The dwindling number of priests is often presented as a crisis for the Catholic Church. According to retired American priest, Fr Eugene Stockman, it is a crisis for a certain model of Church. It is a crisis for the clerical-hierarchical church. This crisis calls for reflection on the basic parish structure upon which the entire church has been built. We must look at other models of pastoral care that have been used at other times in the history of the Church. As Eugene Stockman states: “We are so accustomed to the parish in the structure of the Church that we take it for granted that it is the only way that the ministry of the Church can reach out to the bulk of the faithful. With the decline in vocations and the age profile of the priests, parishes are in danger of closing.”
The existing model of church is based on the old imperial administration and consolidated in the feudal system of medieval Europe. In that model the priest is a replica of the Lord of the manor. That model needs to be re-examined and a new model needs to be found that is more in keeping with the democratic models in modern society. I agree with Fr Stockman that this is not a crisis for the Church. It is a crisis for a certain model of Church leadership and ministry. The old model was based on the pyramid structure of the Roman Empire. The Second Vatican council moved away from that model – in theory anyway.
More consideration needs be given to other models of church. Perhaps, we need to create an entirely new democratic model taking into consideration what others in various other churches have tried and also what many in our own church have written. A new model certainly needs to involve women who make up more than half of the Church’s membership. It needs to be open to the possibility of married priests and include those who left ministry to get married. It needs to look at different models of leadership and it needs to be based on the values of compassion and respect.
The earliest model as seen in the New Testament had local churches with both resident leaders (episcopi, deacons) and itinerant teachers (apostles, prophets). No particular model of leadership is sacrosanct. Another model emerged in the 5th century in Palestine when a tribe from Persia came to live there and their leader, Peter Aspebet, was made a bishop. He played an important role in the council of Ephesus.
Monasticism in Ireland adopted a different style of leadership from the institutional church in Europe. This led to tensions with Rome and in Ireland it led to the establishment of 24 dioceses at the synod of Rath Breasail/Cashel in 1111AD. From then onwards, monasteries were to be under the authority of the bishop of the diocese in which they were situated.
That model has more or less continued to the present day. It underwent something of a reform with Luther’s Reformation in the early 1500’s and the Catholic church’s Counter Reformation.
The Eastern Church was organised differently. Holiness rather than hierarchical status was the basis of authority as in the Celtic church up until the 12th century: According to Eugene Stockman: “There was no diocesan pattern, that is, there were no specific territories under the authority of bishops, but a whole complex of spheres of spiritual influence. A ‘saint’ had his own sphere of influence in which he was in a sense the permanent spiritual lord of a given place. A territory was affiliated to a holy man, and eventually, there was a grouping with a monastery at its centre and the jurisdiction belonged to the abbot who was often, but not necessarily, in bishop’s orders. Sometimes even, as at Kildare, jurisdiction was in the hands of an abbess. Authority was attributed to the person of God, and not to a particular grade in the priestly hierarchy. It is said that the local bishop may have been an ordinary monk, himself subject to an abbot or abbess.
The crisis of the English Reformation, called forth a new mode of mission. “Danger of detection kept the priests ever on the move and limited their furtive ministry to Catholic households. Yet the Church survived.” This pattern was repeated in other countries, most clearly in Ireland, during times of persecution.
St. Francis Xavier and his companions brought the faith to Japan in 1549 and there Christianity flourished till persecution broke out and priests were executed or expelled. Two hundred years later missionaries returned to find 50,000 Christians still true to the faith, which had been handed down from generation to generation under the leadership of ‘baptisers’.
The Church in Australia was, from the first, one of laity, except for the brief ministry of the convict priest, Fr. Dixon, in 1803, until the arrival of Frs. Therry and Connolly in 1821. In the meantime, Catholics were united around the Blessed Sacrament left reserved by Fr. Dixon in the Davis home.
Village communities in some Orthodox Churches offer a model that respects the principle of local leadership and recognises the occasional need of theological expertise. When the old community leader dies, the village people elect their new pastor and send him to a seminary for a few months training (mainly in liturgy). He returns with the enormous advantage of close links with his people and with sufficient formation to perform the liturgy and to look after the ordinary pastoral needs of the villagers. At the approach of big feasts, the more highly trained “theologian priests” circulate through the countryside to hear confessions and to attend to the more demanding pastoral needs.
This is a time of radical change in the Catholic Church. It will demand courageous leadership, openness and trust in the Holy Spirit and the expertise of learned scholars like Eugene Stockman. As we watch the demise of an old model of church this is, surely, a time of opportunity.
Clericalism must be buried
Some priests and people in the Catholic Church have been more concerned with promoting the Church and the clergy than with promoting the kingdom of God. The Church’s primary focus has to be the Kingdom of God-the ‘kingdom’of justice, truth and peace. That’s the good news. That’s what Jesus was about. That will also be a priest’s primary concern. Speaking on behalf of the poor and oppressed and the need for justice (the kingdom of God) has to be the priority.
To be a priest in the Catholic Church today is to be a person of hope. It is to make the choice for hope against despair or cynicism. It is to be convinced that things will not always be as they are now, that the God of Mercy has the power to bring about the new life we long for through the good will and determination of people of conscience.
The prophetic role of the priest in Ireland today has been neglected. There has been much discussion about the need to reform the church rather than about how to make the Word of God relate to the lives of people of today. The church needs renewal rather than reform – so that it can better preach the liberating Word of God.
A right-wing conservative church and clergy has nothing to offer the people of this country. A church that is hankering after the old days before Vatican II has nothing to offer the world or the young people today. That church is represented by those who write condemnatory letters to the papers; they belong to the Marcel Levefre wing of the Catholic Church but they do not represent the living church which in response to the promptings of the Holy Spirit is trying to read the signs of the times and adapt to changing circumstances in the world.
Without change and renewal the Catholic Church will soon become irrelevant, outdated and useless like salt that has lost its flavour. It is pathetic to hear some people proclaim that they represent the true Catholic Church and that those priests, religious, and laity who work tirelessly to bring about the change that is needed are called ‘lost’. It calls for great patience and perseverance to keep going in spite of them.
(Joe McVeigh is a priest in the Diocese of Clogher. Assistant priest in Enniskillen parish.)