The Pastoral Programme of the Brothers of Charity Services began in 1993. It creates opportunities for people to come together to celebrate life, reflect and be renewed and it nourishes them with hope and a sense of belonging. At the heart of the programme is the recognition that spirituality is an important part of who we are, and the commitment to respect and support the right of everyone to a spiritual life, practised and nourished in their own faith tradition.
Each year, in close consultation with service users and members of staff, we plan a programme of events with a broad range of objectives.
The Blue Teapot Theatre Company
About five years ago, the pastoral programme brought together a group of adults with learning difficulties from several centres, with the aim of providing them with a creative outlet for self-expression, to have fun and to build self-esteem. The sessions were highly successful and led to the creation of a powerful mime on reconciliation which was performed at a retreat with Jean Vanier in Galway. We realised that we had something to share with the wider community. The theatre group has gone from strength to strength, with several original scripts and productions–The Drummer Boy at the Druid Theatre, Ocean Blues at the Town Hall Galway, first-prize winner in the Galway Paddy’s Day parade, Baby at Spanish Arch at the Town Hall Galway, and earlier this year A Millennium Fable, a spectacular show performed several times in Galway’s Black Box and around the region. ‘But let us not be patronising here, let us not be sympathetic, this was a serious production’, wrote one art critic.
The project has given participants immense joy, recognition and a great sense of purpose. What an experience–to discover that you need not always be on the receiving end, that you can become a source of joy for an audience that acknowledges your talent with standing ovations! Finances have now been secured for the further development of the theatre group, which should allow the pastoral programme–as they had originally dreamed–to leave the project in safe hands and go on to explore new shores.
Ar scáth a chéile weekend retreats
Ar scáth a chéile retreats provide a unique experience for people with an intellectual disability and their friends. The focus is aptly captured in the name–taken from the old Irish saying ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine’ (‘People have to depend on each other to survive’). Weekend retreats are undertaken in pairs–a person with a learning disability and a friend–with a facilitating team. An original theme is explored both in pairs and in groups, through discussions, drama, art and crafts, liturgies and outside activities. The Saturday late-into-the night party is always a great time for relaxing, enjoying a drink, and doing a party piece.
As Ar scáth a chéile becomes more established, we hope that our bank of friends will increase and that friendships forged during the weekends will develop among the participants.
Several people have kept in touch with those they have accompanied and have come back regularly on further weekend-retreats. Reunions and fundraising events are an important dimension of Ar scáth a chéile, helping to build community awareness and provide pleasant social settings for reunions. The profits help us to cover additional costs and to accommodate those who might not be able to attend because of financial limitations.
Since 1997, Ar scáth a chéile weekend retreats have been held three times a year at Esker Retreat House in Galway with, on average, a group of forty people. The retreats are also made available to other services in the western region, L’Arche and Faith and Light. A measure of the success of this project is the ever-growing number of people who contact us and want to book in for the next retreat.
The ritualised aspects of rediscovering gestures that speak, and words that touch hold an important place in the pastoral programme. In a society which has taken on a more secular visage, our services are in danger of excluding the ritualised expressions of our lives for fear of attracting a ‘religious’ label. We need to remember that rituals and celebrations are not the property of religion alone, but are part of men and women of all societies who try to articulate their own inner life. Indeed, at the heart of our celebrations there is a very spiritual, inspirational dimension. Celebration needs uplifting gestures, words and emotions to help us transcend the routines of our daily lives.
Celebrations are a crucial attempt to unfold the holiness of all that is profane, to reveal the sacred qualities of secular life. To be authentic, and to inspire, ritual must come from genuine reflection on our lives and a search for meaning. Our pastoral programme facilitates people to develop beautiful rituals and liturgies that become true places of nourishment for both individuals and their communities, and a genuine celebration of the ethos that moves us. Celebrating is an art. Rituals, whether Christian or not, must not be seen as superfluous, but as a profound means of bringing us closer together and consciously acknowledging our interconnectedness–client, nurse or psychologist, parent or social worker, caterer or secretary–to transcend the day-to-day routine and the professional/carer/cared-for divisions.
A wide range of activities, liturgies and celebrations punctuate our seasonal and liturgical calendar. They include reconciliation services, Advent and Christmas celebrations, Lenten and Easter liturgies, inter-centre Passover meals, and lunchtime reflections. Daytime events are usually centre-based, with a relatively large number of people; evening occasions create a more intimate atmosphere conducive to sharing and relaxation. In a residential setting, they also present a break in routine, with spontaneity and innovation.
Harvest Festivals have taken place for several years in various venues in our services. We stop for a while to enjoy ourselves and be thankful to God and each other for our work and activities throughout the year. We honour each other when we take this time to say who we are and what we do, and find ways of sharing with others. Not all centres produce goods, and they may celebrate ‘harvest’ in other ways. One of centres performed a very moving mime with the young people from a local parish whom they had got to know during a joint summer project.
Memories of you in November
‘Memories of you’ is a time set aside to share memories of loved ones who have died and to talk and listen with others who may have had a similar loss. The approach is symbolic, and evocative–coming into touch with deep feelings through sound, smell, texture or colour. ‘You’re crying George!’ ‘I remember the smell of my mother’s cooking’; ‘My brother came to pick me up at the train–he hugged me.’ As the memory box is closed during the evening, peace is found. We light a candle and walk through the autumn leaves to place it close to an icon–a warm flame–joined hands, a prayer, finally a cup of tea. We go on living.
The aim of pastoral sessions is to provide a space away from the busy life of the day centres, where groups can share their experience of faith. The groups change little from week to week because continuity can yield much fruit and allows the participants to grow in their understanding together. Outside facilitation allows members of staff, who are present in a supportive role, to enter personally in this faith journey too. Group sessions are made available to people with severe learning disability, people attending our Community Programmes for Adults or people living more independently.
Pilgrimage is a form of devotion still very alive in Ireland, and enjoyed by many service users and members of staff. Many of our community programmes include a pilgrimage to Knock in
their calendar, as both ‘a great day out’ and a festival of faith. Until recently, the services always went to Knock together, in large numbers. The pastoral programme now also facilitates more intimate gatherings for smaller groups to travel as representatives of their centre. Groups have also gone on pilgrimage to Ballintubber Abbey and Church Island, Croagh Patrick, Mac Dara Island and the Burren–all sites deeply anchored in the Irish tradition and with a high sensory dimension.
Within the CÁIRDE pilot volunteer project, the pastoral programme has been able to offer service-users a highly successful series of ‘weekends with a difference’, including time for touring, relaxation around the fire, discussion, prayer time, and a celebratory meal planned and prepared by all the participants. After each weekend trip, there is a photo evening, to talk about favourite moments and create mementos–particularly for people with impaired verbal skills. Participants can ‘write’ their own story of the weekend by filling in an album to share at home or with friends.
The projects above are some examples of our efforts to re-kindle a pastoral dimension in the Brothers of Charity Services. We also organise days of renewal for parents, a diocesan jubilee celebration, programmes for volunteers, dance workshops, music projects, holiday projects and the development of pastoral resources. All our activities are aimed at enhancing the quality of life and relationships among our people who desire to live life to the full. They are simple responses to basic needs common to us all–the need to belong, to celebrate, to be valued as I am, to know that my life is worth living, to be renewed and accompanied on my journey.