Sunday, 20 February 2011

Treasuring your priests: ideology, lay leadership and Broken Bay

This is a slightly edited version of a post I put up a few days ago.  I took it down to think about it, since I seem so frequently to be being critical and negative, and I wondered if I could possibly have misinterpeted it all.

But I'm putting it back up with an accompanying piece, the first of a series, since I do think this is an important, not to say critical, issue for the Australian Church to deal with.  And if there is another perspective on this situation, by all means tell us about it in the comments box or email me offline (my email can be found via the profile in the right hand column).

Lay leadership model in Broken Bay Diocese

A reader sent me a copy of an open letter from a disgruntled priest in Broken Bay Diocese, protesting at the bishop's decision to promote a model of lay leadership of parishes without even the pretense being made (as in other Australian dioceses) of a priest being nominally in charge.

I have not printed it here, because although it says it is an open letter, it is not quite clear to me just how open it is meant to be, or for that matter whether it should be.  But it does raise issues that deserve to be highlighted.

The ideology of lay leadership

Because it is little wonder that priests in that diocese are upset. 

The Bishop of Broken Bay, Bishop David Walker, states quite clearly in the supporting material on this new direction that the rationale for this move is not a shortage of priests: indeed, due to overseas recruitment, there are apparently currently enough priests for two to be assigned to each parish, at least in the short term. 

Rather, the motive is to provide "active and engaging leadership, which, in my  view, is not available currently."

The faith of our priests

Now in part the bishop's basis for this statement is that many of the overseas recruits are still learning English and becoming familiar with Australian culture.  Fair enough - although only too often the 'Australian culture' issue in relation to overseas priests seems to be code for getting them to unlearn the orthodoxy they came here with and absorb the secularist liberal mentality, rather than learning what is actually required to be effective in a parish in a society of migrants.

Still, the published material by the bishop does seem to support the claims by the priest in his letter to the effect that the real problem is that the bishop considers that many of his priests lack a "mature faith".

Now a "mature faith" is one of those sets of code words that means different things to different people. 

Over at aCatholica, it is regularly employed to justify dissent - as in 'when we were children, we were fed orthodoxy, but now that we can think for ourselves...'  But surely that can't be what the bishop means, can it?

The term does have an orthodox interpretation as well, however, as a blog piece by Monsignor Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington made clear in a blog post recently.  He argues that today many do suffer from arrested spiritual development, and suggests some criteria to test whether our faith is developing as it should.  The normal Christian life, he suggests, requires us to be constantly growing in our faith; to be increasing our understanding of doctrine; to exhibit mature behaviour; for our priorities to go from being worldly to spiritual.  And he puts up two criteria that I think are particularly important:

  • To be able to aptly distinguish false doctrine from true doctrine.
  • To show forth a stability of life and not be easily carried away by all the latest trends and ephemeral fads.
So are our priests 'mature Christians' and if not, how do we deal with it?

Now I'd have to say, based on publications such as The Swag, the dissenting rag put out by the Australian National Council of Priests, and the frequency of other dissenting rants in the media by Australian priests, I'd have to say that it is only too possible that, against Monsignor Pope's criteria, some Broken Bay priests do not have a "mature faith".

On the other hand, if that really is the issue, is the best solution to simply bypass them, and in the process undermine the importance and very nature of Holy Orders?  The priest's leadership role, his mandate to teach, sanctify and rule flows from the sacrament of holy orders; it cannot simply be replaced by a lay charism or skillset, however value that charism may be, however strong that skillset.  And attempting to do so, while disparaging one's priests publicly, can hardly be encouraging to anyone considering a vocation in the diocese. 

Or is the real problem something else?  If so, let's be clear about just what the perceived or real problem is.

Lay leadership of parishes is a fad...

On the face of it, this current trend being pursued by so many of our bishops in various ways looks to me to be nothing more than the latest fad, yet another rabbit hole that will do nothing to turnaround the Church in this country. 

A diversion from where they should be putting their real effort, namely restoring orthodox teaching and reverent worship, encouraging true discipleship among priests, and thus, promoting vocations. And on this, there is a very useful article on the way that irreverent, over-casual worship can subvert good catechesis reproduced over at the Pernicious Papist blog, well-worth a read.

Certainly, the supplanting of priests by lay leaders is a direction that the current Holy Father has repeatedly said is inappropriate and dangerous.  So one can only hope that the Pope will have some tough words to say on this subject to our bishops when they visit Rome later this year on their Ad Limina, and that this will have some effect. 
So, please pray for all priests affected by proposals to increase lay leadership in parishes, and for a rethink on this issue by our bishops.

And do read the series I'm starting on alternatives to the approach that increasingly seems to being taken by our bishops, and toss in your own suggestions and views.

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