Vince Exley lives in a beautiful but remoter part of this continent where the threat of not having enough priests to celebrate the Eucharist regularly is a very real prospect in the not-too-distant future. He argues passionately for an alternative to closing parishes or offering priestless "communion services"...
Our parish is threatened with the loss of the Sunday Eucharist…
I have an overwhelming love of "Sunday Eucharist" (see vinexley.tripod.com/Eucharist.htm), so I am actually being very self-centred in my searching for a future for my Church and my Diocese. Our local church is in very great danger of losing "Sunday Eucharist," and my yearning drives me to seek a solution to our dire situation.
I am not an intellectual person but I read an awful lot, and in this article I will be using three books I have read recently to try and find an answer to our local dilemma. I am not in anyway seeking to reform the whole Catholic Church, but simply trying to maintain a local Sunday Eucharist I can attend..
Our diocese, spreading from Ingham in the North, Proserpine in the South and the Northern Territory border in the West, covering an area of 434,400 square kilometres has not submitted a candidate to a seminary in over 20 years. Many parishes have been closed down or amalgamated. We rely heavily on imported and missionary priests. ABS statistics would infer that there are over 4,500 baptised Catholics within our parish boundary yet only about 200 attend weekend services. At a recent mission only between 30 and 40 were in attendance.
The search for genuine spirituality has three elements…
William J. Bausch in his book "The Parish of the Next Millennium" points out that the religious journey and the religious dimension — the search for genuine spirituality, if you will — have three elements.
First, there is the institutional dimension of spirituality wherein our quest for the sacred is formalised, structured, made concrete, rendered visible. This is called "religion," that is, the organised part of the quest. That is when you think of it, the arena of sacred texts, founding narratives, tradition, ongoing stories, rituals, rites, and the patterns of authority that preserve them and mediate and facilitate our communion with the sacred.
The second expression is the intellectual dimension of spirituality, the formulation of cogent systems of thought, development, and reflection. This includes how to communicate the sacred to others and — this is important — how to critique ourselves when we are untrue to it.
The third element is the mystical dimension of spirituality, the actual experience of the sacred.
So, true spirituality results in the balance of three essential elements:
All three are necessary and all three must be kept in balance.
Bausch noted that there will always be tension among the three offices. Indeed, lack of tension is an indication of sickness. Why? Well, that would mean that one had suppressed the others. Which is exactly what has happened and is happening.
Today we publicly or privately disdain or dismiss a neanderthal, corrupt "institutional" church, not only because of its past or present sins, but because, after all, it is an institution, and no one trusts any institution, and — what really counts, after all — is "spirituality". As we have seen, however, this attitude leaves us nowhere to go except to private experience; hence the enormous popularity of the New Age and individualism. But we've gone a step further; not trusting authority, we have also subverted the prophetic or critical intellectual function, the resultant bottom line being that what is true is what is true for me. But, as we have noted all three must be kept in harmony, must interact for a balanced spirituality.
The institution must be attentive to the intellectual and mystical elements. When it isn't, it can become authoritarian, self-serving, out of touch, insensitive to the mystical and intellectual elements — in a word bureaucratic. And thus we have the dissent we have today. By the same token, the intellectual and the mystical must be attentive to the institutional because that's where the texts, traditions, stories and communities are. When that doesn't happen you get individualism, eccentricity, the validity of personal experience only. Spirituality has just as much to do with participation in relationships with others in community and in wider social spheres.
The search for the sacred is not something done alone. Our sense of the sacred is mediated through the texts, traditions, communal arrangements which embody our sense of meaning, purpose, value. Institutions and tradition enshrine the highest values we perceive and make it possible to pursue them with others.
So the first and perhaps the greatest hurdle our local Church has to overcome, if it is to survive, is the clerical culture of the institutional church.
The enormity of this hurdle is highlighted in the next book I want to refer to: "Clericalism – The Death of Priesthood" by George B. Wilson, SJ
Wilson's book looks at the Church and priesthood with x-ray vision and views the deadening effects of clericalism that makes priests into princes.
A common mantra concerning the scandal of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests pinpoints "the clerical culture" as the root cause of what went terribly wrong.
Bishop after bishop throughout the world moved abusing priests from one assignment to another. Each story manifested its own particular combination of ignorance, naivety, and less‑than-admirable motivations such as fear and self‑interest. But when the same kind of behaviours show up in so many individuals in so many different settings within the same organization, we naturally look for common causative factors. According to the prevailing assessment, the reality that links this tragic story together is a shared bundle of elements, which add up to a "clerical culture".
This culture has developed in the Institutional church over centuries. As members of the Church, Wilson maintains, we all share responsibility for creating and maintaining a clerical culture and thus also for what is required to transform, or reform, that culture.
You really cannot blame the bishops for their role in the sexual abuse crisis! Many of them went to junior seminaries at as young an age as 12 and were immersed in this age old culture of clericalism. It was and is actually impossible for them to think or react in any other way. Moreover, we "laity" have supported this clericalism by putting our priests on pedestals.
All called to a life of "radical holiness"…
By virtue of our baptism we are all members of the priesthood and called to a life of "radical holiness". Any form of language which implies or suggests a higher form of holiness to be imputed to the ordained (with its implied corollary of a lower set of expectations for the laity) must be strenuously resisted as counter to the teaching of the Church.
If clerical culture is to change Wilson tells us that each one of US has to change. We are responsible for our cultures, they give us roots and identity. To bring about change requires letting go of the present security arising from a clear plot, distinct roles, and acceptable lines, for a set of future cultural forms whose disconcerting effect on our lives cannot be fully anticipated. For the individual who risks acting out a different paradigm, the cost in terms of rejection by the players who want to continue with the reassuring story may be high. And that letting go will only have the desired effect when the accumulation of tiny individual counter cultural actions is sufficient to be a catalytic mass — a "tipping point" that can prevail over the comfort of the status quo".
Does Australian Catholicism have a future?
I next want to turn to Paul Collins' “Believers — Does Australian Catholicism have a future?" who offers a more optimistic outlook. I quote some of the final words of his excellent book:
"Finally, I want to pick up something I said in the Introduction: Catholicism has remarkable staying power, an ability to survive unmatched by any contemporary institution. If you've been around for just on 2000 years you will have learned a few tricks. There is, of course, a theological explanation for this: that Christ predicted that through his Holy Spirit he would be with the church 'always to the end of the age' (Matthew 28:20). This doesn't mean that the church will be perfect or that parts of it won't wither and die, or that it won't make mistakes. Essentially it means that the Holy Spirit would sustain the church through all the vicissitudes of history in the sense that ultimately the church would not betray Christ or lose the sense of his message completely. It is a case of the Spirit of God assisting the church to make sense eventually out of its own human confusion. Australian Catholics need to keep these theological principles in mind because there is a danger that the magnitude of the task facing the church might engender a sense of pessimism and hopelessness. Catholicism has survived precisely because ultimately it is adaptable and able to change. Often this energy for change comes late in the piece when everything seems to be in dire straits and it may well emerge from the most unexpected source. As Saint Paul says 'God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world ... to reduce to nothing things that are' (1 Corinthians 1:27‑28). The other thing in our favour is that the Australian church is just the right size. Not too small so that it becomes incestuous or destroys itself in in‑fighting, not too large so that it becomes impossible to change."
Personally, I am optimistic that Catholicism in Australia will survive, certainly with lesser numbers, but with more commitment and ministerial energy. But to achieve that Catholics will require genuine local leadership and a willingness to confront both the difficulties and opportunities that the church faces. My feeling is that we are uniquely placed in Australia to be able to do precisely that."
A proposal for Sunday Eucharist for places in danger of losing the Sacrament…
With Paul Collins' encouraging words behind me I now want to propose a way of doing Sunday Eucharist in our local Church that I believe would work. My proposal has to take into consideration the constraints described in the books outlined above.
My basic plan is to commission local men, (we have 2 church buildings 30kms apart in the parish) to preside at Sunday Eucharist.
The whole process would be carried out over a period of time so as to gradually introduce the new system to the less adventurous members of the community (and they are the majority).
All of the above innovations are in my opinion far better than closing down the parish, or using a service without a priest to replace the Eucharist.
This process could have well saved the many people who were driven out of the church by closing down or combining parishes in the past. All that is needed is to overcome a culture of clericalism and return to the grass roots of the church.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?