10 June 2012

Priests And Laity: Whose Role Is It Anyway?

I published a set of posts a couple of months back about the development of the structures of the Catholic Bishops' Conference, and the way in which so much changed in England and Wales after the National Passtoral Congress held in Liverpool in 1980.  It was reading the comments made by Bishop Fellay about the Examination of Conscience for Priests that made me think just how different are the starting points for what might be called Tabletistas and what might be called Trads (supply your own labels if you want) about what priests are for.

My contention is that Liverpool 1980 was a sort of Year Zero - perhaps better, a Stunde Null - for England and Wales: the occasion for progressives and spirit-of-Vatican-2-ists, careerists and clericalist bagmen, to come together in a sham democracy to redefine one of the more conservative pockets of Catholicsm and impose this new definition on a largely uncomprehending population as something they had asked for.

This was going to be about priests, but, as I mentioned last time, the priests were rather squeezed out between an assertice collective of Bishops in the CBC and a voluble set of lay people who had self selected as representatives of the Catholic Laity and whose self-selection had been ratified by the Bishops.  This means that the role of the priest in the new polity being created and the role of the laity would be made less distinct, particularly at the edges, as what Carlo (you need to remember The Universe's forum at its height) described as the Ladies in Green Cardigans pressed closer to the altar and the priest was pushed towards the chair at the top of the parish committee table.

I went through the process in some detail last time so I won't repeat myself.  There are three parts: the discussion paper which set the direction for thinking before the Congress; the formal report back of those attending the Congress; and the Bishops' subsequent response.

First, then, the discussion paper.  It starts with a vignette of parish life:


The O'Brien family are getting ready for Sunday Mass.

Mr O'Brien shouts loudly upsptairs: For goodness sake get a move on everyone - I'm steward today. Are you one of the ministers for Holy Communion this week, Ann?' 'No, I'm next week', calls down his wife.

Twelve-year-old Alison is carrying her guitar: it is the week of the Folk Mass. Next week it will be the Sung English Mass. In the hall they pause for a moment. 'Oh, Simon, do rub your shoes with a tissue - they won't look too good on the altar'. Six-year-old Jane is humming to herself. 'What do you think we will make today?' she asks. This is because during the Liturgy of the Word, the children go out into the hall to read their own bible, sing, draw a picture of the Gospel story and make up their own bidding prayers; they come back into the church with the offertory procession.

At church, Mr O'Brien joins another man and a woman who are stewards with him. Their job is to welcome newcomers, give out newsletters and hymn books, and show people to seats. They also check that the readers, the servers and the girls who prepare the altar have arrived. If they haven't, they find others. They also find four people to take up the collection: different people do this each week. The young instrumentalists practise under their leader (aged 16), and mothers hurry in and out of the hall where the under 5's are already settled before Mass starts. There is the cheerful buzz of a large number of people getting ready. Someone walks up to the lectern to set down the sheet with the bidding prayers - this week they have been written by the house group that meets in Oak Tree Drive; last week it was the turn of the choir.

Just on time, Father arrives from the other Mass centre in the parish. Everyone takes part in the Mass: prayer, music, silence, Communion under both kinds; a few notices are read; there is coffee after Mass. The Newsletter announces a disco in the hall for teenagers; a youth discussion at Father's house on Friday; a group for mothers and under 5's; a retired people's coffee morning; a meeting of the local council of churches; a prayer group in the quiet room; the starting up of a justice and Peace group; two house groups meet this week and the Parish Council next week; the UCM are organising Bingo at the Old Folks' home; and the parish learns it raised £1 per head for the Cafod project over Christmas.

After Mass, people stay on to chat. `Are you coming to the ramble this afternoon?' someone shouts. Father is talking to some newcomers, while the parish finance and maintenance committee wait to have a quick word with him - the two of them casting a critical eye on the roof ... in this parish the laity have taken on responsibility for financial affairs.

This may not be the picture in every parish, but it is a picture of an actual parish - a parish of shared ministry: men and women, the old, the young, the practical, the intellectual - giving service, caring and sharing. St Paul talks of many ministries in the body of Christ; Vatican II talks of partnership between all in the mission of the Church.


Note that the writer says that this is the picture of an "actual parish" not a real one: there were no parishes like this in England and Wales in 1978 when this piece first began to be put together apart from those run by the two or three priests who were nationally notorious for doing exactly this sort of thing.  To take just one example: the idea of "stewards" would have been bafflingly unthinkable in any normal parish. 

(Interestingly, the one potentially good idea in all of this - that of training "girls" to be sacristans - would disappear, probably so that they could become altar-girls instead, to prepare them for becoming priests subsequently.)

As if this word picture wasn't enough, the points for discussion tell us exactly the direction in which we are travelling.



Being the Church
• How do people think of the Church:
(a) some think of it as the building where they go to Mass.
(b) some see it as an organisation that exists for the benefit people who belong to it, to the exclusion of others.
(c) some see it as a family, whose members love and care other, spreading their love to other people.
(d) in the Gospel, Jesus talks of the seed which grows into a mighty tree; of a vine with many spreading branches.

• Do you think these ideas help us to understand the Church?

• What would you say to describe the Church to someone? How would you explain what it means to belong to the Church?

Worship in the Parish
• How do you as a parish pray together at Mass:
(a) what part do people take in the Mass?
(b) what responsibility do lay people have for the preparation of worship at Sunday Mass?
How do you feel about this?
What do you think of the Sunday Mass described in the story?
In your parish, are there any particular groups who do not feel their needs for worship are met: e.g., young children; the old; the handicapped; teenagers; those disturbed by change.

• Do other celebrations involve the whole parish: e.g., baptisms; marriages; funerals; Sunday evening service - how are these prepared for? How could their celebration be improved?

• Some people say: 'I find it easier to pray to God in my heart. When I go to Church I am put off by the other people there.' What are your feelings about this?
People in the Parish Community
• What do you think of the work of lay people and religious in the parish?
The people in the story achieve community by planning and working together.
How does your parish compare?
Do lay men and women share in decision making in your parish?
Should they playy a greater part in this?
How could this be organised?
How do young people fit into the parish?
What about other special groups?
Do women have a special part to play?

• Pope John Paul II says that the supreme task of the priest is the spiritual formation of people.
What do you think the real work of the priest in the parish should be?
What prevents him from fulfilling his main task as priest?
How can he be helped?

• How can the bishop help the parish community to live up to its mission?
The Parish in the Community around it
• The parish has a responsibility to the people in the area who don't go to any church. How would you describe this responsibility? What could be done to be more effective? What do you see as the obstacles and difficulties? How might these be overcome?

• How does your parish work with the other parishes and the diocese?

• What are your relations with other Christian bodies in the neighbourhood?
Have you any suggestions as to how you can work better together?

• What can we all do to make ourselves and other Christians more alive? What kind of changes do we need in our structures so that all of us can work together to make Christian people more nearly like Christ: so that we can become:
a praying community;
a teaching community;
an apostolic community;
a witnessing community;
a serving community.


Note well what is being said here about the role of the priest, and how lay people in the discussion groups are to treat the words of the Pope.  "Pope John Paul II says that the supreme task of the priest is the spiritual formation of people.  What do you think the real work of the priest in the parish should be?  What prevents him from fulfilling his main task as priest?  How can he be helped?"

This is, to me, scandalous.  A clever linguistic trick that can be explained away by telling a Vatican monsignore that his English isn't up to understanding our language like a native speaker contrasts what the Pope says the supreme task of the priest is and what the discussing laity think the real work of the priest in the parish should be.  Look out for Catholic words as well, or, rather, mark their absence: "sacrifice", "penitential", "mystery", "alter Christus".  The author has drunk deep at the well of NewChurch and is determined to bring us all with him.

But this isn't all, and this might anyway have been a stalking horse.  What the discussion groups are being asked to work out is not the nature of lay participation in parish life, but its extent; not whether they should run the parish, but how they should run the parish.  This is the point at which the polity of the Church in England and Wales is being changed in a dramatic demonstration of the Hermeneutic of Rupture: the reaction to this scandalous document will become the way the Bishops describe the NewChurch they are creating.

But you'll have to wait for Part 2.

3 comments:

Genty said...

Oh, the ladies in green cardies. I'd laugh if I didn't want to cry. These days they are more likely to be in what the Americans call "pant suits".
The dead giveaway is the first heading: Being the Church.
I must say I gasped when I got to the "real work of the priest". What a coup for the bishops to have supine priests at the mercy of snitching parishioners. A triumph for hierarchical clericalism.
I had no idea this was happening as late as 1980. I thought the worst had been done long before (and none of it in my name). I'm very grateful for your disinterring this horror, Ttony. It explains much about the wilful demolition of the Catholic Church in E&W; the Reformation completed.
Who were the bishops at the time?

David O'Neill said...

I so agree. A congregation isn't 'doing' anything unless it is 'doing' everything. It is strangely wonderful that some of these 'doers' come to an EF Mass & realise that 'doing' things gets in the way of God DOING things to & for them. They quite often suddenly realise that the church is much more sacred when all & sundry aren't swapping ideas after Mass without leaving the church. I recall once suggesting to a priest that we should rent out the OF Mass congregation to our local (Premiership) football club as a 'rent-a-crowd'

Sarah Soto said...

You know, I started reading your post in the midle and thought it was a spoof.
Akin to those architects drawings of the 50s on of concrete wastelands - spindly trees, pedestriands dot piazzas,which planners genuinely seem to have thought would turn city centres into the Kingdom of God on earth.