Thursday, 8 March 2012

Broken Bay Part 3: The Attack on the Sacred Priesthood

In my previous posts on Broken Bay Diocese, which stretches from Sydney’s North Shore up to the boundaries of Maitland-Newcastle, I’ve mentioned a number of very serious issues indeed.

I want to thank all of those who have sent me input and comments on the posts so far, and would encourage you to post any comments you have on this post. 

Sounds good but...

I have to say I've struggled with the write up for this diocese, because as I said in my first post, on the face of it, it is doing some good things.  Yet much of what I've seen that looks so good in principle seems actually to be designed to undermine the faith not aid it. 

Initiatives to educate the laity for example, should be something we can applaud in these days of dire ignorance of the faith.  But if what is taught is not actually the faith, then better to be silent! 

Encouraging the faithful to read Scripture is again a really excellent thing to be doing in principle - for ignorance of Scripture is, St Jerome tells us, ignorance of Christ.  But if the faithful are not given the proper tools, the proper context for their lectio divina, the result will be protestant sola scriptura and the promotion of the 'magisterium of me', not Catholicism.

Similarly, actively engaging the laity to do the things necessary to enhance the liturgy is in principle a good thing.  But is having six to eight totally unnecessary Extraordinary Ministers of Communion at each Mass is not really, in my view, something to be applauded! 

Undermining the priesthood

But today I want to come  to an even more serious problem, namely what appears to be the systematic undermining of the Catholic priesthood through initiatives in relation to the liturgy, ecumenism and the 'lay' leadership.

As I wrote on this subject a year ago, I find it hard to believe that any bishop could really be doing what Bishop Walker seems to be.  So if I've got it all wrong, do  tell me. 

But on the face of it, some terrible things are happening in this diocese, and in all of the areas, the diocese is currently going through an extended ‘synod’ process, to end this May, which seem intent on pushing current directions in the diocese oh so much further across the line…

Vexilla Regis has recently featured a series of posts chronicling the current unhappy state of play in Wahroonga Parish over lay leadership, where the people of the parish are desperately trying to oppose an attempt to impose a ‘lay-led’ model on them against their wishes. I want here to provide some context and history to what has been going on there…

But first a few comments on other matters for the sake of completeness.

The liturgy

Source: Diocesan website
Consistent with its image, Broken Bay’s Cathedral is very modern indeed. Indeed, you can hear mass from it (or alternatively listen to Mass from the Bishops Office Centre chapel) live streamed daily from a link over at Cath News.

The building itself was built as a parish church in 1991, and became the cathedral in 2008. But it does preserve a nice stained glass window and altar (albeit cut down to size!) from the original church, so while as a Cathedral it might perhaps lack some grandeur, it isn’t as bad as some recent cathedral building and renovation efforts as far as I can gather!

Indeed, grandeur is not in favour in Broken Bay – I’m told the confirmations at which the photo of an altar girl below was taken actually took place in a school gymnasium!

Source: Pittwater Parish website
It is probably most telling that amongst the relatively few downloads available on the diocesan website to help parishes with the liturgy is a twenty-one page tome entitled “The Liturgy, the Data Projector, and You”, aimed at promoting the ministry of the data projector operator as a ‘communicator’.

The booklet tells us that the liturgy needs to appeal to “the whole person”. So having stripped it of so many of the traditional means of doing just that – beautiful churches, the sacred space of the sanctuary, nice vestments, incense, ritual, chant and more – we have to create new means of providing an audio-visual ‘show’, injecting yet another form of commentary onto the Mass texts. All pretty sad really….

The diocese does have a (nominally) contemplative monastery (though in fact some of the monks act as parish priests), in the form of the Benedictines of Arcadia, who, from what I’ve heard of them, would fit right into the diocesan ethos…

Source: Monastery website

Inter-religious and ecumenical activity

But it is its ecumenical and inter-faith initiatives for which the diocese is most (in)famous! The diocese has some 31,000 people identifying as belonging to religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. Accordingly, it takes great pride in setting out its various forms of “engagement” with these communities - an annual Holocaust memorial service, educational Seder meals, a diocesan Iftar meal, and learning about the Jewish context of the “Jewish” scriptures [um, aren’t they our Scriptures too!].  But like most dioceses in Australia (with one or two notable exceptions) it has nothing to say in its celebratory edition of the Broken Bay News, about its mission activities targeted at these groups.  One can only assume that there are none.

Similarly, the diocese has put enormous effort into things that promote 'unity', while as far as I can see ignoring efforts to bring about genuine unity by conversion! It is a signatory, with Maitland-Newcastle, to an agreement with the Anglicans which involves regular swap meeting (remember the one that the Vatican had to put a stop too!). It holds for example, an annual ecumenical “Service of Reconciliation to pray for Catholic-Anglican reconciliation” and other like events; conducts a regular “Episcopal Dialogue in which Bishop David engages in public conversation on various topics with Anglican bishops from surrounding dioceses” (BBN, December 2011). It has signed up a number of “local covenant” agreements with Anglican and Uniting Church communities.

But what real concrete outcomes have actually come out of all of this activity?

‘Lay leadership’

But I can’t end this write-up of the state of the Church in Broken Bay diocese without at least some discussion of the Bishop's push to introduce a ‘lay leadership’ model into parishes.

There is nothing particularly unusual about the bishops focus in this area – all too many of our bishops seem intent on undermining the nature of the priesthood and particularly the Churches insistence that it is restricted to celibate males.

In Broken Bay a lay leadership model directed to these ends is apparently being ‘piloted’ in two parishes in the diocese, Wahroonga and The Lakes. Let’s take a look at what is happening in there.

Responding to the priest shortage or creating it?

Let’s be clear. The shortage of priests in this country, in my view, reflects the policies of our bishops.

In those dioceses which have actively promoted the priestly vocation in its fullness, like Wagga Wagga and Perth, there is no shortage of priests at all.

In some cases, more recent appointments are attempting to undo the damage done by their predecessors, and foster new vocations but at the same time face the challenge to manage in the meantime. In these situations the challenge is to make sure that the short term expedients don’t have a counter-productive long-term effect.

And there is a third category, where some of the bishops still in place have, I would suggest, sought to artificially create the need for lay assistance in running parishes by discouraging vocations to the priesthood.
Missionary priests: unjust discrimination?

Some bishops have admittedly gone further than Broken Bay, and refused to recruit foreign priests to assist in filling the gaps.

By all accounts, Bishop Walker has actually done some good things in this area, recruiting some very holy and effective missionary priests indeed, who have proved popular with their parishes.

Yet there are several cases I've been told about where the bishop has moved these priests between parishes very frequently, to the consternation of both priests and people, preventing them building up the relationships necessary for effective ministry.

And it is hard to see anything but unjustified discrimination - racism in fact - in the diocese’s insistence that these missionary priests will likely not be suitable to be parish priests:

“We have enough priests to have two in every parish, but what we lack is enough priests to exercise the role of leadership in the parish: to be Parish Priests…Our overseas priests often cannot do it because they do not have sufficient grasp of our language and our culture…” (Bishop Walker, September 2010, Diocesan website)

Really? In a diocese where so many masses, including in its cathedral, have to be offered in languages other than English in order to meet the needs of the extremely high migrant population?!


Take the case of the priest who has been based in Wahroonga for the last four years. Vexilla Regis has pointed out that he has good English and the strong support of the parish – indeed the entire parish council was dismissed because of this. Vexilla tells the story of his farewell mass which attests to the strength of the support for him and his efforts.

But perhaps the problem is not really racism but orthodoxy?  For this priest has apparently been extremely successful in reviving the parish: increasing mass attendance and much more. Yet according to the bishop his assessment and those of his ‘advisors’ is that 'he could not fulfill the role of parish priest'.

Instead, the bishop has terminated the priest's term there, refused to appoint him as parish priest, and instead insisted that a laywoman continue as lay leader, in order to fulfill his commitment to have leaders who exhibit ‘an adult faith’ (a term which seems to be the modern euphemism for no faith in the actual teachings of the Church at all)!

In the face of widespread lay opposition to this new model, it seems entirely a contradiction in terms then to describe the model being imposed on the parish as lay-led – as so often the case in these situations, what is actually being imposed is a dictatorship of the minority, in this case in the form of the appointment as ‘co-ordinator of parish life’ one of the members of the public association of the faithful created by the bishop to aid him and celebrate the ‘feminine genius’. You can get an idea of Ms Gail Gill's credentials here…

The role of the priest and ‘lay’ leadership

Worse, the scheme, as Vexilla Regis has pointed out, seems, on the face of it, to completely ignore both the spirit and letter of canon law. Most dioceses, as with the new Canberra-Goulburn 'mission model', at least dress up their lay leadership models to look as if a priest is in charge and regularly on hand to provide pastoral support, even if the reality on the ground is clearly intended to be something quite different. Not so in Broken Bay.

In December 2010 Bishop Walker said:

“As we move to different types of parish, it is important that we keep before our minds the key things that make a parish what it is. Canon Law defines it as a certain community of Christ’s faithful, stably established within a particular Church, whose pastoral care, under the authority of the diocesan Bishop, is entrusted to a parish priest as its proper pastor. (canon 515)…In this different model, the principal change is in the person whom the bishop appoints to co-ordinate the pastoral care of the parish. It is not a priest, but a deacon or lay person.”

The model Bishop Walker is trying to implement is about having:

the faithful share more in the pastoral care of the parish, to the extent of doing all the things that the Parish Priest might do, except, of course, those that require the sacrament of Orders. The Church surrounds such a member of the faithful with supports. There would be a priest to supervise and support the person, and there would be priests to exercise priestly ministry in the parish. However, the designated lay person would be the principal provider of pastoral care in the parish. In our Diocese, the supervising priest would not necessarily live in the parish. However, there would be priests appointed to the parish who would live in the presbytery and exercise their ministry in collaboration with the designated member of the faithful.” (Sept 2010)

The priests working in the parish, in other words, are reduced to being mere sacramental machines, doing those things the laity cannot. Meanwhile, the actual running of the parish is to be entrusted to a lay person or deacon, ‘supervised’ by an outside priest who reports to the bishop.

Having a deacon in charge?

In one of the two parishes where this model is being trialled, it is actually a deacon, not a lay person, who has been placed in charge.

In many ways this seems more bizarre than having a layperson in charge! A deacon, even if a permanent deacon who is married, is, after all, a cleric not a layperson. Yet he is the lowest grade of clergy, and it seems on the face of it quite at odds with Church law to give a deacon jurisdiction over priests!

Strange how bishops going down this track never seem to think that they themselves should be relieved of the administrative burdens of their office and pass over those tasks to a layperson or perhaps a priest or deacon so that they could focus on the sacramental and pastoral functions proper to their Office such as confirmations, fostering vocations to the priesthood and the like...

But presumably, the agenda here is the campaign to allow married priests.  Indeed, the bishop's wikipedia entry notes his support for the return of laicized priests (who left to marry) to return to office.

The ongoing attack on the priesthood

Bishop Walker is aged 73 so guess it is unlikely that the Vatican will move on him in advance of his age retirement, particularly after the reaction to the Morris affair (mind you, there is always the time tested option of 'promoting' a bishop to an oh so desirable see in places like Iraq!).

Yet how can a bishop stay in place when a priest of the diocese can write in an open letter as follows:

“I, for one, protest:

• against your constant vilification of the Priests of the Diocese, whether incardinated or missionary;
• against an unnecessary abridgment of their role;
• against the specious reasons given for that abridgment;
• against the lack of appropriate consultation of those affected by that abridgment.”

You can read the full letter over at Vexilla Regis.


ka said...

how many seminarians have there been from this diocese under +Walker's tenure?

Victoria said...

Is this state of affairs something Rome should be made aware of?

ka said...

Surely the Bishop's energy would be best spent on encouraging priestly vocations rather than what is happening?

Kate said...

On seminarians, I don't know but one ordination over the last decade suggests very few indeed!

As for Rome, well I always hope that those important to getting things changed are reading! But in the end its up to people in the diocese to exercise their right to appeal to higher authority.

Mac said...

Hi Kate,
I've been thinking of this post till now and really cant'say anything better than you've put it.
Just some comments. This Lay Liturgy thing; sunday obligation cant't apply to this surely? Lets face it, the services I grew up with in the Congregational church in the 1940's and 50's had more "gravitas" than these services are likely to provide. Is that what these people want to get back to? Better no service at all until you can have a Mass. And yes I do understand fully the Real Presence. Lay Liturgy will inevitably lead to Protestantism!
Again just an opinion, as what you describe is pretty close to where Brisbane seemed to be going under a previous Bishop!
When does "someone" call SCHISM?
Modernism and Orthodoxy cannot co-exist for long without one destroying the other. I suspect prayer will prove the only answer.

Antonia Romanesca said...

“the diocese is currently going through an extended ‘synod’ process, to end this May, which seem intent on pushing current directions in the diocese, oh so much further across the line…”

Perhaps it may have to do with the bishop of that diocese being due to retire in 18 months or so? Immanent retirement can act as a spur to push through as many ‘initiatives’ as possible, in the time remaining. As anyone knowledgeable of organisational design will testify, it is most salubrious if these ‘implemented initiatives’ are indelibly ‘put in place’ so that they are jolly difficult for a successor to undo. This is the ‘most satisfactory outcome’. Then along comes a successor, chosen by our trusty Nuncio, who is steadier, solid in his Catholic orthodoxy [this is the current Australian pattern at least] and far more impervious to current American ‘directional’ theological phrases. However there can be still ‘certain problems in the diocese’ which are ‘a hangover from the previous bishop’s way of doing things’ – in short the poor fresh incumbent, finds he has a series of rods for his back, as a direct legacy from Previous Prelate. Who can predict what shall happen in Broken Bay, however? There has even been whirring on the wire, that His Em Pell may dissolve that diocese into Sydney archdio [along with Parramatta], so that a few little current difficulties he has, shall be…dissolved at the stroke of a pen….