11 June 2012

Priests And Laity: Whose Role Is It Anyway (Part 2)

The delegates to the Congress discussed the role of priests, religious and the laity and we are lucky that we have two records: the summary of the input from those who followed the discussion outlined yesterday and the formal report back.  The notes of the local discussions are, shall we say, less nuanced than the formal report.

Priesthood: What is the role of the priest?

There is a significant agreement on how people see the role and task of the priest:

He is to serve God's people, particularly by meeting their spiritual needs through celebrating the Eucharist, leading prayer, praying and counselling.

He is to give leadership: ‘to inspire and animate the laity to fulfil their role in the life of the Church'.

He is to visit, make contact, build living relationships with the people; this is particularly important for families and youngsters.

What a dispiriting vision of the man consecrated to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass!  But remember that the people at the Congress are not a representation of Catholics in England and Wales: they are drawn from a narrow, ideologically-focused, group which is in alliance with the more progressive Bishops, led by Hume and Worlock, to implement their vision of Vatican II.  They criticised the quality of preaching, but their suggestions for change start to give the ideological game away:

Weekly parish discussions on the Sunday readings and an openness on the part of priests to accept comment and criticism from parishioners. A distinct feeling exists that priests should give greater encouragement to lay people to use their talents more. Many stress the importance of fostering the right sort of relationships within parishes.

Some see a need for a change of attitude on the part of clergy so that they become more sensitive, open to new ideas and above all willing to listen and to share responsibility with lay people. A few expressed concern that the life style of clergy should not be middle class or remote, but open and challenging.

I was thrown at first by discussion of Permanent Deacons and Nuns:

Some reports state clearly that there is little point in having deacons except where there is acute shortage of priests. Others acknowledge that the number of deacons is likely to increase in the future, but do not find this an exciting prospect.

Some see the role of the deacons positively. They see their main role as pastoral work: ministry to the housebound, the elderly, catechesis and marriage preparation, witness in secular situations. Worker deacons are seen as an alternative to industrial chaplains.

Not many saw a significant liturgical role for deacons, preferring to see a larger role for lay people.

Since Vatican II religious orders have extensively reviewed their way of life and redefined their particular apostolates. A considerable change of outlook has resulted.

They have gradually reinterpreted their role in the life of the Church and many communities have explored new possibilities for their work.

The new potential offered by religious communities is not widely understood in parishes.

The work of sisters in parishes

Where sisters have worked in parish ministry, a much more positive response is often found, urging their involvement in all aspects of parish life.

Many sisters now live in small open communities within the parishes and this seems to be very welcome. They contribute to the life of the parish in many ways, for example:
• Preparing liturgy, especially with children and young people.
• Preparing children for the sacraments.
• Working with the mentally handicapped.
• Marriage preparation and family support groups.

It is felt by a number of people that religious can help the parish to deepen its own sense of community by the witness of their life and involvement. They can also do this by stimulating and leading small groups such as prayer groups, house groups or study groups.

It all feels a bit lukewarm, but of course, the answer is ataring me in the face:

Lay People In The Church

Lay people appear to be more aware than they have ever been of their right and duty to make a full contribution to the life and mission of the Church. The enthusiastic way in which many have participated in the Congress and found it to be valuable is a measure of this awareness.

Many do not see why they should not share responsibility for meeting each other's spiritual needs and act upon this by organising and leading prayer groups, retreats, vigils, pilgrimages, and similar activities.

In this they see themselves as working in close cooperation with their priests whose role of leadership and presiding at the celebration remains central.

And, of course:


Opinions vary on this issue. Parish and diocesan reports on the whole show a comparative lack of interest in it; but reports from special groups and organisations submit firm proposals and strong comment.

There is one central theme in the few reports received on the question: that the ministry of women should have ‘full and open discussion'. ‘The Church must find ways to accept and to use to the full the gifts and talents of women; without this, the ministry of the Church is incomplete'.

At present many women feel they are only called upon to do catering and domestic work in the Church. They want to participate fully in decision making in parish life.

Their ability to care for people should be channelled into a pastoral ministry with the elderly, the handicapped, the sick.

They should exercise a ‘rightful role in the worship of the Church' by being allowed to serve at the altar, encouraged to read, to preach, and to act as special ministers of Holy Communion.

Women and the Ministries

Some feminist groups feel that the Church's attitude to women is unjust. They wish to see some form of ordained ministry open to women.

The groups propose the diaconate as an appropriate ministry for which there is scriptural and historical precedent.

With regard to the ordained priesthood, the same minority groups feel that the Church does not have the right to deny women the possibility of a vocation, and feel that potential vocations should at least be tested.

At least it is honest: dioceses and parishes have shown little interest; special interest groups have special interests.  But it is the special interest groups, the groups who want their role to increase and the priest's to decrease who are on the front foot.  Deacons are a potential threat to their vision, because they are lay men (or maybe women?) who have become clericalised; nuns will be accepted if they become declericalised.

Ironically, it was a nun, Sr Imelda Marie O'Hara LSU, who was responsible for the report back.  Just the title gives an idea of how things have developed: "The People of God - Ministry, Vocation, Apostolate".  It begins with a ringing statement that puts the laity in an empowered central position, Baptism having endowed each of us with rights in respect of the Church's ministries:

OUR baptism gives us both the right and the duty to participate in the various ministries of the Church. We recognise the unique role of ordained ministers with regard to sacrament and word, but we believe that all other responsibilities should be shared fully with all the people of God, and shared rather than delegated.

What about priests and deacons?

The priest should be free to pray, to celebrate the sacraments well and to preach. Mindful of the spiritual needs of his parishioners he should foster the development of prayer-groups and house Masses in his parish, both of which enable priest and people to listen and to talk to each other.

We see it as a top priority that every priest should accept regular inservice training and spiritual renewal as a normal part of his priestly life. So highly do we rate this need that it leads most of us to accept that some parishes might even be deprived of Sunday Mass at these times. Where teams of lay people, sisters, deacons and priests could operate more effectively than one priest working alone in a parish, we urge that this be done.

The inestimable value of celibacy was unanimously accepted, but we ask that careful consideration be given to the question whether it be God's will that married men should at this time be called to the priesthood. A more detailed exploration of the possibility of admitting women to the ordained 'ministries was also felt to be necessary. It was urged that particular attention be given to fostering the personal and spiritual maturity of those to be ordained.

In considering the diaconate we felt the need for the Church in England and Wales to be led to a clearer understanding of this ministry and to the way in which it operates in our countries. Lay ministries should not be stifled by establishing the ministry of deacons.

In general the delegates were looking for more positive encouragement and energetic leadership from bishops and from priests.

Nuns come between the Role of the Laity and the Role of Women: the sisters seemed not to have much time for the Sisters; but it is in the report's peroration, entitled Different Ministries But Shared Responsibility that we get what is wanted, the rebalancing between priest and laity.  There is more than this, but this will do:

In the light of what we have been considering about the Church we now wish to add something about the various forms of ministry, or service, in the Church, some ordained and some not ordained, but each in its own way sharing responsibility. In the Congress in Liverpool the maturity, strength and apostolic courage of the lay delegates were clearly to be recognised, together with their desire for a more responsible role in the future. We should like to see the lay members of our Church, men and women, young and old, become steadily more aware of their true dignity as the people of God and of their daily calling as baptised Christians to evangelise the society in which they live and work. Their role brings out an essential dimension of the work of the Church, an extension of Christ's kingdom to wherever they are in God's creation. For they are not simply delegates of the bishops and clergy, they are gospel-inspired lay-people, members of the laos (or people) of God, and in their own right missionaries of Christ to the world. 'The primary and immediate task of lay people is to put to use every Christian and evangelical possibility latent but already present and active in the affairs of the world. The more gospel-inspired lay-people there are engaged in these realities, clearly involved in them, competent to promote them and conscious that they must exercise to the full their Christian powers which are often buried and suffocated, the more these realities will be at the service of the kingdom of God and therefore of salvation in Jesus Christ' (Evangelii nuntiandi, n. 70). In many ways the lay contribution to the Congress was its most striking feature. We desire to see its development, not in a spirit of take-over from one ministry or another - any more than was the case in the Congress - but as a proper, fully recognised and responsible extension of the Christian mission of our Sharing Church.

In the final part, we will see how this was transmuted into the CBCEW's concerted plan for the post-conciliar Church in England and Wales and I will draw some uncomfortable conclusions.

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