Brendan Hoban: People-led parishes are the only way forward               

Western People 1.8.2023

There was a famous parish once with a famous priest. A hands-on man, he ticked all the boxes of expectation that his parishioners could possibly have hoped for. He was kind, generous, dutiful, approachable, hard-working. A people’s priest, they called him.

He visited the elderly on a regular basis and was happy to spend time in their company. He was ‘good with the youth’, parishioners said, befriending them, organising services for them, involving them in the parish. He was extraordinarily attentive to the sick, even visiting them in hospital. And, crucially, his sermons were invariably short and to the point

He placed a huge emphasis on church services, setting in place not just creative and imaginative liturgies for Holy Week and Christmas but immersing himself in family-cum liturgical events like baptisms, weddings and funerals. His engagement with old and young was always appropriate and carefully measured. And the parish bulletins he produced every week were admired far and wide.

People wondered at his commitment, his energy and his ability to respond to the variety of needs – sometimes conflicting – that arose in the course of parish life.

What increased the gratitude of his parishioners was not just the fact that he responded so admirably to the needs of his parishioners but that the bishop had left him almost 18 years in the parish. The priest himself used to joke that he thought the bishop had forgotten about him!

But all good things come to an end and in time the priest was transferred to the far end of the diocese. His successor (people felt) was less engaged, less a people’s priest, more restrained than his highly gifted predecessor but, people reassured themselves, once he settled in he would soon respond to their expectations.

However, gradually the people noticed his laid-back disposition. When someone commented to him that he hadn’t turned up to the weekly Foróige meeting, he was said to have paused slightly before responding that he wasn’t good with young people and that he probably lived on a different planet from them. He would take a rain-check on that.

When someone wondered out loud why ill parishioners in hospital were no longer being visited, he confessed that he was uncomfortable visiting hospitals. When someone mentioned that the elderly expected him to spend more time with them on his First Friday calls he replied that he was never ‘good at that’. When someone asked why the quality of the parish bulletin had deteriorated he seemed to have difficulty understanding the question.

The crisis in the parish was obvious. It was clear from the new priest’s skill set that the array of services they had taken for granted during his predecessor’s time were on hold.

Eventually ‘the movers and shakers’ of the parish felt the need to intervene. They organised more supervisors for the Foróige club, and cohorts of people to visit the sick in hospital and the elderly in their homes. Other interested parties were prevailed on carry their weight in supplying the services that, for whatever reason, were beyond the reach of their new priest.

Many years later when the new priest went home to God, the bishop informed the people that there was no priest available to replace him but that a neighbouring priest would supply basic services. It was, the bishop informed them, ‘gratifying to know that through the ministry of their last priest, the people of the parish were now engaged in effectively running the parish’. It would, he added, make the transition to a priest-less parish much easier. He commended their last priest for his foresight in preparing them for the future and congratulated the parishioners for responding to his call.

At present now in parishes all over Ireland an historic transition is taking place. Faithful readers of this column will know – because I’ve mentioned it so often – that priests are fewer, older and wearier and that for parishes to survive the people will have to step forward (through their Parish Councils) and accept responsibility for running parishes in the future. (It is sufficient to state one telling statistic. At present, in Dublin diocese with over a million Catholics in 199 parishes, there is only one student studying for the priesthood).

At present, Irish parishes are in an intermediate space between being priest-led and people-led, between now and the cliff-face in declining priest numbers that is staring us in the face.

There are two obvious responses. One is to continue to spread an ever-declining number of priests over as wide a canvass as possible with priests helicoptering around an ever-increasing number of parishes. The other is to establish an orderly but speedy transition from priest-led parishes to people-led parishes.

There is no other way. We are at a point now where the vast majority of priests and people recognise that truth as well as their responsibility to engage in delivering it.

For either party not to engage would be a form of disloyalty even betrayal of our people and our priests at a time when, without such engagement, the prospects are grim. In the words of one priest, we are facing our ‘impending obsolescence’.

Putting our best foot forward is what Pope Francis is urging us to do as the Rome Synod this and next October will attempt to do. If priests and people (and bishops) fail to respond to the test that confronts us, it will be difficult to see any way forward.

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  1. Sean O'Conaill says:

    The continuity of the church is one issue. The continuity of human life on Earth is another. Well into the ‘intermediate stage’ of transition to the people-led church that Brendan rightly advocates we have not yet begun to trace the relationship between those two issues – even though, for younger generations, it is almost certainly the second that is of greater consequence.

    Surely, if we are to interest those younger generations in the continuity of the church we need urgently to discuss what the Creed has to do with sustainable and peaceful life on Earth? Why are we still rote-reciting that Creed without ever taking time to discuss its meaning and implications for a gathering world crisis that threatens to overpower the ability of the world’s governments to maintain civil order, and is already causing health-threatening anxieties for many of the young – who despair of their elders’ inability to ‘get real’ about sustainability?

    Could it be the church’s self-absorption – its tendency to focus solely upon its own survival as it is – that is truly the greatest threat to that survival?

    1. Sean Connell says:

      In Brendan’s article and Sean O’Connell’s response, both of which are excellent, there seems to be one thing missing and that is how we are going to have any priest in the not too distant future.
      While laity-led parishes are what must come we will still need priests and the only way I can see this happening is that we start from the ground up.
      That is to say we first need properly trained people to teach the faith in our schools who will give our kids a firm grasp of the love and mercy of Jesus Christ that would be nurtured through primary and secondary school.
      We would then have a cohort of candidates from whom God could select to give vocations.
      This would take some time but if we don’t have young people with a firm faith we won’t even have the laity to run parishes.

  2. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #2 Why does Sean Connell seem to assume that there are not already ‘properly trained people to teach the faith’ in our schools?

    And, if there truly aren’t any such people, from where would they now miraculously appear?

    My too-short experience of synodality in Derry diocese suggested that Catholic teachers were prominent among those who turned up for synodal discussion. Those discussions highlighted a lack of adult faith formation, aimed especially at the grandparent generation – with a focus on instilling confidence that the essence of the faith is portable and clear enough to be imparted to children by lay people – their parents especially.

    I wish I could say that bishops and Irish clergy generally had any such confidence. A key aspect of clericalism is a tendency to deny the competence of lay people to understand and impart their faith – and the expansion of the Creed into a 700+ plus Catechism (ironically a Lutheran innovation) is very much part of that. Add to that the endless supply of encyclicals and other literature, and the conservative obsession with miniscule points of the moral law – the result is the very sense of incompetence and mystification that afflicts the faith formation issue at parish level. The ‘easy yoke’ and ‘light burden’ that Jesus spoke of has been complexified into that vast and unknowable expanse known as ‘the deposit of faith’, the outer limits of which are supposedly accessible only by German theological prodigies who can lock themselves up in libraries for three decades.

    Since the end of Ireland’s first synodal ‘spasm’ in 2022 none of the quarterly meetings of the Irish bishops’ conference has acknowledged the surfacing of the faith formation issue as a revelation of the greatest obstacle to faith continuity in Ireland. This is the root of our inertia. The Catechism, as it stands, is in far greater danger of causing concussion in Catholic schools by tumbling down stairwells than it is of ever becoming the treasured reading of their alumni, but no one with a mitre can dare to acknowledge this.

    And so it happens that the expansion of the faith to fill all of the clerical bookage it has inspired has culminated in an unprecedented paralysis of faith transmission in Ireland. Not even the emergence of the concept of a ‘hierarchy of truths’ at Vatican II has made any difference, because those really into ‘the deposit of faith’ must insist that no item of this unquantifiable data store can be admitted to be any less important than any other.

    Which seems to leave us with the conundrum that the very nature of the ‘deposit of faith’ must defy all attempts to transmit it.

    It’s just as well that St Patrick didn’t know this, of course. The passing on of the faith within families when our culture was predominantly oral rather than literate has become, in 2023, a mystery as awesome as Jonah’s incarceration within a whale.

    1. Sean Connell says:

      #2 Sean O’Connell asks why I think there are not enough good lay religious teachers in our schools and where they would come from.
      First let me say that I am in full agreement with you as regards adult faith formation. I was very much into it when my children were young. I spent many an evening in Downtown House and I was on the national council of the CSPA.
      All of my daughters served Mass in our parish church and yet they all turned their backs on the church once they had made their confirmation. This is not just my experience but the same can be said of all of my generation at least in my parish and surrounding parishes.
      Don’t get me wrong, I know they’re are many excellent teachers of religion in schools but when this is happening there is something fundamentally wrong.
      As regards where we would find lay catechists I believe there are many good young people who would be prepared to take on the role if they were properly trained and paid. We would only need one for 4 or 5 schools.
      Leaving it to parents who have already turned their backs on the church is no longer an option.
      You were very lucky in Derry to have had Synodal meetings. In this Diocese, as far as I’m aware, there were very few held at parish level. Instead there were 4 held at deanery level.
      I was told that the priests didn’t have time and they wouldn’t trust the laity to organise them. Also when I asked for prayers to be said and promoted nothing happened so very few people were even aware of the Synodal process.

  3. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #4 What’s wrong in my view is fundamentally the incoherence of the ‘Good News’ as received from classical Christendom theology – the theology that attributes the Crucifixion to the dissatisfaction of the Father of Jesus at human Sin – understood as primarily sexual sin.

    In this view ‘salvation’ has to do not with this life but with the next – by avoiding all sexual sin. In that view Jesus’s teaching on the kingdom of God – clearly to do with behaving justly and lovingly towards one another in THIS LIFE NOW – got lost. The injustices and inequalities of Christendom society became not only tolerated by the clerical Catholic church but modelled in its own structure.

    So, just as the Church of England became the Tory party at prayer, so did the Irish Catholic Church become the Irish middle class at prayer – the class that does well out of capitalism and the good Catholic education that prepares them well for the capitalist free-for-all.

    If the Eucharist is the Passover of the New Covenant, from what Pharaonic enslavement is Jesus calling us, and into what New Kingdom – IN THIS LIFE?

    To say that this Kingdom is not the Marxist materialistic victory of class warfare is not enough: there has to be a passionate understanding of ‘Salvation’ that can save us from capitalist delusion and celebrity-seeking also – and from the climatic catastrophe that unfettered capitalism and covetousness are heading us towards.

    How many of our clergy have even gotten around to reading ‘Laudato Si’ yet? If our clergy – including our bishops – cannot connect the dots there and show how the Gospel is relevant to that question of climatic threat they are still stuck in Christendom inertia and incoherence.

    And that is why our young people cannot ‘get’ the Eucharist or ‘Salvation’ either – and teachers struggle to explain it.

    What I have heard from the committed Irish Catholic teachers of the present is that many are more than ready for this ‘connecting of the dots’ that our situation requires. Surely this is Pope Francis’s vision for synodality also?

    Peter McVerry asks the following question: “Is religion one big yawn for young people, as long as Church involvement concerns itself primarily with Church involvement?”

    My answer is an emphatic ‘Yes’. From Vatican II the challenge for the merely baptised was to consecrate the world to God, not to find some way of helping Father to keep all the candles lit – but for more than half a century the reactionary Christendom church has prevented all discussion of what ‘consecrating the world’ might mean in Ireland. Obviously sexual self-discipline and fidelity must be part of that, but what is the rest of it?

    Synodality was supposed to put an end to all that silence, so why is synodality now apparently ‘on hold’ – while all that some Irish bishops can apparently think about now is how we might get to host World Youth Day?

    ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.’ If we cannot figure out quickly the relevance of that instruction to the world crisis that secularism on its own cannot fix we will not merit or hold the attention of the young and will deserve to fail as a church – so what exactly is holding us up?

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