentation on aspects of Ignatian spirituality
  • One-to-one sessions of “spiritual conversation”
  • Three evening presentations on Creation, Laudato Si', and Evangelii Gaudium.  
  • A Service of Reconciliation
  • A review of the “harvest” at the end of the week.

Without going into a full reproduction of the “harvest” which emerged on the final evening, it is perhaps useful to share particular graces of this parish mission. Firstly, in contrast to other contexts where a programme is arranged for people who may not have immediate connections with each other, this mission was strengthening the bonds between people within a Catholic community, and to a certain degree across denominational boundaries.

Secondly, the participants appreciated the variety of gifts and personalities in the team, and especially the mix of animation, competence, and vulnerability in the signed presentations of the deaf member, Fr Paul Fletcher SJ. Now in retrospect, I realise how this fitted with our sessions towards the end of the mission, which began to focus on the discernment of gifts and charisms which each person possesses. In order to free ourselves to make the best use of these, a discernment of the personal or relational constraints is also necessary. 

As for the visiting team, in our own “harvest” we appreciated the vitality and diversity of gifts which this community is developing in Cornwall. How many parishes have a group which explores forms of evangelising, and puts into practice door to door visits and street encounters? In their University ministry, a blow-up prayer couch with a portable palm tree forms part of the scenario for encountering students. That’s creativity!

As a team we received wonderful hospitality, encouragement, and a few new ideas. It left me wondering what a follow up mission would be like, and how Ignatian methods for discerning God’s call and his gifts can run alongside some of the methods and concrete experience of this Cornish community. They may be at the geographical periphery, but they are labouring at some innovative frontiers.

Peter Randall SJ