Wednesday, 18 March 2015
Forward Together In Hope: A Dream or a Nightmare?
In a previous post I noted that our Diocese is currently looking at ways to ensure we remain a vibrant, flourishing Church with fewer priests and fewer priestly vocations. We were invited to share our thoughts on the project (called ‘Forward Together In Hope’) which aims at achieving this flourishing state.
Now it is possible that at the end of the day we will rediscover how vital the presence of an ordained priest is in a community, since parishes deprived of the fullness of the sacramental life will surely hunger for them and encourage vocations. It is also possible that ownership of The Faith will swell in those who are only likely to live it out if they have practical responsibilities. These would constitute the ‘Dream’ outcome. But there is also the possibility of creating a ‘Nightmare’; an outcome wherein folk think a priest is not necessary but simply there to ‘deliver the bread’, like the old bread vans that toured the Newcastle streets when I was a kid back in the sixties. We could well be creating ‘Congregationalist communities’ rather than Catholic communities; congregations where priests are seen as servants who deliver goods to keep the parish family alive, rather than as Father and Head of the family who serves by teaching, sanctifying and governing (as the Catholic Faith proclaims they are called to do by the Lord). We must then, I think, proceed with caution. Here is the substance of the email I recently sent to the Project Director outlining my questions. I can’t imagine that these sincere Catholic men will have overlooked the concerns I raised in the email, but I believe it was important for me to voice them.
I wonder if you can clarify some things for me concerning Forward Together In Hope?
Firstly, while we know we must engage the laity in the running of the parishes (not simply to make up for the lack of priests but to enable them to gain a sense of ownership of the Faith), in what way is lay involvement going to differ in F.T.I.H? As it stands, all our parishes already have a Finance Committee and a Pastoral Council of some description (ours is called the Pastoral Action & Care Team to highlight the fact that it is not a governing body but one which is geared toward discerning pastoral needs, planning responses to those needs and implementing the responses which are approved by the priest). Similarly, all the parishes have Bookkeepers, Collection Counters, people who do the banking, Catechists, Extraordinary Ministers for the sick and housebound, Readers, etc.. I ask because I believe we must avoid promoting lay-led parishes as the answer, bearing in mind the teaching of the Church that “There can be no substitute whatsoever for the ministerial Priesthood. For if a Priest is lacking in the 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.” (Redemptionis Sacramentum, #146 2004, CDF/CDWDS). While we cannot function well without support from the folk, I am concerned that F.T.I.H proceed authentically.
Secondly, in that the ordained priest is essential to the authentic Catholic community, what is being done in F.T.I.H to promote vocations to the priesthood in F.T.I.H? Whatever roles are handed to the laity must not diminish the unique and essential role of the ordained priestly ministry. Vocations have tumbled since we opened up ministry to the laity, and we need again for the folk to recapture the reality that the ordained priesthood is vital to the Church; not just as ‘magic men’ who administer sacraments but as making present Christ the Head and shepherd of the flock; to remember that they are men who, in union with the bishops, exercise the service of teaching, sanctifying and governing communities of the lay faithful.
F.T.I.H must avoid presenting to the folk a picture of the Church as healthy when a community has no priest, that being the very state of affairs (sheep without shepherds) that Our Lord grieved over: “Seeing the people He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. "Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers to His harvest." (Mark 9v36-37). This is what the Church is pointing out when she says “The activity of a pastoral assistant should be directed to facilitating the ministry of Priests and Deacons, to ensuring that vocations to the Priesthood and Diaconate are awakened ... It must  never be the case that in parishes Priests alternate indiscriminately in shifts of pastoral service with Deacons or laypersons, thus confusing what is specific to each. ((Redemptionis Sacramentum, #150-152. 2004, CDF/CDWDS).
My own suggestion in the present situation would be first, a concerted effort to promote the priesthood by presentations in schools and parishes, so that the folk realise how vital priests are and how holy the work to which they are called. A strategy must be developed to actively promote vocations. Second, where necessary we could unite several communities of lay faithful without a resident Pastor into a ‘pastoral area’, with each pastoral area being served by a Priest as a kind of Head Coach/Manager, with the day to day running of a Parish being undertaken by a Lay Co-ordinator/Captain until such times as vocation drives are successful and the authenticity of the community as both Head and Members is re-established across the board.
I do not think it is for us in 2015 to abandon the model of Church given us in Scripture and Tradition (Revelation) with semantics about lay involvement. Indeed, the teaching of Vatican II is that their authentic call from the Lord is to be the leaven in the world as opposed to substitutes for shepherds: “In the Church there is a diversity of ministry but a oneness of mission. Christ conferred on the Apostles and their successors the duty of teaching, sanctifying, and ruling in His name and power. But the laity likewise share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world. Their activity [is] directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, their temporal activity openly bears witness to Christ and promotes the salvation of men. Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ.” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #2).
We were invited to share our thoughts; I hope you do not mind (and can appreciate) me doing so.