The prophet Isaiah spoke of ‘a voice crying out in the wilderness’, of ‘preparing the way of the Lord’. In so many ways we are in a wilderness again, a time of radical change and uncertainty, a time of confusion and doubt. One option when faced with significant problems is to go back and seek the security of what used to be, the cosiness and comfort of home of recent memory.
But that course of action ignores the words of Isaiah. How can you prepare the way of the Lord by your concern for your own comfort?
There are indeed voices in our own time that cry in this wilderness that we inhabit, lonely voices that seek to point a direction that we do not listen to, do not hear. They ask the uncomfortable questions, the ‘why nots’ that many would prefer to ignore.
Faced with a severe shortage of priests, the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich, Reinhard Marx, has shown his willingness to be such a voice. Speaking at the Diocesan council’s plenary assembly on March 18th, 2017 the cardinal said the Archdiocese of Munich would introduce a pilot project in this autumn with new models of parish leadership. Specifically, he said, full-time and voluntary lay personnel would take over parishes. He premised his argument on the basis that parish amalgamations were not an option. The ever-increasing size of such clusters diminished the local church presence within the community. It is the model that here in the UK has often been the path chosen by our bishops.
The heart of the matter lies in our present view of the nature of priesthood, the assumption that a Christian community cannot exist without a priest. Time and again in Third World countries where there is conflict and persecution, we read that it is the community catechists who are attacked, those laity who lead and teach their local people in the absence of a priest. They have been vital for the survival of the Church in difficult times. And many, if not most, are women. Given the centrality of the Eucharist to our faith, could not some of these proven people, celebrate with the community?
Our model in the West has been for men to experience six years of seminary training (or more if we include the discredited Junior seminaries) and then be placed by the bishop in a particular parish, about which they knew little or nothing. The idea of a person being called from their community, to serve their community has lost credibility. It is this concept that we ought to explore. That is why the first tentative steps in formation for pastoral leaders in parishes rather than the closure of parishes or the creation of ever-increasing numerical entities is a courageous and welcome initiative.
Another bishop whose voice is being recognised on the same issue is the retired South African bishop, Fritz Lobinger. He writes of visiting the community of Mmusong, high in the mountains of South Africa, where trained catechists and elders sustain the faith of the people. They would only receive a visit from an ordained priest two or three times a year.“Each time I went home with the same painful question in my heart: “Why can I give only a blessing to those leaders? Why can I not ordain some of them? When will the day come when I can ordain the proven leaders of our communities?”
If we persist in seeking a priesthood with an academic background of seminary training, we will never fulfil the needs of real people in real places. The model in the Early Church was different. Lobinger goes on to say: “I equally know that the early church indeed did ordain local leaders who were married, had received brief local training, were chosen by the local community, and had proven their worthiness over some time”.
‘Faith’ is not found in three years of philosophy, but rather in the shared practice of day to day living, the recognition of goodness and the acknowledgement of the teacher. Cardinal Marx has acknowledged that the Church needs many different and yet well-networked locations for its pastoral work. It was imperative for church life to stay alive locally so that people would continue to encounter the Gospel message. And he underlined that since the Eucharist remained the source and summit of the Church’s life and activities, it must always take centre stage.
No one solution will solve all of our problems but we will solve none of them unless we consider options that may at first seem uncomfortable. The first Christians set out with the witness of apostles and elders who led the way. It was an uncluttered life of faith and conviction. Let’s listen to the voices that cry now in our wilderness for they have a story to tell.