Breaking New Ground

Much has been written in recent months regarding the current state of vocations and our understanding of priestly ministry. The shortage of priests is now becoming more noticeable as the age profile of those already serving in parishes increases. This crisis-for that is not too strong a word- affects both the Church in the United Kingdom and the Church in Ireland.
The age profile issue has been compounded by the consequences of the scandal of child-abuse and the numbers who in recent years have left active ministry to marry.
It will soon be too late to consider a possible resolution to the problems we face unless we take active steps now to address our difficulties.
We are continually asked to pray for vocations. We might ask what has happened to the vocations already given by the Lord but which we have in our carelessness neglected. Careless that is in the way we have nurtured vocations in seminaries, the demands we have made of our priests in parishes and our expectation that the vocation to priesthood is exclusive to the vocation of marriage.
It would be pertinent to question the nature of the seminary experience as a preparation for ordination. One friend who spent six years in a seminary before leaving just prior to the diaconate made this comment recently.
“My life in further education improved overnight. I was in normal surroundings with normal people of my own age. On the first day I was there I remember it was so good to hear the sound of two girls walking past my window wearing heels and giggling as they chatted to one another. Bizarre isn’t it? Something that is so normal seemed so different and good! All of this must underlie why so many of our priests cannot relate to women”
The Tablet published an article of mine that explored that question of a married priesthood last July (2015) under the title ‘One Man, Two Vocations’
Let’s consider first the nurturing of vocation. We have to recognise the change in our societal culture since the Second Council of the Vatican. It is significantly different in so many ways. Some of that change as Christians we might regret but we cannot ignore where we are, cannot avoid reflecting on our response to this new milieu.
Family structures have been under great strain and children growing up in families do not necessarily get the nurturing in faith that we might have had in previous years. Their experience of Parish is very different now, the creation of community is much harder with a population that ebbs and flows with the mobility of modern life. So how will young people acquire the experience that might lead to vocation?
In an article in Spirituality published in 2010, I reflected on the words of Brother Patrick Hart OSCO in the Foreword to the collection of essays “A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century”. Br. Patrick, monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Thomas Merton’s home for 27 years, makes this comment.
“When I was younger in the monastic way I had dreams of a kind of monasticism in the Christian West that would be open to young men and women who, after completing their college work and before deciding on a life situation, would retire to a monastery for several years as part of their growth process, much like Hindu and Zen Buddhist monks of the Far East have done for centuries.”
This idea has attracted me over many years and I would like to try and develop Br Patrick’s thought a little further. I do so, not as one who has experienced monastic life or the formation offered by a seminary, but as a married man with children (and now grandchildren), whose professional life has been spent teaching in schools. That I have had the privilege in recent years of being able to share the Liturgical Office with the Benedictine Community of nuns near my home in England has, in some small way, offered me an insight into lives very different from my own.
A similar model of vocational experience has recently been established at Lambeth Palace in London with the foundation of the Community of St Anselm, a gathering of men and women who for a year live in community together for prayer and encouragement yet who continue with their daily work. It will be interesting to see the fruits of such an experience.
Back in 2005 a television programme screened by the BBC followed the experience of five men at Worth Abbey. It was followed by a similar experience for a group of women in 2006 with the Poor Clares at Arundel
It showed through the dialogue between participants the fascination and attraction that the idea of a community enclosure, founded in faith, still holds for many, men and women of faith, and those of none.
In so many ways, our society has lost the language of vocation, people find it hard to differentiate day to day experience that is our lot from the vocational intent of someone who seeks purpose and fulfilment in their way of life. We see that in the frequency of marital breakdown, the lack of understanding and appreciation of long term commitment, warts and all.
The challenge that faced the Synod on the Family involved discussion of family issues that were far more complex than in previous times. The resulting document from Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, has been welcomed by many for its realism and practicality. No longer do many experience a life-long commitment to a partner in marriage. The pressures on maintaining marital fidelity are enormous and many fall under the strain. But then life has to go on.
No longer is it the norm that there is a job for life from an early age. We seek different opportunities and re-train with new skills as the economic climate demands, often interspersed with periods of unemployment. With the extension of life expectancy into the late 70s or 80s, we have had to come to terms with the stresses and strains that are placed on people as individuals and, on a wider aspect, on the societies in which they live.
No longer do families remain domiciled in the immediate village or small town of their birth but move away to other parts of the country or to other places in our shrinking world.
It could be argued that communities built from a shorter term commitment might offer younger people from fractured family backgrounds their first real sense of community living, with its inter-dependence and shared responsibility, a thread so often missing from their family experience. Our life in faith is nurtured in the patterns of our day to day living, one is not divisible from the other.
For priests, who with ordination have accepted the discipline of celibacy, their life journey in ministry is an arduous but, at the same time, a deeply rewarding path. It need not be a life of loneliness without the sustenance of a wife and family. After all, celibacy is only a discipline of the Church since 1139, not a matter of faith or doctrinal acceptance. Seamus Aherne OSA, writing on the ACP website recently made this comment.
“Very few are now joining Priesthood or Religious life. There is no take up in numbers. We cannot replace those who are retiring /dying. There are problems. Very few see this way of life as attractive. Many would also reject the celibacy attached to it as a distorted understanding of sexuality which is clearly right. But primarily we have changed as a society. The culture has changed. The religious sentiment of society has totally changed. In our time (60s), it was the very air we breathed. God made sense of life. We were God- centred. In fact many relationships happened around the community of Church life. People met. People went to youth groups. People took part in Church life. The Church was the cat-walk where the latest style went on display and beauty was discovered!”
Of course, wide-spread marriage for priests would demand a radical re-examination of the role of the priest in community and the role of the laity who form that community. Pope Francis has recently made very clear that the clericalism of the top-down model of Church is not a functional one. He wrote that…
“Looking to the People of God is to remember that we all made our entrance into the Church as laypeople. The first sacrament … is baptism.”
“The first and fundamental consecration sinks its roots in our baptism. No one is baptized a priest or a bishop. They baptized us as laypeople and it is the indelible sign that no one can ever wipe away.”
Clearly change would demand radical examination of how the Christian Community thrives and functions in the 21st Century. It would directly ask the question that Sydney Carter posed in one of his songs, The Present Tense:
“… so shut your bible up and show me how, the Christ you talk about is living now”
Rather than the people ‘doing what Father says’ the culture of ‘let’s work together and live out our mission of the Gospel” has to be developed and encouraged.
That is why there is a now a clear necessity for Commissions to be set up both in the UK and Ireland by the respective bishops’ conferences to examine the whole issue before the model we are currently struggling to manage breaks and we are left to pick up the pieces.
Such a commission – already set up by the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference after Bishop Krautler met with Francis to discuss the plight of his diocesan numbers and a lack of priests– would be a good way forward. It would be the forum for exchange of views between laity, priests and bishops to examine our circumstances and so seek solutions to a real problem. It would give transparency to the exchange that is so often lacking, when decisions are made behind closed doors and we only find out what is proposed in a fine trickle of leaks and unofficial disclosures.
Those who wish to see a return to a Church that is pre-Vatican II as a way forward are, in fact, walking into a cul-de-sac that offers only nostalgia.
Such reflection will demand personal honesty as we seek to find new patterns in our lives, not totally disconnected from the mainspring of past experience, but developing from it in the light of changed times. Maturity is not just measured by age, the wise old man knowing more that the bright young up-start. Maturity is reflective, thoughtful, emotionally tested and leads often to untried ways for the mature person has the courage to walk new paths.
Fr Daniel O’Leary, in his address to the ACTA Conference – ‘A Call to Action’, a renewal group in the UK, entitled his words with the phrase “Courageous Conversations”. An apt title, for it does take courage to question the status quo, to ask if structures are still fit for purpose and if not, why not? Courage for priests who may well (and often have been) sanctioned by their bishop for speaking out with views that are honestly held. Courage for bishops whose cautious approach to diocesan problems is the result of looking over their shoulder to Rome and the courage of laity, who for far too long have been the top-down recipients of decisions made by others when, in fact they have a significant and faith-filled point of view to contribute.
Access to the web, broad experience of tertiary education, the wide availability of books, all these have contributed to thoughtful and reflective communities. The parish is no longer a common land enclosure for a small group lacking experience of the wider world.
Our third option, of complaining that all is lost and there is no renewal possible, is no option at all for a Christian who journeys in hope and trust in the Lord.
It is a small leap of faith towards the ideas outlined by Patrick Hart in his Foreword that might in fact rejuvenate vocations in our own time. Maybe the chance to spend a dedicated period of time in prayer, reflecting on the truths of our Christian Faith might not only help individuals in their own formation, but allow them to bring back to their immediate surroundings, both in the workplace and in personal friendships, the values of such communities.
There will be those who find through this gradual experience, that the call of God extends beyond a limited time and asks a life-long stability within a community or serving in a parish. So be it. What is noticeable is that those who do seek admission, either to a diocesan seminary or a monastic community, are no longer likely to be youngsters with little life-familiarity. They are more mature men and women who have experience of the rough and tumble of life. Not only do they have a clearer idea of what it is they seek, they also know what they will be relinquishing in order that they might pursue this dedicated path. That can only be good for them as individuals and benefit the larger community whom they serve.
Last year, Pope Francis announced that 2015 would be a year dedicated to the promotion of consecrated life. He asked the church’s religious sisters, brothers and priests to “wake up the world” with their testimony of faith, holiness and hope. But isn’t that a responsibility that all Christians carry? And what greater testimony would there be of faith, holiness and hope if a Christian Parish Community were to see that role model in the priest who shared the Eucharist with them?
For married or not, they will be relinquishing a great deal, the demands of their priesthood, their love for their wife and children, will not be an easy ride. Given the financial implications of a married clergy, it is very likely that they will be non-stipendiary
Where new tracks are taken after older walkways appear to have come to an end, the reason for the alternative choice, whether it is life-long or short-term, is to seek and experience the love of God. Only then can the patterns of life be determined and new ground broken.
Chris McDonnell
Chris McDonnell is a retired Headteacher, having taught in London, Leeds and on Merseyside before his first headship in Staffordshire in 1978. Since that date he has had two further headships, both in LEA schools in the state sector.
He has published in the field of Mathematical education and has contributed over the years to on-going discussions in the Catholic Press, journals and on various blog sites. He wrote a book on school assemblies-Signposts and contributed the text for Walk with me, both published by McCrimmons. He was one of the opening speakers at the Call to Action meeting at Heythrop College in October 2012. He is currently national secretary to the Movement for Married Clergy. He writes a regular column in the Catholic Times-Journey in faith.
He is married, with three grown up children and eight grandchildren. To keep sane on the way through, he also writes poetry from time to time.

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One Comment

  1. Con Devree says:

    Dear Moderator,
    The problem is not going to be a shortage of priests. It will be one of a shortage of Catholics. Observe the Mass attendance rats of young marrieds.
    Mathematically there will be enough priests per head of population nationally. The situation will be somewhat akin to that of Church of Ireland ministers – broad areas to cover.
    Zambia 1974 to 1977.
    A typical rural parish. Forty miles wide by 40 miles long. Nine Mass stations of which the priest visited three each week, depending on the weather. There seemed no probability of enough Zambian priests to replace the Europeans/Americans. Today there are Zambian African priests serving in South Africa.
    Until recently we had no shortage of priests. But Catholicism crumbled. Who is to blame??? Despite the adequate numbers of priests the people chose to go more secular.
    I suggest it’s not a numbers game — only or at all. Like many more I think I know what’s needed. Suffice it to say that the analysis needs to be deepened – what is it that would lead people to have a sense of need for the Catholic way of life. Is this not a gift. What’s its source? Why have some of us felt the need at some point in life to “drink from the well.?”
    Mass and holy Communion are the source and summit. But there has to be a certain character to the way they are received and reverences before any gift will accrue. Mere consumption of the Host does not create automatic improvement.
    But this is where to start, with reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. Ironically in Ireland such reverence is disappearing. Priests seem unworried about it. Fear? lack of belief?
    It’s not the political party with the most activists on the ground that wins the election!!

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