So before Christmas I argued in favour of a radical rethink of diocesan organisational structures - but also for some more action of the promotion of priestly vocations. And yesterday I started to explain the reasons for my opposition to the current push for more ‘lay leadership’ in quasi-clerical roles. Now I want to turn to some possible ways forward.
But the question we have to focus on first is, do we really want things to change? I mean, do we really really want more priests? And are willing to do what is required to achieve the objective?
Do we really want change?
I think we can all probably agree that there are no simple, cost-less solutions to the priest shortage.
The hard reality is that more priests requires drastic change, and change is hard.
Yes, it is true that vocations are on the rise. But it is a slow increase, and simple demographics mean that in the many dioceses (and yes there are a few shining exceptions) that haven’t seen many vocations over the last few decades, the number of priests dying, retiring or otherwise leaving is still going to exceed the number of new ordainees unless something changes drastically.
But drastic change is not easy. It requires serious effort, and has huge costs to everyone involved.
As the Gospels dramatically tell us, those with vested interests in the status quo will scream and shout. Those leading change risk literal or metaphoric assassination. And there is no reason to think that the people will be happy about it all, at least in the short term.
So do our bishops actually want more priests?
We have to be clear here that in the end, the number of priests in a diocese depends entirely on the bishop. Young men can decide to pursue a vocation, others can support them; but in the end it is the bishop more than anyone else who has to lead the action necessary to promote vocations, and it is the bishop who can effectively block any potential vocations from flowering.
There are some bishops - and they have their (vocal) lay and clerical supporters - I think it is fairly clear, who have no problem with the declining number of priests.
Some, including some fairly senior bishops in the Australian hierarchy, seem actually to prefer the idea of a lay-led church; one can only speculate on how they reconcile this with the doctrines on the hierarchical constitution of the Church.
Others would like to see a relaxation of the celibacy rules and a return to ministry of those who left to marry, and have some vague notion that Rome will be forced to change the rules if things get bad enough.
Some amongst the Australian bishops even apparently support the ordination of women.
The only hope for these dioceses lies with their successors!
All one can hope for is that the results of change in surrounding dioceses makes the case to the Pope for the early termination of their tenure. Or that God acts in other ways to respond to the cries of his oppressed and deprived people in those dioceses.
Signs of the times?
But just as dangerous to the health of the Church, in my view, is the view that the situation we are in reflects God’s will, and we should work with what we have. It is a view that says if God wants to change things, he will: we just need to trust in him.
This kind of quietism is fairly prevalent at the moment. Take the situation in our religious orders for example. The number of religious in Australia has roughly halved since 1976, and based on the simple demographics of an ageing group of religious, this trend is set to accelerate in the next few years. But most within the religious orders don’t seem to see this as a cause for concern. The Catholic Religious Australia report See I am Doing a New Thing found that few orders planned to make significant changes – beyond continuing the process of handing over or closing down their remaining apostolic works - in the near future. Yet despite this, many remain convinced that somehow or other God will act to ensure they don’t die out.
Let me say that I simply don’t believe that God works that way.
God expects us to work as his agents.
Though God guarantees the continuation of the Church until the Second Coming, he does not guarantee its continuance in particular countries, as we’ve seen demonstrated over and over. Similarly, there are many once vibrant religious orders that simply no longer exist.
Are these outcomes really God’s will?
Should we therefore find ways of adapting to the situation in which we find ourselves?
Or do they rather reflect the failure of Christians to actively discern God’s will, and, having heard what he wants us to do, to do it?
Hearing God’s will and doing it
My own view is that in general it is our failure to listen and act that is at work in relation to the shortage of priests.
And behind the decline of our religious orders. Behind the failure of catholics to believe in or practice their faith. The failure of most traditionalist communities in this country to show significant growth.
In the case of the priest shortage we can point to factors such poor catechesis and praxis that has failed to create active disciples of Christ. The failure of young people to actively discern their vocation. And the failure of their priests and bishops, of parents and teachers, indeed, of all of us, to do everything we need to do to encourage vocations.
St Ignatius’ aphorism about working as if everything depends on you, but knowing that everything depends on God is particularly appropriate here.
Over and over Scripture tells us that God wants to pour out his graces on us – but we have to ask. Persistently, and fervently.
The courage to change
More, we need to have courage. We have to be willing to sacrifice and pray.
We have to want to achieve that outcome badly in order to make the hard slog worthwhile.
We have to have our eyes fixed firmly on heaven, and a great sense of the urgency of the salvation of souls.
We have to be willing to embark on a process knowing that we might end up getting martyred along the way.
And above all, we have to actually be convinced that there is a problem in the first place.
So let me come back to my opening point: change is hard.
The first step is shedding the rationalizations that keep us sane, stripping away all our reasons for doing nothing and seeing just how bad things really are.
The first step is accepting the necessity of change.