Article by Paddy O’Kane, Derry
CALLED TO SERVE
When I was appointed to this parish of Holy Family over twenty years ago I had two curates, the parish was about half its present size and I was obviously a lot younger. My hair was even dark, I notice as I look at old photographs!
It is the same in many parishes down from three to one . Soon there will be priestless parishes in this diocese .
‘How do you cope’? is a frequent question I am asked. I answer that most reasonable people have lessened their expectations and understand. For the unreasonable people –most of whom do not normally come to church anyway – well, what can you do except try to explain as best you can that you cannot be in two places at once.
Priests in Abundance
There may indeed have been so many priests here in the past that people became overly priest dependant. ‘What are the priests doing about it’ became a chant when a problem arose. This happened to me in Moville when the opening of a strip club coincided with my arrival there as Parish Priest! I also remember often having to go out with my fellow priests in St. Eugene’s to try and dispel a riot during ‘the trouble’s. We got involved with a lot of stuff that had nothing to do with the Church. I was once criticized by a parishioner for not having a boxing club for they youth.[I had one growing up’, he said]. An unhealthy chronic co-dependency developed.
I heard someone once say that the Holy Spirit clearly told the Church at Vatican II to have the laity more involved in running the church. The church’s response hovered between ‘slow’ and ‘non-existent’. Too much emphasis on a clerical model of the Church has left us with an impoverished legacy of neglecting the gifts of baptism and confirmation in the laity. So the Holy Spirit said to himself ‘If they will not listen to me than I will just have to try something else to give the lay people their proper place –I will lessen the number of priests’.
While this interpretation of how the Holy Spirit works is open to question it still focuses our vision on where the future lies – ‘awakening the sleeping giant’ of the laity as Cardinal O’Fiach once said. Because we did not want to lose control of the reins now we have to let go because there are not enough hands to hold them all.
Already many parishes of this diocese have a finance council and some, including are own, are in the process of forming Pastoral Councils. These initiatives move lay involvement away from the role of simple service such as cleaning the church, collecting the money, reading or as a minister of the Eucharist, more closely into a role of co-responsibility. We could learn much from our fellow Christians churches on how to be less priest- centered and more accountable to those we serve.
The flood of vocations to the priesthood in the past became a stream and is now a trickle. The trend is worrying. The danger is that it will dry up completely and as we have a sacramental church who will baptize, preach and lead the Eucharistic assembly in the future? We cannot have a church without the Eucharist or priests. Last Sunday was Vocation Sunday and we prayed for more men to answer the call to priesthood .‘The harvest is great and the labourers are few’. These words of Christ are very true today.
This concern led an Australian bishop, William Morris, into trouble. He simply asked the question if it is not now time to consider other options such as:
Ordaining married, single, or widowed men endorsed by their local community.
Welcoming back former priests who have married.
Ordaining women, married or single.
Recognising the validity of the orders of Anglican priests.
This was in an Advent pastoral to his people in 2006. A few weeks ago his eighteen years as bishop ended with a stroke of the papal pen. Pope Benedict has had him dismissed after a secret investigation, the content to which not even Bishop Morris was seemingly given access.
This takes us back to the serious issue about how the universal church is run, (not the running of the parish this time)- how it is governed from the top, about the secret processes involved, accountability and an openness to new ideas.
Is it time for a Third Council?
But that is a topic for another day.