Relations between priests and people are under strain
One of the great blessings that I have experienced since my ordination has been the relationship with many faithful people in the parishes that I serve. Their support, kindness and generosity have certainly allowed my own ministry to flourish and take root.
But I am concerned that the relationship between priest and people could be undermined by the developments, amalgamations and reorganisations that are currently taking place all over the Western world. Several weeks ago I was on holiday in a Welsh diocese and on the Sunday enjoyed going to Mass in a small but full church. The congregation were welcoming and I was sad to learn that they will soon lose their Sunday morning Mass, which is to be replaced by a Saturday evening Mass.
The dedicated parish priest at present cares for two parishes which are more than 20 miles apart and is due to take on a third over the summer. He estimates that under the proposed new arrangements his Sunday travel alone will amount to 150 miles along small and slow rural roads.
The danger with this sort of reorganisation is that the relationship between priest and people is diminished. Distances can be overcome, but if they prevent the development of lasting bonds then a gulf can be created which damages the mission of the Church.
If a priest merely arrives, celebrates Mass and then is off to the next place, he will never properly get to know his people. Priests are being told that they should “smell of the sheep”, and yet current demands and circumstances are often resulting in them spending less and less time alongside parishioners.
Even in urban parishes, where distances are shorter, having priests ministering in multiple settings can leave communities feeling uncared for or neglected. This is the case in poorer parishes where the laity may not be as well equipped as in middle-class parishes to assume roles of responsibility. There may also be difficulties for clergy in adjusting to new responsibilities and situations.
For laity and clergy to flourish there needs to be interdependence. Communities have always been strongest when both priest and people recognise this. The development of the secular priesthood in Britain since the Reformation has been shaped by this supportive exchange.
We can probably recall instances where this relationship has not been fostered, resulting in clericalism on the one hand or a dominant and overbearing clique of laity on the other. Neither is helpful, healthy or fruitful.
When priests are spread more thinly, it is possible that a vacuum of leadership emerges. It can feel as if provision of Masses is the main driver and that the priest’s role as leader and pastor is secondary. Yet it is through these charisms of priesthood that gifts and talents within a community are identified, nurtured and given shape.
As a young man, I became more involved in the life of my local church, which fostered my own sense of priestly vocation, precisely because I was encouraged by my pastor. Priests therefore become builders of community, making present Christ’s power to heal, unify and sanctify. This is a form of leadership that cannot be separated from the sacramental ministry of the priesthood.
No amount of positive lay leadership can take its place. There are, of course, always examples of where lay leadership has successfully brought growth. But just as the baptised are set apart from the world and become Christian, by Holy Orders priests are set apart for the community to provide nourishment through sacramental ministry and leadership.
Things cannot remain as they are. I just hope that the life-giving exchange between people and priest is recognised in any new arrangements, allowing for the mutual flourishing of all. Most of all, in these new and uncertain times we need a stronger identity of priesthood coupled with a renewed trust and determination among lay people. This will require us to become less risk-averse and precious in seeking new ways to foster this relationship. Please pray for your priests as we pray for you.
Pastor Iuventus is away
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