Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Within 25 years, this Church will be a Carpetright

One of the parishes I attend from time-to-time has recently had a new parish priest. As I hadn't attended mass there since before Easter, I didn't know how he was settling in and what sort of man he was.

It just so happened that the priest had decided to give a "state of the nation" type homily at the mass I attended and it was very interesting to watch the reaction of the regular parishioners, especially as his last words were "Within 25 years, this church will be a Carpetright".

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

I should begin be stating that I do not believe the parish priest has a hidden Carpetright agenda. To the best of my knowledge, he doesn't hold any shares in the company nor is he related to any of the executive board of directors. Truth be told, I don't think even Carpetright would want the building as it is a stark and uninspiring edifice, typical of the penchant for liturgical iconoclasm present in the church architecture of the nineteen sixties. Think Liverpool Cathedral on a smaller scale. Thankfully, parish life does not mimic this structure as I have always found it to be a relatively active and welcoming community. 

In making this rather alarming statement, the parish priest was placing the potential fate of the parish in the context of declining mass attendance in Menevia which, according to his homily, has seen a 25% reduction since 1986.

And now for something completely different...

The homily which preceded the closing statement largely concerned the renewal of parish life and it brought up some interesting considerations regarding the nature of the relationship between the priest and the community.  These considerations were precipitated as it seems that since the old parish priest had left, the new parish priest had been inundated with requests to reverse previous policies which had probably been in effect for almost 10 years. Thus the parishioners asked for the reintroduction of the May Procession and the restoration of a statue of Our Lady of Fatima to a side chapel. The parish has a long memory.

In responding to these requests, the priest iterated that his primary role was to "preach the word of God" and that he would not let anything prevent him from doing so. He also intonated that he was averse to any model of parish life which prevented the "welling up of the Holy Spirit" in the faithful, especially as to do otherwise would leave the community at the disposition of "the skills, temperament, interests and energy of one man".

As an exemplar, he alluded to the first reading for the day from the Acts of the Apostles where the Hellenists made a complaint against the Hebrews, suggesting that their own widows were being overlooked in the distribution of alms. The Apostles responded

"It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food; you, brothers, must select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom; we will hand over this duty to them, and continue to devote ourselves to prayer and to the service of the word." [1]

The priest therefore suggested that the parishioners form groups and get on with things themselves. He would be more than happy to attend each group from time-to-time when his involvement was necessary.

Opinion Poll

I'm not quite sure how the parishioners took this homily. As I looked around, there were a few quiet exchanges and furrowed brows. Interpretted in one light, the homily could be taken as a rather damning indictment of the previous parish priest who I know was greatly loved by many parishioners. From another, it could be considered to be a radical empowerment of the laity who were to act when "the spirit moved them". Knowing how fractious parish life can be with it's various power groups and invested interests, that might be a recipe for disaster. What if "the spirit" prompts some groups into hetrodoxy?

What also are we to make of the priest's desire to "restrict" himself to "preaching the word of God"? The examples he gave regarding the reinstitution of the May procession and statue of Our Lady of Fatima seem a little strange in this context as I would suggest that liturgy is one of the primary means in which the Word of God is expounded. Is it not the duty of the priest to foster Faith by making the sacraments freely available and by promoting devotion amongst his parishioners?

I suspect the answer to these questions lies in the partnership between the parishioners and the parish priest, each using the charisms appropriate to their role. The priest is delegated authority by the bishop and is charged with guiding his flock, preserving them from error and nourishing them in Faith. He is also the servant of the parish, called to respond to the unique needs of people under his care. The laity are called to "seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will". [2] Together, as a parish, both priest and laity are initiated into "the ordinary expression of the liturgical life: it gathers them together in this celebration; it teaches Christ's saving doctrine; it practices the charity of the Lord in good works and brotherly love." [3]

I look forward to my next visit to the parish to see how things have progressed.

[1] Acts 6:1-7
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §898
[3] Ibid, §2179

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