Growing our Catholic Communities

As we start 2018 and Dioceses all over the UK (and beyond) are developing plans for the future (such as my own here) we are being asked to discuss and consider a way forward as communities of believers as vocations dwindle and practising Catholics disappear even more rapidly. This has been discussed in numerous places with great clarity, perhaps most familiarly by Sherry Weddell in her book Forming Intentional Disciples, and most recently by Professor Stephen Bullivant in the Catholic Herald.

Bullivant's article is concise and packed with valuable detail for anyone discerning the future direction of the Church. Key points are:
  • There are more priestly retirements (or deaths) each year than ordinations. 
  • A number of our seminaries have closed, the ones we still have are practically empty.
  • Priest numbers fell between 1970 and 2014 by 48 per cent.
  • Sunday worshippers fell by 55 per cent over the same period.
In short, priest-to-worshipper numbers were better in 2014 than at any time between 1950 and the 1990s, but this is simply because we’ve lost practising Catholics even faster than we have priests.

So how are our bishops thinking and addressing this reality?

My bishop says 2017 and beyond is a time of change for all organisations including the Catholic Church and we have to manage that change (!??). He has instigated a programme he has called Stewards of the Gospel. The Stewards of the Gospel initiative is a discernment process of thinking and working with each other; the bishop believes that top down imposition does not work and we need to talk and discern a way forward together. You can listen to his overview of his plan here:

Below is Bishop John Arnold's go at it. he has also instigated a consultation: to summarise, he says it's not up to bishops and priests to organise the Church, it is up to lay people (this is starting to sound a lot like the Brexit referendum, isn't it?). Bishop John thinks the way to sort it out is to go out to hospitals, prisons and sick people, people rough sleeping and Muslims and build bridges, enjoying the company of our neighbours and all the world's religions have got the same message anyway! Bishop John's love of Islam has won him the monicker 'Jihadi John Arnold' on social media, most recently he attended Mohammed's birthday celebrations in Manchester, so he is leading by example!

The Salford plan is a five stage programme where every parish celebrates all the good that they do and share good practice with each other.

It is classic 1970's justice and peace fair I think you'll agree. A sort of conflation of the Catholic truth with Socialism. The stuff which has brought us to the present position of decline.

To be fair, Manchester has just handed a parish over to the Ordinariate, perhaps Stephen is being listened to?

Where Bishop Alan summarises the reason for discernment as a need to change with the times in his video address above, Professor Bullivant summarises the problem like this:
What does all this mean? That we’re thinning out fewer priests, and proportionally even fewer worshippers, over a parish infrastructure intended to work with rather more of both.
This is damaging for several reasons. It is now very common for a single priest to have care of two (or more) parishes. The number of practising Catholics in his care may well be more or less the same as, in previous decades, the parish priest in just one of those parishes would have had.
But of course, since these worshippers are divided between two parishes, the priest has vastly more work. Two sets of parish accounts to deal with. Two schools’ governing bodies to chair. Two sets of choirs, altar servers and catechetical teams to oversee. He must divide Saturday evening and Sunday morning between two churches (perhaps saying four Masses to a combined congregation which could fit, quite comfortably, into three or even two Masses if all in one parish).
In other words, if we pursue a model of centralising priests looking after two or more parishes, as detailed parish by parish in my own diocese' development proposal, we will be sacrificing the health and well being of the few priests we have left for the sake of retaining Church buildings which will house ever dwindling numbers of worshippers.

So do we close our Churches down? Well, not necessarily. Considering the donations and legacies that have paid for these often beautiful buildings, I would prefer if every diocese closing a church were forced to contact every donor and repay the money out of the sale proceeds to be honest.

So what do we do? Well Professor Bullivant points to a very obvious (in my opinion) solution. A solution which appears somewhat inevitable going forward, although some diocese seem determined to ignore the truth of it.
lift a surplus-to-requirements church out of the normal parish system and give it to a niche group that can do something distinctive with it. Some of the original parishioners will stay and adjust (and be quite happy to do so); others will go off to provide a welcome boost to the numbers of nearby parishes. By allowing this group to spread its wings, and do something distinctive, it can then attract like-minded people from the surrounding area. Perhaps in any one parish there might be only two, or three, or five people for whom this is “their thing”, but over a wide area – especially in a large town or city – those few soon add up.
Stephen also remarks on the important role of the Ordinariate in any such plan (notably, the Ordinariate is completely absent from my own diocesan plan, which seems bizarre when one considers Brentwood Diocese has more Ordinariate clergy than any other UK diocese!):
From my outsider’s view – I’m neither a member, nor eligible to become one – the ordinariate offers the Church in England and Wales (Scotland too!) a significant pastoral opportunity: the possibility of a permanent structure, fully part of the wider Catholic community, but with its own distinctive liturgy, spirituality, musical traditions, parish culture and atmosphere. Rather than being simply a one-off fix to bring a wave of former Anglicans into full communion with Rome, it is genuinely sustainable. It is continuing to attract former Anglicans and others (not excluding other Catholics) on its own terms, while at the same time being a community in which children are brought up, who in turn bring up their own children in it.
Christ’s Church has plenty of room in it for such a body, as is again amply proven by the Eastern Catholic churches. Such a thing will not, of course, appeal to everyone (including not all former Anglicans). But then why should it? This vision, of course, fits perfectly with the “Preston Option” I’ve been describing, with the ordinariate offering a niche way of “being Church” that complements, rather than competes with, the default normal parish offering.
Read Stephen's article in full here. It is excellent, straight-forward and correct in what it asserts. It is a shame that none of our bishops seem remotely interested in his suggestions. They are very busy with schools, hospitals, homeless, Muslims, etc, etc, etc.

Contra Bishop Alan's assertion that top down leadership never works, Professor Chad Pecknold offers a concise alternative thesis courtesy of Fr Rutler:

Now we are getting to the point of this blog post: there is a brilliant piece in Catholic World Report posted on 17th January from Bishop James Conley, the bishop of Lincoln since 2012. The Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska has become well-known in recent years for its high number of priestly vocations relative to its small size (the Diocese saw 17 men ordained to the priesthood in a two-year period, 2010-2012); it also has a reputation as a bastion of orthodoxy and liturgical excellence in the Latin Rite.

In my opinion, the first order for sorting out the present crisis is to address the vocations crisis. The lack of vocations is a sign that we are getting pretty much all of it wrong. So why is Lincoln succeeding when so many are failing? When asked the question directly, Bishop Conley puts it down to top-down leadership:
I’d say one of the several things that we can directly attribute this to is the episcopal leadership. We’ve had basically 40-plus years of good bishops.
Conley is in no doubt that the fact the bishops before him held firm to the faith as it was planted is what has resulted in the success he has inherited and continues to guide. In the turbulent post-conciliar years since the end of the Second Vatican Council, the diocese of Lincoln was led by bishops who really were very clear in their teaching and were very faithful to the Magisterium and what the Church’s patrimony was as far as doctrine and liturgy was concerned, a steady course which resulted in no liturgical aberrations. The priests were told very clearly that they would follow and would celebrate the Mass the way the Church wants it celebrated, and there were no exceptions to that. Conley explains: "As far as teaching goes, the schools and the priests taught very sound doctrine." 

Now I don't know about you, dear reader, but that sounds like the direct opposite of what goes on in my diocese!

All this discernment strikes me as utterly pointless. It is clear what we should be doing, it doesn't change with the times, it changes the times! Where we see fruit in the Church we see faithfulness, devotion to Our Lord, right-worship, true devotion, faithful teaching, strong leadership. It really is that simple!


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