Monday 13 February 2017

Re-visiting Forward Together in Hope -or into lamentation

I have been looking at the document for moving ‘Forward Together In Hope’, mentioned in a previous blog post. The Diocesan Document is available here. I have chosen to comment upon the following, which are bullet-points taken directly from the document which says:

“Our new partnerships will offer opportunities to ensure that:

 · A range of formation programmes can be developed, at a more local level, to help communities provide pastoral care for many groups of people, catechesis, marriage preparation and worship.
This seems admirable. I have always felt that deaneries could have worked more closely; one perhaps one providing Marriage Preparation; another providing First Communion Preparation or Reader/ Extra-ordinary  Ministers Formation etc. It has always been problematic when preparation or formation courses are held in a location central to the Diocese as travel for many people made it impossible to attend. We might also have better input at a local level and not be formed like sausages to suit a particular person’s vision.

· Support can be made available for smaller communities.
Yes: more priests taking it in turn to celebrate Mass for them; hear their Confessions, anoint their sick. But having their own named priest remains essential if we are not to fall into having communities which are decapitated Christs (bodies without a head). Each parish should have its own named priest to teach, sanctify and govern; to oversee the parish as its local shepherd.

· The gifts, talents and financial resources in a wider area can be put at the service of more people.
Yes, but care needs to be taken. If this means a central fund for partnership areas, how will parishes like one I served which is very small but very generous (and therefore not short of money) feel about their funds being used to help out a larger parish who has not had land to sell or does not have a good weekly offering? We might like to say charity will overcome but in reality, that is not how people broken by original sin with the wound of concupiscence tend to function. It is naïve to think people are not concerned to spend their own money on their own parish.

· Responsibility for a range of services such as finance, health and safety, administration and communication can be coordinated across a wider area.
I’m not sure how this one will work; it uses high-sounding words but there is no explanation as to how this is expected to work out.

· Priests can be freed to concentrate on their essential calling to preach, call the community to worship and the celebration of the sacraments.
This one is very problematic: it removes from priests their role as shepherds and makes them sacrament machines. It is contrary to scripture in which the Apostles took care to ensure they left a presbyterate and overseer for each area. Such shepherding is not peripheral to the call of the priest but is part of his essential calling: Our Lord lamented communities where there were no shepherds; they are therefore of His Divine Will for each community.

· A thorough and careful review of property and its uses can be carried out throughout the area.
One might hope that this means selling off unused land and closing unused buildings. It will hurt, but did the Bishop not tell us to expect pain as the result of this programme? Why avoid it now? Larger parishes can at least have their own pastor.

· Opportunities can be found for people to come together across the area to celebrate and worship together.
We have been doing this anyway: have we not for years had shared Penitential Services, shared Carol Services, Deanery-wide advertised pilgrimages etc?  

· Leadership teams including priests, deacons and people can develop to help everyone deepen their understanding of what it means to be a witness to Jesus in our world today.”
This does not reflect the Tradition of the Church: the leadership role is within the shepherding role; responsibility for certain tasks may be taken on by lay members of the community, but leadership of the flock lies with the shepherds, not the sheep. We have not given the laity their education and formation to be salt of the earth –their authentic vocation is, said Vatican II, “the evangelization and sanctification of men and the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel” Decree on the Apostolate of the laity, #2).

In truth, we seem to have spent three years to no real purpose, other than giving the people the experience of feeling they were being consulted. It was of no real purpose because it brought about nothing new, only the extending of an already-existing model of cross-boundary working: we first went from Deaneries to the ‘twinning of parishes’; then to tripartite parishes as ‘pastoral areas’; we have now spent three years to do no more than extend ‘pastoral areas’ to ‘Partnership’ areas. I doubt three years was needed to merely extend a model that has been going on for some time now.

All of this however, fails to note the elephant in the room; the failure to promote the priesthood as a singular and sacred way of serving God. Let’s be honest: without diminishing marriage which is at the core of the Church and society, marriage is of the natural created order of things; it was “that way from the beginning”. Men are called out of that natural order to serve the community, which is why the word vocation was customarily applied only to priesthood and religious life. 

In his Introduction to the Booklet the Bishop says, “I hope that our whole diocesan family will continue to pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us into the future with confidence, a deep sense of mission and a willingness to witness to the coming of the Kingdom of God.” I too hope the Holy Ghost will inspire and lead the Diocese. I am not sure about the word ‘continue’ as I think by the direction e have been taking in the West for some years now courts the danger of making priests into nothing more that sacrament machines who renege on their calling to ‘teach, sanctify and govern’. If we leave the hsheep to tend the sheep it will no longer be individual sheep that wander off but whole flocks –for want of a shepherd who calls and directs their way.

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Decentralisation or Degeneration into Protestantism?

Apparently this poster is popping up all over Rome, something that has not happened since the end of the Papal States. That superb blog Rorate Caeli translates the poster for us as:
Ah Francis, you have intervened in Congregations, removed priests, decapitated the Order of Malta and the Franciscans of the Immaculate, ignored Cardinals... but where is your mercy?

It is sad that a Pope is so publicly rebuked by the people he is called to shepherd, and just as sad that the people feel the need to make such a criticism so publicly. Ever since the election of Francis I have been defending him by saying I’m sure he has a good heart (a genuine desire to lift burdens from folk) and has not attempted to formally pervert the Doctrine of the Church (and as such is not a heretic). I still maintain these to be true. Francis does demonstrate a heart for the lifting of burdens from folk, and has not tried to formally impose any new doctrine on the faithful. That said, we cannot deny that there are things about this papacy that are disturbing faithful Catholics at their very core. For example, criticism of francs has been ubiquitous regarding:

his treatment of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate
his constant derision of Traditional Catholics in words that display no respect for, or charity towards, such Catholics who he labels ‘Pharisees’ and ‘Doctors of the Law’, and suggesting they are either hypocrites or have psychological problems
his off-the-cuff remarks that do are seen as contradicting orthopraxy and sound doctrine (such as the oft-quoted line ‘who am I to judge?’)
his footnotes in Amoris Laetitia which many see as leaving the sacraments open to sacrilege
his interference in the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM)
his extolling of Martin Luther, who tore apart the Mystical Body of Christ at the Reformation.

All of these come together to form a rather negative picture, so that Francis cannot complain about posters like the above or if he is described as judgmental (by Traditional Catholics), tyrannical (in light of his treatment of the Franciscans and the SMOM) or arrogant (in his re-writing of marriage in the Amoris latitia footnote). One person recently said to me in a slightly heated discussion, “It’s as they say Father, ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ -Francis thinks being Pope gives him the right to dismiss Revelation.” I did remind my interlocutor that Francis has not imposed any new doctrine and seems to me to be a man of good intentions, but my confrere was not convinced.

While I think we can say still say that Francis is not officially declaring things contrary to the Doctrine of the Church and that his care for the marginalised is obvious (unless we are speaking of Traditional Catholics), we cannot deny that he is allowing others to publicly state things contrary to our Doctrine without correct them. The most recent example of this is the assertion by Rev Antonio Spadaro S.J., editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica and confidante of Pope Francis (See Lifesite News) that “Theology is not Mathematics. 2 + 2 in Theology can make 5. Because it has to do with the real life of people.”

That statement advances relativism and subjectivism. True, theology is not mathematics -but that does not make our doctrine uncertain. Theology is the way we arrive at and explain a long-held belief, and doctrine cannot be discarded unless we say the Church has no real hold on Truth; that the Spirit of Truth has not been given and has not led the Church into Truth in accord with John16v13 -and if that is true, why should we accept the opinion of Spadaro or even the teaching of Francis -who may be allowing others to cut off the branch on which he is sitting: he cannot give us another teaching on marriage without it being as disposable as the immemorial teaching he is allowing to be swept aside by some epsicopal conferences).

Another of Francis’s questionable ideas is devolution of authority from Rome to episcopal conferences. As EdwardPentin noted in the NCR 2015:

…Francis quoted what he had previously written in his 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: “It is not appropriate for the Pope to replace the local episcopates in the discernment of all the problems that lie ahead in their territories,” and, “in this sense, I feel the need to proceed in a healthy ‘decentralization.’”

To support the idea of decentralisation, some may point to the days of the early Church where they assume local Churches had more autonomy from Rome, but as St. Iranaeus said,

“the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul...With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic Tradition" (St Iranaeus, ‘Against The Heresies’).

Sadly, we now hearing of the desire to have control of the liturgy devolved to episcopal conferences, with a return to paraphrases of the official Latin Missal rather than translations as required by Poe St John-Paul’s Liturgiam Authenticam (see here). If Francis pursues the idea of devolution we cannot do other than arrive at a federation of churches with their own doctrine and their own worship –and the Universal Church will have disappeared. In effect, Francis would be duplicating the divided Anglican Communion, thus demonstrating himself to be Protestant at heart, or at least a very poor theologian. The author Aldo Maria Valli makes his own contribution (see Lifesite News, here):

‘…in the beginning, I was very happy with the election of Francis because I thought that for the Church in Europe and the West it would be helpful to see reality from a different point of view than usual. I thought that the South American Pope could give freshness and a youthful spirit to the Church as the Church in the West seemed to have grown tired. Step by step, I had to realize, though, that in Francis there exist a kind of inconclusiveness, too much doctrinal confusion, and a certain flattening of himself to the dominant mentality of the world, as we see in Laudato sì. My perplexity exploded after Amoris Laetitia.’

You may remember I was confronted by someone recently who said that Francis was deliberately trying to destroy the Church and is stocking the College of Cardinals with men of his own mindset so as to perpetuate that destruction. I denied this was the case and pointed out that ultimately, the Holy Spirit is in charge of the Church, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend Francis. I told a friend the other day that I am praying for Francis to be so moved by grace he will come to a renewed valuing of Objective Truth and see the unity of the Church as requiring a central authority and a stable liturgy. My friend replied simply, “I’m just praying for his conversion to Catholicism”. I offered ‘No Comment’ in reply. 

One cannot be happy with the state of the Church today, but there is something good that attends the doctrinal and disciplinary chaos surrounding Marriage and the Eucharist we currently see: it encourages those who do not truly have The Faith nor a real love for The Church to come out of the woodwork under the guise of loyalty to the Papacy, with the result that when Francis is taken from us by God we will know who is Catholic and can be trusted in the episcopate, presbyterate and pew: we will know who upholds the Truth and is therefore of God, and who does not uphold the Truth and is not of God -for where there is no Truth, there is no God: “I am The Way, The Truth and The Life” (Jn.14v6).

Saturday 4 February 2017

Forward Together in Hope -or into lamentation?

It is a while since I put a post on the blog, so I hope I still have some readers out there!

We all know there is a dwindling number of priests, which is a problem that needs to be addressed. But the answer is not the currently-favoured Western idea of ‘lay-led communities’, since sheep without shepherds caused Our Lord to lament (Matt.9v6). Do we want to intentionally create the kind of communities over which our Lord laments? Indeed, communities without a priest are local incarnations of a decapitated Christ: not simply sheep without shepherds, but bodies without a head. In short, the Body of Christ loses its integrity as local incarnations of the Risen Lord. In our Diocese we have sought to address the dwindling number of priests by our ‘Forward Together in Hope’ programme, which is now reaching its final phase. It seemed to me to hold out great hope of encouraging the laity to be more active and take on more roles under the oversight of their shepherds.

Such activity of the laity has always been part of my ministry. In two of my previous parishes I established teams of lay-minister Chaplaincies for the local general hospitals. In my last parish we encouraged an increase in the number of folk who had roles and responsibilities within the parish so as to provide a sense of belonging and ‘ownership’. Some felt all they could do was run coffee mornings or a cake stall; others were happy to ensure the Church was clean and well-cared for as a fitting place for worship; others consistently cared for the parish garden, while others took on roles as Catechists, Children’s Liturgy leaders or Piety Stall management. Others took on the responsibility of being Parish Visitors to the sick, housebound and bereaved via the Legion of Mary; others formed a small rota of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, Readers, and Servers for the liturgy, while others took on the roles of Bookkeeper, Financial Returns Officer, Tax Benefit claims (Gift-Aid) Administration, and Vulnerable Persons Representative. In short, there was room for everyone who wanted to some ownership in the parish. In fact, 25% of our Mass attendance took on some –even if small- active part in the care and running of the parish. A few were unhappy (such are present in every parish) in their distaste for the following of liturgical norms wherein we used some Latin for the Novus Ordo Ordinary (as per Sacrosanctum Concilium 36, 54, 116); did not encourage the sign of peace (it was explicitly never forbidden but I omitted the optional invitation) and perhaps because on the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum I introduced the Traditional Mass with vernacular readings and vernacular hymns (so that each Sunday Mass encompassed and catered both for those who like the vernacular and those who like Latin).

Should ‘Forward Together’ emphasise such roles as those above under the oversight of the priest; if we promote the priesthood in line with Our Lord’s desire to have shepherds for the sheep, ‘Forward Together’ can be a real work of grace. As it is, it might turn out to be very problematic -it might have deteriorated into a programme with the inherent danger of establishing of lay-led parishes with priests little less than visiting, wandering Sacrament-providers; a programme promoting local manifestations of a decapitated Christ: bodies without a head; sheep without shepherds. In that case, and since from the inception of the programme the stated aim was ‘to encourage Catholic communities to flourish with or without a resident priest’, it would not surprise me to hear the programme described as social engineering, with a pre-determined outcome being sought: lay-led parishes.By the time this programme is fully enacted, our Bishop will have retired back to his native land -a wise decision, since retiring into the Diocese where one has been the Ordinary will always give the impression that one cannot let go of control and hopes to influence one's successor 'by advice and knowledge'. I therefore applaud the Bishops decision to return home.

I have heard the establishing of lay-led parishes described as a ‘movement of the Holy Spirit’. I beg to differ: not only does deciding upon a goal and then seeking out ways to establish it attempt to force the hand of the Holy Ghost, but it puts Him at loggerheads with Christ who lamented sheep without shepherds, for the response of Christ to such a situation as we have today was very different; it was ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into His harvest.’ What we need is not a giving-in to the falling numbers of clergy but a genuine push to encourage vocations to the priesthood; a programme to seek out labourers for the Lord’s harvest by providing sound doctrine in schools and parishes; liturgy that raises the mind and heart to God (rather than today’s style which holds it earthbound as a celebration of the people). We need to see the promotion of the priest as a man with a sacramental configuration and intimate relationship with Christ. We talk about the clergy as servants, and that is without doubt true. But we cannot ignore the fact that the service provided by the priest is one of being a co-worker with and under the Bishop in teaching, sanctifying and governing (CCC §1563). If we are not promoting the seeking of shepherds for the sheep as our Lord requested, we cannot claim to be biblical in our theology and this (we were told in seminary) was at the core of the Vatican II renewal. 

Perhaps all we need to do when priest numbers dwindle is amalgamate bordering parishes into one parish under one Pastor, with one Church being the Parish Church and the others Mass –centres. If this is financially impractical, sell the other Churches –many of which are products of the 1950’s and 60’s following an post-war increase of vocations. It is not easy to do, but it can be done. I had a second Church closed on me in my last parish and I took the flack, not the Bishop and his advisors, even though there was a long consultation before the closure; even though the Bishop said the Closing Mass, and even though all that could be installed in the remaining Parish Church was so installed, from Stations of the Cross and parish statues to vestments, chalices and altar Crucifix. The excuse that these are worshipping communities to be valued and fostered holds no water, since they become the sheep without shepherds which caused Our Lord to lament; they become incarnations of a decapitated Christ. The emotional pain of losing one’s Church can be tempered with good explanation and good pastoral care -such as increased visiting in the closed areas and transfer of transferable items such as those listed above. Are we willing to take that risk?