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?