Thursday 12 September 2013

Lay-led Parishes: A ‘Final’ Solution ...?

After World War II there was, at least in the UK, an upsurge in priestly vocations, with the result that by the 1960’s we were dividing parishes and building Churches to accommodate the larger number of priests (one parish I know of was divided into four, with Churches no more than about five miles from their ‘mother-church’). Today we cannot fill those ‘new’ parishes with priests or people, yet we are constantly seeking ways of retaining them as ‘Eucharistic communities’ or ‘lay-led parishes’ (which includes those administered by Religious Sisters). While I for one could not go on without our admin help, our handy-men, our gardeners, our Housebound Visitation Team and our Catechists for Baptism, First Holy Communion, Confirmation and Marriage (such cooperation cannot be anything but highly valued) lay-led parishes are another matter. They are another matter because they do not constitute authentic Catholic communities: “...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).

The idea of ‘lay-led’ parishes is promoted as an empowerment of the laity. I cannot understand how those who speak of such parishes can do so; how they are unable to grasp that we cannot claim to be “empowering the laity” by focusing them away from the authentic mission they received from Christ Himself. Such an idea can only arise within those who experience the priesthood (either as priests or laity) as a position of power; a power they wish to share. If that is their idea of priesthood their picture is woefully distorted: the ordained priesthood is called by Christ to serve, and it does so by holding the responsibility to teach (munus docendi), sanctify (munus liturgicum) and govern (munus regendi) cf. CCC #1592; these are responsibilities for which we must give an account to the Lord. If priests of Presbyteral or Episcopal rank see them as ‘muscle power’ to dominate rather than sacred responsibilities of service to the Lord and His flock, I suggest there is something wrong with their picture of priesthood. Truly, we cannot and do not empower the laity by focusing them on ecclesial ministries; rather, we dis-empower their authentic vocation. And this is but one problem. There are other problems too:

·         Lay-led parishes undermine the authentic Apostolate of the laity:
Unless the lay faithful see their role in the world as vital and Christ-given, they will see only Church-centred tasks as having any real meaning or value. Interestingly, Vatican II spoke frequently about lay mission, but never once used the term ‘lay ministry’; rather, it was clear that the indispensible role of the laity was world-focused: “by reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will” (Lumen Gentium 31).  On Church-centred roles see Pope John-Paul II’s Christifidelis Laici 23: “...a person is not a minister by performing a task but through sacramental ordination...The [lay] task exercised in virtue of supply takes its legitimacy formally and immediately from official deputation given by the Pastors, as well as from its concrete exercise under the direction of ecclesiastical authority.” This notes that Church-based roles are delegated, and that the term ‘minister’ cannot authentically apply to laity, yet we still hear about ‘music ministry’, ‘catechetical ministry’ etc etc., in contradiction to these teachings.

·         Lay-led parishes can ‘empower’ the few at the expense of the many
Before the 1960’s the people were heavily engaged in the evangelisation work of the Legion of Mary; the Pastoral work of the SVP; the Liturgical work of the Choirs and Servers; the foundational work of cleaning the Church and doing our own repairs. There was a sense of ownership of their Faith and a service of Christ and souls that excluded no one. Today, our finance Committees are made up of those who run businesses or work in Finance; our Catechists and readers are teachers and other professionals. There is no place left for ‘the man in the street’.  Where we were once the Church of the common man we are now the Church of the consummate professional.

·         Lay-led parishes leave sheep to tend the sheep
Shepherds running around doing ‘magic moments’ are no longer shepherds in whom we find Christ the Head but mere functionaries; meanwhile, Mrs Smith buries Mr Brown whose wife she sits with in the Bingo on Tuesdays -and whom she now consoles as her ‘minister’.

·      Lay-led parishes can make priests appear little more than ‘magic men’
The cliché that “one does not need to be ordained to...” is a misdirection by which folk come to think that priests should do only that for which priests are essential, leading to a situation in which they do little more than run from place to place to provide the ‘magic moments’ of Mass, Confession and Anointing.

·         Lay-led parishes can discourage vocations to priesthood
Few young men will choose to be celibate when they can take charge of the parish and retain all the pleasurable intimacies of married life.

‘Lay-led’ parishes arise from the ideologies of the 1970’s when we first began focusing the laity on work in parish offices and sanctuaries instead of being the leaven in society. Perhaps -even probably?- as a result of this focus, men stopped applying to seminaries and women stopped applying to convents, taking up ‘lay ministry’ instead. Thus we began to close seminaries and convents by the score. In doing so we created the shortage of priests we now lament -and which we try to tackle by maximising a major cause of the problem in the first place. But there are other solutions.

One blogging priest calls one of these options ‘The Biological Solution’, and it is basically this: those still wedded to the ideologies of the 1970’s will soon be called to the next life, at which time younger men who have witnessed the devastation of the Faith among their families and friends will take over and pursue a more Catholic (and productive) line. This ‘Biological Solution’ could turn out to be a ‘Final Solution’ for the Church in the West unless Bishops and those with influence re-strategise. They could do worse than try another, triadic solution:

1.  provide solid, doctrine-based Catechesis in schools and parishes, abandoning the experiential, psycho-babble catechesis we have had for the last few decades

2.  promote and form the laity for their authentic apostolate as the leaven in society, with a renewed emphasis on the sacred and irreplaceable nature of both the ministerial priesthood and the lay apostolate

3.  re-orientate the liturgy toward the adoration, propitiation and supplication of God (cf. 2012 IG #2) rather than focusing on the affirmation of the community and the feel-good factor. This reorientation might be achieved by implementing the 1970 Missal in rightful conformity with Sacrosanctum Concilium, the General Instruction and liturgical tradition, along with a humble promotion of the Extraordinary Form so as to allow the ethos of the centuries to inform the celebration of the Novus Ordo –and better display in liturgical manner the Triumph of the Risen Christ. During the last fifty years we have suffered from a focus on feel-good liturgy, poor Catechetical materials and an underplaying of the lay and priestly vocations. At the same time, and perhaps as a consequence, we have only seen the Church weaken in proclamation of her Doctrine and diminish in numbers -souls are very probably then, being lost.

Along with the above I would –controversially perhaps- suggest a re-establishing of the parish boundaries in place before World War II. Not only might this encourage us to see the necessity of priests as Christ the Head and Shepherd in the parish and bring much-needed finance to cash-strapped Dioceses by the sale of under-used holdings, but it would ensure every Catholic Community was authentic; that it was a community of both Head and Members. No one wants to see parishes closed; we want to see them filled to overflowing, but some parishes can be closed because they are younger than their oldest parishioners; they are relatively new, added to which we cannot have authentic local communities without local shepherds.

The larger parishes that would result from re-establishing former boundaries would still require lay Catechists, Readers, Pastoral Care Teams, admin assistants etc., so the laity would not be passive. Rather, they and their priests would come to a renewed appreciation of the complimentarity of the ordained and lay states, with laity encouraged to make the Faith an influence on today’s society in politics, healthcare, education and the media etc so as to win the world to Christ –an influence more necessary than ever in this post-Christian age


  1. Hi Father,
    I live in the liturgical wasteland of Los Angeles and frequently read your blog. You are spot on with this post. These practices have truly minimized the role of the priest, and distorted the role of the laity. In addition, the laity now view it as their right rather than a privilege. I have never understood why it was thought that somehow the laity was excluded from anything. My grandmother belonged to the altar society, many women in our parish taught CCD, helped out at the parish school (we had sisters then), and parish councils raised money for the parish. The laity was very involved.

    I started school in 1965 and the sisters drilled it into us that only the priest could touch the Holy Eucharist because his hands were consecrated for that purpose. Then around 1970, they started to teach us differently. It was very confusing. I was a little kid and felt something was very wrong the first time I saw a lay lector. As time passed and female lectors came next, followed by female altar servers, I began to notice that there were more women than men in these positions I also think it is one of the reasons for lack of reverence and lack of belief in the Real Presence.

    This post reminded me of something very misguided that the great proponent of empowerment of the laity and lay-led parishes, Cardinal Mahony said in one of his pastoral letters: "What some refer to as a 'vocations crisis' is, rather, one of the many fruits of the Second Vatican Council. It is a sign of God's deep love for the Church, and an invitation to a more creative and effective ordering of gifts and energy in the Body of Christ." He was right on one count -- that it was the fruit of VII, but it wasn’t a good thing.
    Best regards,


    1. Thank you for your comment Suzanne, and for reading our little blog.

      You give a superb picture of proper lay involvement in your opening paragraph, and sum up precisely the erroneous attitude around in your final paragraph. Thank you!


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