George Ripon, in his delightful way, has been getting his knickers in a knot again about the sad state of the Church. Partly what got him fired up was a news item back in September last year where it was reported that Pope Benedict said that "when dioceses are faced with a lack of priests they should not resort to 'a more active and abundant participation of the laity' since it would detract from the lay calling" (See the original report on CathNews HERE.) In this "from the heart and from the pews" commentary, George puts forward some thoughts about how we ought to deal with the looming (and present) crisis in participation and the institutional slide into societal irrelevance. He presents a plan for re-juvenating the Church from the 'bottom-up'.
The time has come to consider the Parish of Tomorrow...
The time has come to consider the parish of tomorrow. It won't have a priest, not by choice, simply because the local bishop does not have one to send. So consideration of what to do should start at parish level, the grassroots of the church where God's people assemble. Instead of seeking guidance from Rome, "top down", we would start "bottom up" with the people in the pews. This will involve a major reversal of traditional thinking and practice, For centuries with plenty of vocations we had a comfortable existence with at least two priests in our metropolitan parishes, generally with the support of a resident housekeeper. In the last quarter of the twentieth century all that changed with a dramatic collapse in vocation numbers.
What's the parish of the future going to look like — mega-churches, built around the cathedrals of old that impressed the poor with their splendour, or small, more intimate communities?
Change, however, even driven by default will not be easy, especially for the older generation — those of us who grew up under the leadership of the clergy. It will be more difficult for Rome always highly suspicious of lay initiatives and desperate to shelter behind the status quo, oriented to the past. Here Rome will seek the support of the bishops. the majority of whom are safe conservative appointments of JPII and B16. So, we, the "People of God" will have our work cut out. All the more reason for the laity to persist in promoting and, yes, demanding reform. The challenge for the people is there, to be heard in Rome and for Rome to listen and respond. So, back to the grass-roots and our parishes.
As a resident of Melbourne I base my reflections on local conditions. As the largest Archdiocese in Australia we have 232 parishes with over 90% in the metropolitan area. Most of these were geographically established in small units at a time when many parishioners had to walk to Sunday Mass. Over the years the parish had become a vibrant community based on the local church. In view of this I have been concerned at the suggestion both here and oversees to establish mega-parishes combining six or more parishes with perhaps three or four priests in charge. Having one priest in control of two parishes is hard enough both for the priest and the parishioners. Any mega-parish proposal in the future should be dependent on a genuine survey of the parishioners involved. We have to get away from the concept that priests must always be in control. To suggest that parishes cannot survive without a priest is ludicrous and anyone tuned into Catholic media reports from the US would be horrified at the regular reports of bishops using the priest shortage as an excuse for closing parishes and selling off churches. We would not want that to happen here?
Reducing the burden on our remaining priests...
So for a solution, as indicated above, we should start at the parish level. In Melbourne we could re-establish the Catholic Research Office for Pastoral Planning (CROPP). As priest numbers diminished in the eighties, parishioners came forward offering assistance in the presbytery. CROPP established by Archbishop Frank Little worked on this concept and the role of Pastoral Associate was developed. It became clear that the laity had many gifts hitherto not recognised. In the absence of a priest, lay parishioners could be commissioned to baptise, to be marriage celebrants and to administer the Last Rites where confession was not possible. A daunting prospect, yes, but how long can we go on expecting our ageing priests to do more and more?
For the Sacraments the critical two are celebrating the Eucharist and Reconciliation (confession). For the Eucharist a return to lay celebration as in the early church is worth consideration. For reconciliation why not re-visit the Third Rite as joyfully "received" by the People of God and later suppressed by Rome? With a bit of lateral thinking re-organising the administration of sacraments could be simplified thus reducing the burden on our remaining priests.
However if Rome insists on the male celibate priesthood why not simplify the formation process? A three to four year course with emphasis on scripture, liturgy, human relationship (counseling) skills, spirituality and parish management training would suffice for the majority. Specialist courses in Theology, Philosophy and Canon Law would be available for suitable candidates. Dare I say it. Could celibacy become an option?
Back to our parish. Here I got out the Code of Canon Law for reference. Book 2 on the "People of God" struck me as a good source for an essay at another time. In Chapter 6 of Book 2 I found the two Canons which I see as relevant in the parish and these, 536 & 537 are as follows:
#1 If, after consulting the council of priests, the diocesan Bishop considers it opportune, a pastoral council is to be established in each parish. In this council, which is presided over by the parish priest, Christ's faithful together with those who by virtue of their office are engaged in pastoral care in the parish, give their help in fostering pastoral action.
#2 The pastoral council has only a consultative vote and is regulated by the norms laid down by the diocesan Bishop.
In each parish there is to be a finance committee to help the parish priest in the administration of the goods of the parish, without prejudice to canon 532*. It is ruled by the universal law and by the norms laid down by the diocesan Bishop, and it is comprised of members of the faithful selected according to these norms.
*Canon 532 refers to the Parish Priest's duty to protect church property a theme further dealt with at length in canons 1281 to 1288.
Despite the heavy emphasis on the role and authority of the bishop I see these (in the absence of a Parish Priest) as stating that in every parish there should be a Pastoral Council and a finance committee. So a parish controlled by a Pastoral Council under the watchful eye of a Finance Committee is in conformity with Church Law and, canonically (good word), I cannot see objections from the local bishop in the absence of a suitable priest to appoint. In fact under CROPP we had as an experiment a local parish with a lay parish manager. This concept was abandoned when Archbishop Frank Little resigned and was succeeded by Archbishop George Pell.
The role of the bishops...
Mention of (Arch)bishops leads me to a critical element in the reform process affecting parishes. That is the role of our bishops. More and more as they make the call to a priest "asking" him to accept control of a second parish, they must ask themselves if is there not a better way? How, on their parishioner funded ad limina visits to Rome, do they describe the local situation to their Roman masters? With their preferment entirely in the "gift" of Rome I suspect that very few would dare to speak up or rock the boat. I would be very happy to be corrected on this.
Just imagine people-elected bishops going to Rome demanding action on the shortage of priests...
Collegiality, with the bishops sharing with the Pope in the governance of our Church is another dead-letter. A further sign of the bogus Reform (of the Reform) setting aside Vatican II, the great inspiration of Pope John XXIII. We have also seen in recent times the English-speaking bishops brow-beaten and worn down into accepting the appalling new Mass translations. The subtle promotion of the Latin Mass and the wedge being driven between the priests and people must also give cause for concern. So our bishops have a challenge (even a duty) to come out and support the people, at the grass-roots level of our Church. Here I cannot but reflect how different it would be if our bishops were elected by the People of God in the pews. I can think of several who would never have got within a 'bull's roar' of the Episcopate had the people been allowed to speak. Just imagine people-elected bishops going to Rome demanding action on the shortage of priests, a fact obvious to all (except Rome) for the last quarter of a century.
So at parish level we must start with what we have at present. In many areas two parishes, with one priest dashing from A to B on a Sunday morning to say Mass. The popular Saturday PM Mass is only available in one and the last PM Mass in the other on the Sunday. And don't let me hear the trite comment, the old, the housebound and those without transport can get a lift. Do people realise how humbling it can be to have to ask for help? This makes me angry when the solution is so obvious. Rome must stop sitting on its hands with its head in the sand (poetic juxtaposition) and "Do Something". Glowing accounts of "Papal communion on the tongue kneeling"in news report on the internet would be hilarious if not so sad. It reminds me of the 'Dog in the Manger' syndrome, Rome insisting on weekly attendance at Mass and failing to provide the priests required. Fifteen minutes LISTENING at a local Deanery meeting would set them right. We wait in joyful hope, not holding our breath.
Parishes run by Pastoral Councils...
Our priestless parish would operate under a Constitution approved by the local bishop. More later on this, meanwhile let's have a look at our new parish led by a Pastoral Council. After initial planning a meeting of all parishioners would be convened. Personal invitations, letter-boxing and hand-outs after Mass would ensure that all those interested had the opportunity to attend and be heard. This meeting would establish the way in which the Council would operate. Representation of the Finance Committee would be compulsory. The following are for practical purposes essential, the parish school. the maintenance group, the local Deanery and the liturgy group. With suitable representation in these and other areas a total of say twelve should be elected by those present, then a chairperson and secretary would be appointed. Then, down to business and a great new challenge.
However much the term 'authority' has been misused in recent times, priestless parishes would need to operate under a constitution approved by the hierarchy. With no priest available, the parishioners would be entitled to apply for priestless status. Pending further reforms, no functions currently reserved for priests would be performed by lay people. For practical purposes the Pastoral Council, collectively would have responsibility for running the parish. Under the Constitution the Council would meet monthly, with an AGM for the election of officers. The AGM minutes would be submitted to the Diocesan authority specifically identifying the Chairperson, the Secretary, the Finance Committee representative and the Parish Manager, if this is a separate appointment. Parish buildings would, technically still be owned by the Diocesan Trust but could not be disposed of without the consent of the parish. Other matters could be determined by consent, the important thing being that the parish had full control of its destiny. For sacramental purposes the parish would have access to a group of priests available at the Deanery or regional level.
Getting the Bishops on-side...
Now to crunch time, under the present regime there is no way that Rome will accept independent parishes and the bishops will be instructed to respond accordingly. So, to get our bishops on-side and supporting the people in their demands we will need prayer, patience and persistence. So we have to consider a campaign with a slogan and an objective. So for a slogan:
People supporting moves for independent parishes
And the objective:
To encourage bishops to support the people
The essence of the campaign would be to invite bishops to attend meetings with parishioners and give clear responses to matters relevant to the problems arising from the Church's failure to provide the priests we need. No hiding behind Rome. A list of pertinent questions would be given beforehand to the bishop with, at the meeting, some questions from the floor, a bit like QandA on ABC TV. Proceedings would be summarised and the bishop would be asked to report to Rome seeking a response to be referred back to the people. In the absence of a response in a reasonable time a "Please explain" would be addressed to the Papal Nuncio (with a copy to Rome). The time has come for the people to be heard.
As I reflect on what I have written I realise (perhaps for the first time) how important the local parish is to the structure of the whole church. We have in Rome B16 supported by the big Vatican bureaucracy supported by the Rome appointed bishops world-wide. At the bottom of the heap we have the herd — working parish clergy and the people, a top-heavy structure if ever there was one. Without the local parish the church would have no identity apart from a shortage of funds to cover bishop's traveling expenses. So, we, the people deserve better from our leaders for our concerns to be heard with an appropriate response.
Summarising the needs of our future parishes I regard the following as relevant:
- In the absence of priests Rome must accept the need for change.
- Lift the 12th century ban on married clergy.
- Invite ex-priests to return even for part time sacramental services.
- Further develop the role of Pastoral Associates (CROPP) ??
- Simplify the priestly formation process.
- Formalise priestless parishes.
- Commission lay people to preside at the Eucharist.
- Rome and bishops to listen and respond to the laity.
We must not even to think about:
- Closing churches and parishes and selling assets on the US model.
- Setting up Mega (impersonal) parish units.
- Further stretching existing priest resources to cover up the failure to provide priests.
- Continuing to ignore calls, petitions and requests for action on the critical needs of our church.
If I appear critical of our bishops I am sorry but in many respects they only have themselves to blame, the English-speaking bishops accepted the emasculation of the scholarly ICEL in favour of the body responsible for the new Mass. Many lost respect by the failure to deal promptly with the child abuse problems caused by clergy. All power to appoint bishops was gradually conceded to Rome with the poor outcomes now becoming obvious. Any signs of the collegiality called for by the Second Vatican Council are well and truly dead in the water.
Reflecting on the role of our bishops I came across this from Isaiah 35 V 3:
Strengthen all weary hands
steady all trembling knees and
say to all faint hearts, Courage!
Do not be afraid!
So a plea to our bishops, hear the cry of the people on the matters raised above, critical within our church at this time. Let the faithful see that you are not just Branch Managers for Rome, a term now common on many reform websites. Paul VI signed his letters as follows:
Paul, Bishop, Servant of the Servants of God.
I did not find a similar signature for JPII in "Ut Unam Sint". A suggestion for our bishops:
William, Bishop, Servant of the People of God.
Like Job, I have probably said enough, if I appear too critical I am sorry but some things need to be said.
George Ripon 27/01/10
George Ripon, now well into retirement-has been a parishioner at South Eastern suburban parish in the Archdiocese of Melbourne for over 40 years. He has had a long involvement with both the local and State interchurch movements. Sadly, he writes, the local Interchurch Council is now in recess due to a lack of support from the various neighbouring churches. However when the going gets tough the song must continue. He argues we in the pews desperately need information, encouragement and direction from our bishops.
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