Thursday 15 November 2012

Life with Fewer Priests and More Lay Collaborators

Prior to Vatican Council II there existed, we are told, a ‘ghetto mentality’ in the Catholic Church. This ‘ghetto mentality’ might, it seems to me, be relabelled a strong sense of community identity and adhesion. The Jewish people still retain this; we have disavowed it as wrong. It is perhaps time this canard of a ghetto mentality be exposed for what it is.

It is by no means the only canard about the pre-Vatican II Church. We are also told that the laity were passive in the liturgy and the Church. Yet one need only think of the choirs, the organists, the servers and the sacristans of pre-Vatican II days to appreciate the role played by laity in the liturgy; one need only think of the charitable work done by the SVP, the door-to-door and street evangelisation undertaken by the Legion of Mary, the youth club work, the work done by the Women’s League, the repairs done by the men of the parish, the support given to the missions, the neighbourhood projects and the work of Catholic schools to realise that the laity were very active in Church life before the Council. Yet the canard about laity being passive continues as a catalyst for a new kind of lay activity called ‘collaboration’.

Personally, I rely heavily upon the people of the parish for their collaboration in care of the housebound, the provision of catechesis, administration, accounting, Health & Safety, minor repairs, pastoral planning, financial advice etc., and I venture to say that without such collaboration a parish might well cease to function. But it is not without its problems.  It can, for example, increase the weight on the priest’s shoulders if he has to chase folk up in their tasks or if the Pastoral Council simply determines tasks for him to undertake. The number of meetings he needs to attend also proliferates.

It has, if we are honest, actually created a two-tier laity: those who are ministers (on the sanctuary) or managers (on committees), and those who are not. Lay-empowerment has thus become an empowerment of the few at the expense of the many, created by our pursuance of a collaboration that focuses on committees and liturgy.

More worryingly, modern collaboration has a tendency to devalue the authentic lay vocation as the leaven in the world (cf. Vatican II’s Apostolicam Actuositatem) be that the world of education, health-care, business, politics, the media etc., and devalued long-established lay associations such as the Legion of Mary and the SVP; these are now seen by many folk as second best because they are not ‘power-sharing’; they are ‘pious associations’, not committees. We might even say we have swapped piety for power.

It has also, I suggest, eroded priestly identity: priests are now formed (we were told in seminary in the late eighties/early nineties) as co-ordinators of the laity. By this our vocation as men consecrated to be sacrificing priests who teach, sanctify and govern in the person of Christ as fellow workers with the order of Bishops (cf. Vatican II’s Presbyterorum Ordinis) is depreciated in the eyes of the people and, perhaps, even of the Bishops and priests.

Parishes must indeed have some input by the people since they have a duty to ensure their community is holy and operates in a healthy manner -for which reason it is not right for priests to undertake all the administration, catechesis and pastoral care on his own. But ‘Lay-led Communities’ are, I think, problematic, since they promote that which lacks the integrity of the Body of Christ as both Head and Members. As Redemptionis Sacramentum reminds us, “There can be no substitute for the ministerial priesthood. For if a priest is lacking in a community, then the community lacks the exercise and sacramental function of Christ the Head and Shepherd, which belongs to the essence of its very life” (cf. RS #146). As a result of promoting lay-led parishes, it is unsurprising that seminaries are closing –after all, why spend one’s life as a celibate facilitator (priest) when one can be married and a community (lay) ‘leader’?  

Of particular concern in non-mission territories are lay-led Services of the Word with Distribution of Holy Communion. These services imply that the community is more important than the Eucharistic Action we call Holy Mass, yet the community springs from that Action as the source and summit of all that we are, so it is essential to be celebrate that Action rather than limit ourselves to hearing the word and receiving Holy Communion. Indeed, correct terminology seems all-but unknown even to the clergy who, when discussing these things, speak of Services of the Word with Holy Communion as “Eucharistic Services” or “Communion Services”, and of Extra-ordinary Ministers of Holy Communion as “Communion Ministers” or worse, as “Eucharistic Ministers” (neither of which averts to their being legitimate only in extraordinary circumstances), though use of such titles is expressly forbidden by Redemptionis Sacramentum #156. We should not forget that “Only out of true necessity is there to be recourse to the assistance of extraordinary ministers in the celebration of the liturgy. Such recourse is not intended for the sake of fuller participation of the laity but it rather, by its very nature, is supplementary and provisional” (RS #151). That these ministers are used every Sunday and even at weekday Mass is a clear sign that this role is misunderstood and being used in a manner inconsistent with its ancillary and extempore character. I suspect Bishops are simply not being well informed on these matters, rather than unwilling to limit how these ministries are used, but it leaves informed and loyal priests to uphold the norms exposed to bitterness from the people, who complain to their Bishop that their priest is “not collaborative”.

Perhaps to help re-dignify the authentic lay and priestly vocations –and restore the Mass to its central importance- we really do need to amalgamate parishes. No one likes to see churches closed, but the benefits are that local areas with one centre of worship thus retain the authenticity of the local community as head and members and, let’s not pretend otherwise, gain much needed revenue from the sale of property. Costs are, after all, constantly going up, and the number of laity contributing to finances is constantly going down. Hopefully, as the Culture of Death destroys modern society and the Culture of Life grows in the Church, we will be brought to a future where we can rebuild both the Church and society.


  1. Priestly vocations come from a strong sense of Catholic identity, it is not a distinct place, it is precisely from there that other Catholic vocations come.
    Increasingly we have difficulty finding committed Catholic lay leaders, head teachers, married couples, liturgical musicians, lay missionaries, leaders of Catholic charities.

    A decrease in the number of priests is simply an indiction that there are fewer committed Catholics.

    1. A distinct place is not claimed in this post Father, what is maintained is that an authentic Catholic identity cannot be sustained if there is clericalisation of the laity and a laicisation of the clergy. I think we need to foster our catholic identity in many ways, but discussion of this is beyond the scope of this post which is already too long...

  2. Father, are you saying that that priests sharing responsibility with the people is wrong, and that this is the cause of all the problems in the Church? I would be disappointed by such an opinion ; it seems to me that we need to work together in today's climate.

    1. Obviously this Post is not as clear as I thought, so let me clarify:
      I am suggesting that it is a misapplication of collaboration, based on common use of inaccurate terminology, has caused a depreciation of both the lay and clerical states. The Post articulates the fact that that the people have a right and duty to be active within the Church and that priests cannot operate alone.
      Still, a clericalisation of the laity with a depreciation of their authentic vocation as the leaven in the secular world of education, politics, media, commerce, health care etc., with a commensurate depreciation of the priests into facilitators of lay activity, is not authentic Catholicism. The Body of Christ has clearly defined parts and while all must work together, each is unable to perform the function of another. It is this which makes everyone’s role equally valuable, priest or lay person.

  3. In my parish in the UK, despite a plethora of EMHC, 1/3 to 1/2 of communicants bypass the chalice.

    A problem with the novus ordo is that, although there are often many altar servers in the sanctuary, litugically there is practically nothing for them to do.In the "rubric- ridden" (rubric rich?)us.ant. there was pride in learning and doing what was assigned to you as an essential part of the Mass.

    1. I agree that there is little for the servers to do in the Ordinary Form. I have four servers and we struggle to make sure each has a task other than simply carrying a cross and candles in and out. I like the term 'rubric rich" by the way!

  4. Fr Dickson, I agree with you regarding clericalisation and laicisation. But what can you expect when even a bishop, of my acquaintance, preached at, believe it or not,an ordination anniversary, for the priesthood of the laity against that of Ordained Priesthood. He foresaw and looked forward to a lay-based 'house church' set-up. In a parish in Clifton Diocese, which I was perforce to attend, the parish priest preached against the Magisterium and for greater lay participation. I will not bore you with his musing on the Eucharist to first communicants.

    No wonder people are confused, however did we oldies ever manage?

    1. Thanks for your comment. Such preaching as you relate seems to situate the preachers firmly in line with a hermeneutic of rupture. I think we have to accept that those who have been formed and promoted this for the last 50 years or so are finding it very hard to recognise that they have been misled by the spirit of the 1960's (the spirit of the world) and ake their return to continuity.


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