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,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!
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?…
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.
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.