We are pleased that the letter has been circulated as a first step in a consultation, and that its wider dissemination is encouraged. To support this, until the letter is on the Archdiocesan website it is linked here. (We'd also like to see linked the two reports, “Now is the Favourable Time” and an earlier one “Together in Hope”. The consultation document of the former is on our website, here ) We note from the letter that, of course, the laity will be involved with the ongoing consultation and discernment but we are somewhat saddened by some of the statements and assumptions of the letter. In particular so far there seems to have been little consideration or exploration of how the giftedness of the laity might be put to good use in the pastoral care of our diocese and how that contribution might impinge on our reorganisation.
Our concerns include the fear that amalgamation will prove to be a recipe for generating competition and breaking relationships between parishes. With a much slower and gentler programme of change, even supported by facilitation in their Future Focus initiative, the Church of Scotland has had traumatic situations in merging parishes.
We fear that many active members will be alienated and then lost. We are further concerned that the consequence of closing some churches is that we will be asking those we most need to care for - the elderly, the poor and the weak - to travel miles for Mass when they are unable to do so and also removing other supports they depend on.
The idea of bringing in foreign priests feels wrong unless a) there is an excess of priests somewhere else; b) they could make a constructive cultural transition; and above all c) the need is greater here than elsewhere. We doubt this is the case.
A fundamental issue underlies the above concerns. We would contend that the crux is not how many priests we will have, but how do we develop and sustain the Eucharistic communities in their praying, learning, caring, and serving of the local areas? Viability does not demand that a priest is permanently there in leadership. It is to do with being self-sustaining and recognising the many dimensions of life in Roman Catholic parishes, above and beyond being at Mass - yet it is this last that seems to dominate current thinking.
We suggest that the reorganisation could therefore be more organic - not a Beeching-like year of cuts as proposed. It could be one that includes parishes having lay folk in areas of leadership and responsibility and sometimes having eucharistic services not Mass. In other words, we do not count the priests and match the number of communities, but modify the frequency of Mass in the self-sustaining communities.
A further advantage of such a more organic reorganisation is that this pattern would be less brittle as priest numbers fall or rise. It can maintain important resources of the church buildings until they are really proven to be redundant. Couldn't spare parish houses be used for communities, potentially including the homeless?
Organisation is needed to ensure priests are both supported by a community, and also not burnt out sacrament-delivering machines. We like the idea of priests and lay meeting together daily for prayer with some also living in community; priests heading out in different directions to parishes from a shared base. Perhaps such “base-camp” communities are not a picture that would appeal to all priests, but it is one that some of us have seen work. It is one indication that there are different solutions to be found that do not demand the 1:1 matching of priests into parishes.
The letter to the deaneries has somewhat of a retrograde flavour. We hope that it will acquire the quality of forging a Spirit-led and exciting pastoral plan for a new era... but the latter would be marked by large scale preparation, facilitation and prayer; a longer time-scale; and reflecting a vision informed by recent decades of thought on ecclesiology and experience as well as strongly influenced by “The Joy of the Gospel”.
We observe that the extent of the changes needed is exacerbated by the continuing decision not to recognise as priests those who are ordained and since married.... to say nothing of more than half of the population being barred from ordination due to gender.
Our summary is that the Spirit is calling us somewhere new. The “shortage of priests” is a sign of this call. It is a wonderful opportunity not in essence a crisis of sustainability, for change is needed (see “Joy of the Gospel”... almost every page....). Pope Francis calls very explicitly for renewal of every part of the Church's structure - laity, priests, bishops, the Pope and how these interact with each other. This reorganisation must be a part of that renewal. In the Vigil Group we hope for a blossoming of vitality with laity exercising their baptismal calling more fully.
It seems appropriate to end with the prayer the Vigil Group commits to pray daily for renewal of the Church (including ourselves). May the reorganisation be open to the Spirit, so the following can become true for us:
Glory be to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine;
glory be to God from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever, Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)