Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The problem of priests....Part I

In the December issue of The Voice, Archbishop Coleridge of Canberra-Goulburn is asking for more voices to be heard on the future organisation of the archdiocese.  The problems he articulates are pretty much those faced by dioceses across Australia. 

So worth thinking about creatively - here is my initial two bob's worth...

Is the old parish-school-convent model dead (or should it be)?

The diagnosis of the problem the Archbishop articulates will sound familiar, with differences in the degree of severity of the problem, whatever diocese you are in (with a few notable exceptions): though there are positive signs on the vocations front, the numbers are not (as yet at least) sufficient to counterbalance (likely or actual) deaths and retirements, and in any case there is a long lead time involved in bringing on young men from the point they first start considering becoming a priest and actual ordination assuming they reach that point!). 

And then there are some demographic factors: in many rural and regional parishes numbers are declining; in city parishes there are odd imbalances in numbers, with some masses attracting relatively small numbers.  

There is also the spiritual health of the priesthood to consider: is it really a good idea for priests to typically live alone, without the support in most cases of even a nearby (active) convent?

In short, is a drastic reorganisation needed?

The conceptual vs the practical?

This is one of those issues on which I think we need to distinguish between the conceptual issues and the practical. 

If we really think the church-presbytery-school-convent model is a fundamentally a good one, just failing at the moment merely for lack of personnel, then we need to take a hard look and see if we are really doing everything possible to promote vocations. 

And if the assessment is that a turnaround is still possible given the recent upsurge in vocations across Australia, then the task is to consider interim solutions to get through the next five to ten years until the pipeline starts coming through. 

Wherever you sit in Australia,. that probably needs to be done anyway, and I have some suggestions on what more can be done that I'll share in a future post!

Rethinking the geographical parish

But I actually do think, in the age of ready access to transport for most people and the internet, that there is a case for some creative thinking on the organisation front. 

I'm not (as you will have gathered if you are a regular reader of this blog) a supporter of lay-led communities as a substitute for priests.  I think we need to do everything possible to avoid clericalising the laity through an excessive focus on ministries in the physical church building.

On the other hand, I do think we have a genuine problem with what can only be called priestly clericalism that is largely driven by current structures and attitudes.  I do think there is a lot more scope to find ways to encourage the laity to step up and engage on a wide variety of fronts.

The liturgy has to be the starting point

The liturgy should be the source and summit of the Christian life, so how its provision is organised does matter.  While I think the number of lay assistants in the sanctuary needs to be minimised, I do think there should be constructive mechanisms for the laity to have in put to what happens at mass.

Hardline traditionalists will not agree I suspect, but if there is anything we have learnt from the last fifty years it is that this cannot simply be left to priests (notwithstanding that they are the ultimate decision-makers with the final say save for the bishop).

In the main, with a few notable exceptions that prove the rule, what gets served up at mass by way of liturgy  - is generally dictated by the parish or community priest, and the people have little real say in this.  Now I know there are, at least in some parishes, "liturgical committees" who professionalise this process.  But I'm talking about getting a more genuine gauge on what most people are thinking, not the ideologically committed few.  Nor are priests much interested in hearing from the laity on this subject in my experience!

Now if what was served up was predictable and faithful to the rules there wouldn't be a problem, but that's not the case.  In my own parish which priests says mass determines whether I'll leave mass feeling vaguely edified (the liturgy is never well enough done for it to be more than that) or at least challenged to do better; nauseated at the casualness and lack of evident reverence; or outright angry at the ad lib variations to the Mass and/or outright error being propagated (such as occurred two weeks ago with gems such as "Look not on our sins, but on the faith of this community"  - this community?  Personally I always count of the faith of not just the Church but the Church Triumphant in particular as a counterweight to the cafeteria catholicism that prevails in "this community"!). Enough to send one running back to the EF...

What else do parishes do?

And because of the relatively small number of priests, and I suspect some ideological views about their role, priests are often reduced, these days, to being nothing much more than often rather reluctant (at least when it comes to confession times and Mass on Mondays at least in this diocese for example!) dispensers of the sacraments, rather than genuinely being engaged with the spiritual and practical needs of their parishioners, let alone supporting them in the public square, being engaged in bringing the lapsed back in or evangelizing those outside the Church!

Parishes, in the current environment have to be all things to all people, and as a result often end up falling short on most fronts.

So how to change things?

The Archbishop floats the idea of "mission zones" that could include a number of parish communities. That might work in the country.

But for the city at least, personally, I'd like to explore the idea of promoting a diversity of types of liturgy and mission approach that might operate more on a non-geographical basis. 

Canon law does allow this (though still seeing the geographic parish as the basic unit of a diocese).  There are of course several quasi-parishes and communities, recognised and de facto, based on such considerations already in most dioceses: around particular language groups, the traditional mass, the charismatic mass and so forth. 

I think that's an approach, at least in the urban environment, that could be taken further: one could imagine a Dominican-spirituality based community that cuts across geographical boundaries and explicitly engages lay and third order dominicans; a Carmelite one; a Benedictine focused one; a community that has a strong focus on social justice; a 'New Liturgical Movement' style community; a New Evangelization community targeting the lapsed; and other with a mission 'ad gentes' focus, and so forth. 

The potential of this approach is to provide a way of focusing on promoting the future growth of the Archdiocese, and, by giving people new ways to find a supportive community that suit them and provide ways to actively engage their energies, to counteract the likely fall in Mass attendance that would occur if the number of masses was cut drastically as the Archbishop hints at.

There would have to be some basics adopted by all of course, and some basic provision on a geographic basis for the less mobile (elderly, people with disabilities) or ill, but allowing for more explicit self-selection might be one problem of tackling imbalances in the number of parishioners at some masses.

And such an approach not quite as radical as it might at first seem: in many ways it represents a return to the late medieval system where parishes were supplemented by a variety of alternatives for most laypeople, including from your local (or more distant) monastery, a wide variety of confraternities intended to advance specific purposes, professional guilds and much more.

But that would take...

The challenge with this approach of course is that it effectively shifts the power dynamic towards the laity, and away from priests.  In principle it could provide ways of more effectively chanelling lay energies and charisms.

But here is the first problem. 

The Archbishop mentions the attachment of people to their parish Churches and I agree that will be a real barrier to making drastic changes.  It should be underestimated, given the reaction to parish closings around the world.

But an even bigger issue concerns our priests.

Most of our priests are of a certain generation - the "Gaudium et Spes" generation, as an article in the latest National Council of Priests' Magazine The Swag (which I'll say more about over the next few weeks - there is enough material in it to launch a thousand rants!) proudly proclaims.

They mean well, and I'm sure genuinely believe that they are speaking for their people.  But the people they are actually speaking for are in reality the rapidly ageing, greying Vatican II generation who are rapidly dying out.

They are advocates of a spirituality and liturgical approach which drove so many out of the Church altogether, and simply isn't attractive to the new, younger generation who do actually welcome the current Pope's return to tradition. 

Far from the kind of dissent they and the Acatholicas advocate as being the solution (the Swag is full of admonitions to promote the ordination of women, raging against the ban on contraception, and such like causes), it is no accident that Traditional Mass communities have always had a very high proportion of converts, and that in Australia as elsewhere, it is the more conservative parishes that are growing.

And there is a strong 'non serviam' flavour in The Swag's assertions that priests simply will not implement, for example, the new missal. 

Simply amalgamating a few parishes and setting up mission zones may be the (relatively) easy route as far as dealing with priests is concerned.  But for genuine change for the better to come out of a potential reorganization, change that genuinely lays the foundations for future growth in the Archdiocese, the problem of our priests needs to be tackled head-on.

So what do you think?

Part II of this series is now available.

1 comment:

R J said...

This all seems sensibly argued, but I'm wondering if it perhaps lays insufficient stress on one factor that occurs to me. Namely, the extent (I'm not certain one could quantify this extent) to which laity stick with one particular parish out of social factors.

I'm sure this is a much more severe problem in 2010 than in pre-Novus-Ordo days. Back then, you could be reasonably certain that you could attend any church on a Sunday and wouldn't get anyone monkeying around with liturgical experiments. But now ... there seems to be an irreconcilable gulf between those whose understandable desire to avoid a naff liturgy leads them to excesses of "parish-shopping-around" (I'm probably in this category myself), versus on the other hand those - far more numerous, I should think - whose entire existence is so completely bound up with attendance at one particular parish that their religion would almost disappear if they had to go elsewhere.

We tend, I think, to underrate in general the extent to which Joe and Jodie Sixpack are acting on social imperatives when they turn up to church at all. Not everyone is anything like as concerned with liturgy and canon law as readers (not to mention the writer) of this website are! Maybe it would be better if more people were thus concerned; that's a different matter altogether.