Thursday, 3 March 2011

Addressing the priest shortage, Part V: Rethinking the mindset

In the last part of this series of thinkpieces I suggested that if you want more priests, you have to send the right signals about priestly identity, and suggested some concrete measures that would help do that.

Reform of the reform

There is of course nothing original about my list, it is plucked from the standard 'reform of the reform' agenda that is being promoted by the current Pope - things like encouraging Adoration, use of clerical garb, reception on the tongue, ad orientem celebration, altar boys not girls, encouraging EF masses in parishes, and so forth.  They are all things that nicely complement the new translation of the Missal, and could be considered as the phase-in of the new text progresses.

These concrete steps are extremely important in shaping hearts and minds, and no easy thing to introduce.  They are necessary.

Still, in my view they will only take us so far.

By far the bigger the bigger task is getting genuine engagement on a diocese by diocese, parish by parish level on the Church's mission to convert the world.

Rethinking the mindset

I said in an earlier part of this series that a critical step was to agree on what we are trying to do, develop some hard measures of where we are and where we need to be, be transparent about those measures, and engage all members of the Catholic community on how to get there.

I want to come back to that point now, because the measures I suggested in the last part are only a small part of the kind of changes that really need to be made.

And here the challenge I think is to question some of the fundamental assumptions Catholics tend to hold about how we go about Church life.

Catholics don't evangelize!

Take for example the idea of door knocking.

I read on another blog a discussion of how to handle those ubiquitous Jehovah's Witnesses, coupled with a comment to the effect that catholics don't do that, they evangelize by example.

Well actually I don't agree.

Of course we should we conscious of setting an example, and of course it can create evangelizing moments.

But the reality is, most of the time people will not connect up your behaviour with your faith, no matter how explicitly you make the point.  And even if they do, genuinely Christian behaviour is often so counter-cultural that it will not necessarily persuade!

In most workplaces today for example Generation Y demands constant affirmation, individualistic reward, and worships the cult of niceness.  Try articulating concepts of duty, honesty, striving to do the best job possible, and concern for others and see how just far you (don't) get...!

Immersion vs dialectical engagement

The problem is that ideas that were once self-evident, and shared between Christians and others, are no longer so.  And in that environment, what works best is not example and immersion, but dialectical engagement.

So I think that when it comes to non-Catholics - and lapsed catholics, not to mention quasi-Catholics - we do in fact have to do things like door knocking, as in fact groups like the Legion of Mary have long done. 

We need to run charity efforts with an explicit objective of engaging potential converts spiritually as well as addressing their other needs. 

We need to run programs that engage people intellectually.

Once upon a time one could probably assume that if someone married in the Church, they would have their children baptised, send them to a catholic school, they would be confirmed, and they would continue attending mass regularly.  Today that's just not a set of assumptions that aligns with reality, so we need to develop new processes aimed at ensuring some of these things happen.

In fact, I think we need to re-examine a lot of our assumptions about what makes good, strong Catholic  communities, and how to pass on and spread the faith.

When the faith isn't being transmitted....

Once upon a time, there were two essentially two groups one had to consider when it came to the Church's mission - those within the Church, who learnt the faith by immersion at home and at school, and those outside the Church, who came into contact with it.  The strength of the first group attracted the second, bringing a constant stream of converts that in most countries easily outweighed the losses.

The problem today is that young adults of the age to be considering a priestly or religious vocation and their parents - not to mention those with younger children - are likely to have at best only a superficial grasp of the content of their faith.  Only a small proportion are likely to be attending mass regularly.  They know little of Scripture; few of the standard prayers.

I'm not just talking about cafeteria catholics here, the semi-lapsed, and others only weakly associated with the Church here.  What I'm saying applies to many who attend EF masses as well, but whose faith simply isn't developing as it should.

Because if our parish or community isn't growing strongly, there is something wrong with it in my view (because hey, if your mass is 'the most beautiful thing this side of heaven', why aren't thousands flocking to it?). 

If your community isn't regularly generating vocations to the priesthood and religious life, there is something wrong with it, because it means your young people are not testing themselves out to see what God wants of them. 

If the members of your community seem more entrenched in bitterness, frustration and depression rather than holiness then there is something wrong with it.

Because the Church's mission is to convert the nations.  The Church's mission is to get people to heaven.

But it can't do that if there are no labourers in the vineyard. 

So we need to throw out those tired old lines such as that 'Catholics don't evangelize', 'Catholics don't read Scripture', and 'Catholics don't talk to each other after Mass'. Because in the current environment, they should!

So what are some of the things that need to be done?

In the end, you need to start from your objectives, key indicators, and work out strategies adapted to your diocese or parish to achieve them.  I'm just going to pick out a few by way of example; but a holistic approach is needed.

1.  Make Mass attendance a priority

Why don't catholics come to Mass for example?  The research has been done, at least for Australia.

But if there has been a coherent strategy put in place to address the research, it is certainly not obvious!

a) Take for example the finding that some people leave because of the Church's 'hard sayings' on matters such as women priests and gay 'marriage'.  We can't change the doctrines.  But based on some of the comments in the media, it is evident that even many priests aren't actually familiar with the theological reasoning behind the key doctrines many modern catholics struggle with.  And if they can't explain it, how can we be sure that those who are leaving allegedly because of these doctrines even know what the Church's position really is and what the basis for it is?  So shouldn't we be making a serious catechetical effort to ensure that priests and people alike actually understand the arguments before they make up their minds, and also going after the lost sheep (priests and people alike)?

b) If part of the problem is the host of competing activities scheduled for children on the weekend, perhaps we should be asking Catholic schools to look at rescheduling some of these activities, and working with the broader community to make sure that sports competitions, for example, do not happen on Sundays?

c) And if part of the problem is lack of a sense of a friendly community, and if, as research suggests, whether or not the priest comes out the sacristy and actually engages with his people is the prime indicator for this, how hard can this be to fix?

d) The biggest issue in relation to mass attendance is of course is the liturgy and sermons.  Hmm.

2.  Reassert the need for confession, and actually make it possible

This might seem kind of obvious, but if you want to get people to attend mass regularly and not just make things worse through sacrilegious reception of the sacrament, you need to make it clear that not going to Mass without good reason is actually a serious sin and confession is necessary. 

If you want to make it clear why we need priests, you need to highlight one of their most important functions, namely absolving sins.

In fact you need to make it clear that sin in general is a real issue!  So you need a serious campaign to this effect, including some sermons (and more).  It might also help if every parish actually scheduled serious confession times, and not just half an hour on a Saturday arvo...

3.  The need for religious

In a series I published last year (which I plan on coming back to soon), I argued that the 'New Evangelization' and catholic life generally needed vigorous, traditionally oriented religious orders to make it work.  Some bishops know this, and are doing something about it - in Perth Archbishop Hickey has actively helped new groups get started; in Sydney, Cardinal Pell has recruited the Nashville Dominican sisters.  Others need to do likewise.

4.  Set up your own diocesan seminary

Establishing a diocesan seminary is not easy and requires a big ongoing investment of resources.  And setting one up has implications for existing seminaries.  But there is a fair amount of evidence that having your own makes quite a bit of difference, both quantitative and qualitative.

Maybe there are ways of doing it progressively, like starting by just running a first and/or last year program, designed to be compatible with the program of wherever your priests are currently trained at first?

5.  Tackle the Catholic education system

Schools are important.  If they aren't doing their job in terms of transmitting the faith (and they aren't) then we need to either scrap them as a useless diversion of resources, or change them so that they are.

How to deal with the priest shortage

So let me recap my proposals  so far.  The first step, I suggested is to accept that drastic, not incremental, change in the way we do things is needed.  The second is to build the case for change - put together the real picture of where we are compared to be where we want to be, and build support for the mission of the Church entrusted to it by Our Lord. The third stage is to put in place the concrete measures that help change thinking and move everyone in the right direction.

And the fourth step is to keep coming back to that big picture, that vision of where we want or need to be as a Church.  To discard ways of thinking that no longer serve us well in the current environment, and focus on devising the strategies that will work in the current environment. 

Once you have all that going, the fifth step is to keep coming back to that big picture, keep coming back to those measures of success, make sure you are on track - and change tack where necessary.

Of course, all of this requires real leadership....so pray for good bishops and pray for your bishop!

1 comment:

Son of Mary said...

I've just come back from Mexico where I was a seminarian for two years.
I was part of an international relgious community and we actually did have a door-knocking apostolate twice a week, praying the rosary with families and neighbours etc. We did have quite a bit of success, with a number of people, once educated (the faith is more culturally-assumed than taught), would take an interest in the sacraments, especially in regards to marriage.
I am now discerning a call to the diocesan priesthood, and if it is my calling, notch one up for the cassocked, straight-talking, Marian brigade!