Thanks to Gopher for alerting me to the Pastoral Letter by the Bishop of Sandhurst, Bishop Grech.
Lay Ministries are not desirable!
I've written many times before on this blog about the problematic nature of the promotion of "lay ministries" - it is a direction that was repeatedly condemned by Pope John Paul II (go have a read of Christi Fiedeles Laici), and certainly not encouraged by Pope Benedict XVI!
Pope Benedict XVI has certainly actively promoted the role of the laity, and the desirability of their active participation in the Church and the world. But he has repeatedly emphasized that the primary vocation of the laity is in the secular sphere. And emphasized that at no time more than now is the presence is the activity of the laity needed in the public square in order to combat the forces of secularism and appeasement.
Just as importantly, in this time where congregationalism - the view that a priest is not necessary even to confect the sacraments - is once more on the rise, pushing down the path of encouraging lay led communion services might seem particularly unwise.
Sandhurst's new "community leaders"
So the decision to start appointing "lay community leaders" for parishes - and rather outrageously in my view to justify it with a quote by Pope Benedict XVI taken entirely out of context - is a deeply disappointing step backwards for this country. It is one of those developments to which one can indeed only be somewhat taken aback.
The bishop notes that the diocese currently has ten men studying for the priesthood. That's a considerable achievement given that the last available figures (on Catholic Hierarchy) show the diocese having a total of 46 diocesan priests (in 2004, with numbers slowly increasing through in the first four years of the decade).
So why then, is it necessary to introduce a potentially paid new position of lay "community leader"?
And if there really is a need for priests to get more help, why not go down the path of permanent deacons (of which Sandhurst had none in 2004)? One can only suppose that the issue is ideology - viz the role of women.
What the Pope has actually said on how to handle the priest shortage
So perhaps it is worth refreshing our memories on what Pope Benedict XVI has actually said on the problems posed by overworked and overstretched priests. In speaking to the Brazilian Episcopal Conference on September 17 last year he said:
"With her faithful and with her ministers, the Church is the priestly community on earth. She is organically structured as the Body of Christ to carry out effectively her historical mission of salvation, united with her Head. This is what St Paul teaches us: "You are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Cor 12: 27). In fact, the members do not all have the same function: it is this that constitutes the beauty and life of the body (cf. 1 Cor 12: 14-17). The specific identity of the ordained faithful and lay people may be understood through the fundamental difference between the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood. This is why the secularization of priests and the clericalization of lay people must be avoided. Thus, in this perspective, the lay faithful must engage to express in reality and also through political commitment the Christian anthropological vision and the social doctrine of the Church.
In other words priests must steer clear of personal involvement in politics in order to encourage the unity and communion of all the faithful and thus be a reference point for all. It is important to increase this knowledge in priests, in religious and in the lay faithful, encouraging and taking care in order that each may feel motivated to act according to his or her own state.
The harmonious, correct and clear deepening of the relationship between the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood is one of the most delicate issues in the existence and life of the Church. In fact, the small number of priests could lead communities to resign themselves to this shortage, finding comfort, at times, in the fact that the lack of priests makes the role of the lay faithful more prominent. However, it is not the lack of priests that justifies a more active and consistent participation of lay people. The more aware the faithful become of their responsibilities in the Church the more clearly stand out the priest's identity and his irreplaceable role as Pastor of the community overall, as a witness of the authenticity of the faith and a steward on behalf of Christ the Head of the mysteries of salvation.
We know that the "saving mission entrusted by the Father to his incarnate Son was committed to the Apostles and through them to their successors: they receive the Spirit of Jesus to act in his name and in his person. The ordained minister is the sacramental bond that ties the liturgical action to what the Apostles said and did and, through them, to the words and actions of Christ, the source and foundation of the sacraments" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1120). For this reason, the role of the priest is essential and irreplaceable for the proclamation of the word and for the celebration of the sacraments, especially of the Eucharist, the memorial of the supreme Sacrifice of Christ who gives his Body and his Blood. I therefore urge you to ask the Lord to send labourers to his harvest; furthermore, it is necessary for priests to express the joy of fidelity to their identity with the enthusiasm of the mission.
Beloved Brothers, I am sure that with your pastoral concern and with prudence, you will take special pains to guarantee the communities of your respective dioceses the presence of an ordained minister. Although many of you are obliged to organize ecclesial life with few priests, it is important to ensure that the current situation is not regarded as normal or typical of the future. As I recalled last week to the first group of Brazilian Bishops, you must focus your efforts on awakening new priestly vocations and on finding the indispensable pastors for your dioceses, helping one another so that all may have at their disposal better trained and more numerous priests to support the life of faith and the apostolic mission of the faithful...."