Imagine no parish priest
The Tablet07 June 2017 | by John Deehan The vocations ‘crisis’ occupies an increasingly central place in church discussions. But sometimes a detailed thinking through of the consequences of some proposals is missing. A priest takes up that challenge / by John Deehan
When looking to the future, and changes that we might introduce, we sometimes need to do thought experiments. Here’s one of mine, on a possible future for the priesthood.
Imagine our bishops offered the Catholic community a referendum with two questions, “Do you wish your parish to be staffed by a married parish priest at the earliest opportunity” and, “Do you wish to be served by married non-stipendiary priests?”
After a long discussion as to who should be given a vote – Mass-going Catholics, paid- up Catholics, or all certified Catholics – imagine the referendum is held and a resolution for change passed by a narrow majority, with a considerable number of non-voters. Let’s call it “Prexit” – “exiting from traditional priestly parish structures”! The bishops, traditionally assumed to be “Remainers” announce that they will do their best to facilitate this great change; but it would be up to each parish to consider its needs and decide how it should implement the change.
I would probably have voted as a cautious “Prexiteer”, but what would then follow? Given my age, I would effectively be involved in finding my successor. What would be the next step? First, I would announce the referendum decision at the weekend Masses. By this time of course it would already be old news as the media would have got hold of the story. Pundits would have been interviewed – some upbeat about the opportunities for the Church to finally enter the “real world”, others mourning the end of the world as they knew it.
At the end of Mass, people would probably greet me as usual and pass by, perhaps not feeling it was the appropriate time for a conversation. A few would say, “Well done; it’s about time” while one or two would say they would never receive Communion from a married priest. As the weeks went by, I would meet several people who thought it was a great idea, but few would be asking about the details, seeing them as someone else’s concern. The gospel passage about sewing an unshrunken piece of cloth on to an old garment might come to mind (Mark 2:21).
Next the parish council would have to be consulted. Their role until now has been to help their parish priest make decisions for the good of the parish, but in this case the fundamental decision would already have been made. Now the question was how we might implement it in our particular parish. Here I might propose that we start thinking about a non-stipendiary married man drawn from the parishioners. A considerable number of the council are women, not all with Catholic partners. Though generally in favour, they might feel distant from the question, and I would anticipate a general sense that, while most people favoured the initiative in principle, fewer would put themselves forward for the role, or know people who might.
Some, of course, would want to know more about what it would mean in practice. What would the person have to do? How much time would it take? What sort of training would be needed? So, it would be agreed that further discussions would be necessary and the whole subject would be put on the agenda for the next meeting after, say, three months.
This would give time to test the waters by talking to a few people directly. Again, the principle might well be welcomed but uncertainty would remain over what people might actually do. Many would not be able to imagine themselves in that role – standing up in front of all those people; finding things to say in the homily after the first few weeks. Assuming they would have to continue working, how would they reconcile the demands of work, family and their new role? And even retired people can be run ragged these days.
Some – perhaps many – would say they could not commit; they needed to get away on a regular basis for family and recreational needs. This reluctance to commit is familiar to priests today. In many parishes, it is very difficult to get unconditional commitment to even the minor ministries such as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, readers or servers, let alone catechists. Everyone requires flexibility. There has to be a constant juggling of rotas and recruitment processes to fill the gaps. Reorganising the parish structures to suit the needs of these volunteer priests would be a considerable challenge.
I recall the words of an Anglican vicar friend who has worked with non-stipendiary clergy. She reminded me that, at the end of the day, these people are volunteers, and there is only so much one can ask of volunteers, even for Sunday services. That is before we consider the other traditional tasks of the priest – confessions, sacraments to the sick and housebound, weddings and funerals, and so on. In the final analysis, there really has to be someone who “holds the fort”.
The finance committee, for their part, might favour the non-stipendiary pathway as this would be “revenue neutral”, but they would anticipate financial problems down the road when my married successor took over. The cost of a “traditional” priest, based on a stipend commensurate with the Christmas and Easter Offerings, Mass stipends and other add-ons such as housekeeping is manageable, but under the new system they would question whether the “business” (the parish) would be able to afford appropriate remuneration, given its limited resources for generating income. The offerings of the people, though generous, currently just about cover costs, along with rental income. Would the diocese be able to pay the surplus and if so for how long? The parish house might be sold, as the new priest would have his own accommodation, but it is also used for administration and meetings. Where would those be accommodated?
In my thought experiment, we are now a few months down the road and the Promised Land is still on the horizon. Unresolved questions remain: were we applying a managerial solution to what was more than a managerial problem? Had we seriously thought about the job description and person specification, as some of our finance committee might have put it? Had the parish thought seriously about the cost? Were we starting from the wrong place? The need to pray for vocations and how to discern and foster them has not gone away. But neither has the need to think through seriously and in detail the consequences of “solutions” that we might propose.
Fr John Deehan is parish priest of St Thomas More Parish in Eastcote, Middlesex.