Monday, 13 August 2012

Shepherds and Spats

When I was ordained a deacon back in 1988, it was the custom to send the new cleric directly into parish ministry: I went to St Joseph's, Elm Grove, in Brighton. It wasn't a great success, I have to confess: there were too many things to get used to all at once and, looking back on it, I think I had a little version of what I have just gone through. But let's not go there; it all worked out fine in the end. There was a nice URC minister at the church which was then on the Lewes Road—I've forgotten his name, and his church has now been demolished—and I remember asking him how he exercised his ministry, how he spent his working hours, in other words. 'Oh, mostly in meetings' he cheerfully replied. 'That's what we do.' I was appalled, and very glad that I was a Catholic.

Some years later, in my second priestly curacy (at the Sacred Heart church in Hove), the Parish Priest, Fr Tony Churchill, remarked to me; 'make the most of your curacy: you get all the nice bits of being a priest, and very few of the horrid bits'. I remember his words, but at the time I didn't really believe him. It was frustrating wanting to do things my way (which, of course, would have been much better), but not being able to. And now, I know just how right he was.

During the last few months, I have done a lot of reflecting on my time here in the Valle Adurni. I asked myself how on earth I managed to give myself a breakdown when it didn't seem to me that I had done very much priestly work at all. Above all (and I came in for a lot of criticism for this), I did very little visiting, including of the sick. I made sure that they received the sacraments, of course, but it was a constant reproach to me that I could never summon up the energy to do what was necessary in that regard. Despite being a blogger, I am a very shy person, and it takes a great deal of effort to cross somebody's threshold. So where did all the energy go, then?

Well, mostly on collaborative ministry. Which meant meetings. I genuinely like working with others and sharing the decisions. But if I have to take responsibility for the decisions, I want always to be part of their making.

In the pages of The Tablet, and similar publications, we hear time and time again the plea for the laity to be given real power in the Church. Take this example for instance, a letter to the Holy Father (one of the famous 'Vatileaks' letters) from two very wealthy (they were the owners of C&A) Dutch Catholics, Hubert and Aldegonde Brenninkmeijer-Werhan. Nobody should doubt the historic commitment of the Brenninkmeijer family to the faith. Not only have they been outstandingly generous to Catholic causes, both personally, and via C&A, but have also provided many vocations; I have known, to some extent, one Brenninckmeyer who was a monk at Worth Abbey, and another who was the Provincial of the Dutch Jesuits. They seem to incline to the more 'liberal' end of things, as you might expect.
Your Holiness,
Peace be with you and the Church of Jesus entrusted to you… It is with a profound sense of sadness that we must once again note that even well-educated Catholics, Catholics all over Europe, are leaving the hierarchical Church in growing numbers but without abandoning their faith in Christ. Whatever the motives for such behaviour, I would like to recall the words of the prophet Jeremiah: "Woe to the shepherds that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture" (Jer.23:1-4) Where are the shepherds that seriously follow the people entrusted to them without being fundamentalists, who with attentive and judicious love keep an eye on the whole flock and are able to lead and guide people in a modern way? Why are bishops appointed in Europe that neither have contact with the "flock", nor trust them?…
I think that maybe the Brenninkmeijers might think a little about these shepherds who follow their sheep: shepherds who do that tend not to have many sheep left. It was a bad analogy to choose, for in reality shepherds either lead their sheep from the front, or else drive them with dogs!

This cry for the laity to be given power in the Church is frequently raised as a solution to the shortage of priestly vocations. And the solution to such problems as priests having breakdowns. If the laity ran the practical side of things, made all the major decisions, the argument goes, the priest could concentrate on what he is ordained for.

The trouble is that this is not really what is meant. When a lay person says 'give the laity power', what he usually means is 'let me make the decisions', because the truth is that in a room of fifty lay people you will have at least thirty different opinions.

It's a familiar distortion; you can see it everywhere 'what young people want is……'. The most you can say is that 'some young people want………'. The above-mentioned Fr Churchill had a custom, when being confronted with the statement 'everybody is saying X', or replying 'name six who are saying that!' In reality, almost always what is meant is that the person saying it has said it to others who may have agreed with him, or they may not, having simply kept quiet to avoid an argument.

Horrific spats
Hence the creation of the meeting. In the end, the priest has to attend most of them, because it is in meetings that all the disagreements are thrashed out, and there is nobody who can mediate between often quite firmly held and expressed views other than the priest. When the priest is not present to exercise some leadership (even if he does not take the chair) things really can degenerate horribly. I am not suggesting in a patronising sort of way that the class riot when the teacher is out of the classroom, but simply that when there is no commonly-recognized authority, the strongest inevitably rise to the top, and it is they who will direct, often with a private agenda and minimal theological expertise, what is to be done. There are authoritarian priests, and sometimes these are resented (even justifiably resented). But authoritarian layfolk are resented far more. I have witnessed some horrific spats.

And since the priest must take ultimate responsibility for the decisions made in these meetings, he must be a part of their making, and sometimes head off trouble. Collaborating with the laity means just that, working alongside the laity. But some think that it means replacing the priest with the laity. That way lies disaster, in my opinion and experience.

The priest, then, who seriously wishes to engage with the laity and discuss things with them must be prepared to attend an awful lot of meetings. These will take a great deal of time and energy. The problem I experienced was, having been put in charge of two parishes with effectively three communities, the number of meetings was at least double what my predecessors had. And more than that, because the meetings were actually increased during the interregnums before I arrived. The existing parishes had been promised that they could retain full independence of operation even though canonically they would be merged into one new parish.

I think it was genuinely envisaged that because the laity would run things in each case, it wouldn't make more work for the priest. But for all the reasons I have outlined above, it didn't work like that.

Our parish secretary said to me one day that her husband absolutely refused to attend meetings, because they achieve very little, and take enormous effort to even do that. Suddenly, she added 'too right! I hate to think how many hours of meetings I have attended to do something that could have been settled with a couple of emails!'

That started me thinking, and in a later post I'll tell you the way my mind is working and get your feedback.

But for now, let's just make a couple of conclusions.

We need to ask what a priest is for. His time and energy are limited, and they need to be expended in the most fruitful way in accord with what is necessary.

To put it baldly: is it more important that I attend the sick, get involved with evangelizing the young, help people to learn to pray and to know what is important, to pray with and for the people of God, to make my prayer-life more than just Mass and private-and-rushed Breviary, to have time to study and to prepare my homilies carefully, that I go regularly into our schools, hospitals, nursing homes; that I spend a goodly time in the confessional &c. &c.

Or is it more important that I build a community that shares power, that is fulfilling for its members, where everybody feels they belong and have a say, that they enjoy themselves and love each other; where different people are able to express their gifts in a supportive and inclusive environment? &c. &c.

Well, both would be nice, but I am (just about) living evidence that you can't have both.

In the end, some consider that the job of the priest is either one or the other. In which case I choose the first, but am constrained to do the second. This has to change.

After all, being a priest is, first and foremost, about salvation, not about community-building. If I wanted to be a community-builder, I would have been a pub landlord, or a comedian, or a social worker. That is a true lay role, in my opinion.


Delia said...

Couldn't agree more, Father. Holy, prayerful priests are what we need. Anyway, isn't the apostleship of the laity supposed to be in the word? Well, a right old mess we've made of that. You don't want us muscling into the parish as well!

gemoftheocean said...

I think you are right. The priest has to concentrate on doing things only the priest can do -- so that would have to be administering the sacraments as duty one.

A good community will be built or maintained if it has a good foundation on the sacramental life. 'All' the priest has to do is keep warring factions apart if he sees backbiting. No small task, true - I expect this sort of diplomacy is best picked up on the job and learned by war stories from other priests.

I guess the main thing is to find good people and delegate or get help on the things that tend to kill priests off. I've witnessed many a priest floored by building projects and fund raising. Every diocese should have lay experts to call upon for the building projects, and the people of each parish should be the ones to do all the scut work of fund raising -- carrying out the details anyway.

In my relatively short time at St. Anne's in San Diego, I was very impressed by the Fraternity of St. Peter's clergy. Quite young but very energetic and the right touch as to what they expected the laity to pitch in with, and what was their own domain.

Tom Piatak said...

A very good piece making an important point.

Flambeaux said...

"Receive the power to offer sacrifice to God and to celebrate Mass, both for the living and the dead in the name of Our Lord."

That priests are not permitted to do this because they are saddled with administrativa often, at least in the United States having parishes that rival the population of some diocese, is a shame and a scandal.

So focused on the world have the People of God and their Shepherds become that the essential, permanent things are neglected.

I know I don't have a solution so I pray the Good Lord will furnish one to the sheep of his pasture in due time.

MC Man said...

I think that the problem is that some of the Laity a vocal,bossy minority think everything is their domain.They want the Priest to turn up to say the Mass but they complain if he says the black and does the red according to the rubrics.They want the Mass their way,no latin chant or anything else that resembles traditional Catholic worship.Boring hymns more at home in a protestant chapel than a Catholic Church are driving away the silent majority in parishes.petty complaints to clergy because a crucifix is now on the altar or the communion plate is reintroduced,and please no incense thats from a previouse time These groups of otherwise charming people take over Parish life and commitees and dictate to everyone else how things should be done no notice taken of the Popes wishes regarding the Liturgy.Until the silent majority of parishioners stand up to these people and back their clergy things will never change.

Anonymous said...

Fr Tony is a fantastic mentor and has been so helpful to me. During a stressful time in my life he told me "be gentle with yourself" and I think he might well tell you the same. No need to approve this comment -- I am praying for you and will continue to do so.

Mike Cliffson said...

I'd love to blether to you , but, after such spats and bad feeling lay people ought to re appreciate one (resented)expeditious and traditional catholic way of doing things, from furniture-heaving to visiting the sick:
PP:." (task description) Volunteers, you , you, and you."
Full stop.
And confess your resentment next confession!

Fr Ray Blake said...

The problem is exacerbation when there is no agreed basal point; no shared theology or concept of the liturgy and no agreed vision of the Church and her mission.

In amalgamated parishes that have often defined themselves in contradistinction to their neighbours the problems are worst, especially if the priest feels that he has to represent the teaching of the Church as well as the silent voice of those who would never dream of standing up at a public meeting.

The problem I have found is that there are people who want to talk and people who want to do. The talkers tend to want to make work for the doers and the doers tend to just want to get on with what they are doing.

GOR said...

I echo what Fr. Blake said – and it was true in the business world when I was still gainfully employed! Some people’s lives were defined by meetings. If their calendars were not filled with meetings, they felt they were not accomplishing anything. Of course the opposite was true – because of the plethora of time-wasting meetings they weren’t getting anything done.

Much like the effectiveness of homilies, less is more. Meetings should be brief, to the point …and rare! I once wasted three hours of my life in a meeting of high-level executives obsessing over the wording of a “Mission Statement” for the company.

The old advertising mantra of Nike comes to mind: “Just do it!”

Flambeaux said...

GOR, my employer is grappling with this right now. I'm in the "anti-meeting" camp and throwing my weight around.

It will, eventually, cost me my job but I refuse to kowtow to the unproductive.

"Malvenu" said...

I agree with Father Ray that the problem stems from 'no shared theology or concept of the liturgy and no agreed vision of the Church and her mission.'

Surely, if everybody was pulling in the right/same direction there would be less need to sit around and talk about things and a greater desire to get on and do things?

Therefore, the big problem seems to me to be the 'how' of getting the Church functioning as it should. It has to be education (or re-education), but again, the question of 'how' remains.

Richard Collins at Linen on the Hedgerow has blogged frequently recently about the need for a brick by brick approach to re-educate the Church, mooting the establishment of a confraternity or some such body, probably primarily of lay faithful to kickstart as it were, using a bottom-up approach, even putting pressure on bishops to defend the faith and the teaching of the Church. [details are still vague and apologies to Richard if I have misrepresented his views].

It seems to me that this approach could exacerbate the problem, not only of education but of the lay meddling and possibly causing yet more meetings IF that is it is not very solidly rooted in the Magisterial teaching of the Church.

It seems to me that the KEY is for orthodoxy in belief and heroic fidelity to the teaching of the Church. If such an organisation can demonstrate this, then a priest would be able not only to support the group but also to let them get on with it to a certain extent.

Perhaps, i can use as an example the choir at St. Mary Magdalen. I am not aware that Father Ray had much input, but (assuming i am right in this assumption, and apologies to Father if i am not) he did not need to because they are assiduously and professionally led and the fruit is there for all to see, or hear, even.

Is it not a case, in the final analysis that the Church simply needs to disencumber itself from all the liberal wishy-washy rubbish that has dragged it down this low in the last 50 years?

If so what will we be left with? A smaller, stronger Church that understands its mission, and the role of all the members of its body at the level of the individual, the parish, the diocese and worldwide?