Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Conversation with a Bishop...

I don't know if you've ever actually had a conversation with a Bishop. Here are excerpts from an article in the December 17, 2007 issue of America: The National Catholic Weekly. The article is written from the perspective of an imagined American bishop, seeking counsel from the people of his diocese on a concern that is common to virtually all bishops, priests and people in the United States.

How would you respond to this bishop?

I Need Your Help
- An imagined bishop asks for advice...
…Our diocese has 83 parishes to staff. Until three years ago we were able to supply a priest-pastor for each one. Since then, as a result of deaths, resignations and retirements, the number of our priests capable of active ministry has declined to 76. I need your help in figuring out how to proceed.
Prayer for Vocations
I am sure many of you will suggest that we begin by storming heaven with prayers for new vocations. And I assure you we have been doing that and we continue to do so… In the past year, however, we lost 11 men through death and retirement. The bottom line is that right now our new vocations are not achieving replacement levels… I also believe in a God who is present and acting in the realities we confront, using them to transform us and help us to grow. Is it possible that we are getting an answer by the very shortage, that God is challenging us to become a different kind of church? A person of faith once said that God is magnanimous and always gives us the resources we need—whatever those are.
And may I ask you, please, not to use our precious time together to tell me all the ways we’ve gone wrong, what brought us to this pass… We haven’t the luxury of paralysis by analysis.

The ‘Big’ Options

Some of you might propose that we begin right now to expand the pool of those eligible for ordination.
The options under that heading are easily named. Each one would involve challenging beliefs that have shaped our church’s way of ministering for centuries. Ordain married men? That would call us to rethink a longstanding commitment to a celibate priesthood. Although the practice is not a matter of faith but of church discipline and remains within the province of the pope to change, many even of our Protestant brothers and sisters caution us against assuming that you just say, “Let’s ordain married men,” rub a magic lamp three times, and—voilĂ !—the Parousia arrives. Ordain women? That would call us to challenge a belief that Pope John Paul II considered a matter of faith: that Jesus’ calling only male apostles constitutes a norm that binds the church forever, regardless of cultural changes across the centuries. Bring resigned priests back to active ministry? That would challenge our understanding of choices once made and raise issues of fairness, as if the priesthood were a matter of an individual’s personal sense of calling rather than a call by the church community...
I do see some kind of potential in each of these options, but I call them “the big options” for two reasons: one, they fall within the compass of the church’s universal authority, way beyond my pay grade and, two, because even if they were to be adopted it would take years to think through all their consequences and develop reasonable plans for implementing them before they would be ready to “meet the road…”
Possible Strategies
So let’s just keep those conversations going in the background, shall we? What are my options in the immediate future? And what beliefs might each of those options challenge?
Close parishes. In one sense this is the easiest option to carry out, administratively. But what does it do to our belief that once formed, a faith community is not just a branch office of the diocese, just as a diocese is not a branch office of the universal church. (How would my brother bishops react to the notion of closing a diocese?) A parish is rather a unique incarnation of the body of Christ in a particular piece of geography. How is the “easy” choice for closure to be reconciled with the dignity of such a gathering of the faithful? The parishes being considered for closure will probably be those with fewer parishioners than the rest of the parishes in the diocese, but is the mere fact of smaller or larger numbers a criterion Jesus would find apt? Closing a parish may gain me a priest who can provide sacramental services for a parish with more parishioners, but what does that say about our concept of priesthood…?
Appoint a layperson as pastoral agent of the parish. I’ve seen wonderful men and women give excellent leadership to parish communities, as effective as any ordained priest, frankly—theologically, spiritually and pastorally. But that reality doesn’t really help us with the directly sacramental needs. Liturgical presiding, absolution and sacramental anointing require an ordained priest. The number of regular weekend liturgies does not necessarily decrease, and the pastoral agent still has to call for help from a sacramental minister who comes in to the parish from elsewhere…
Import priests from other priest-rich parts of the world. Several of my brother bishops are pursuing this strategy. It does meet the goal of a quick replenishment of priest-presiders to lead the liturgies needed, but so far the results appear to be mixed at best…
Loosen the connection between a particular day of the week, Sunday, and the community’s weekly public gathering around the table of the Lord. I have recently heard of dioceses in Europe where a priest is assigned as sacramental minister to as many as six parishes. On Sunday he presides at liturgy in one of them; on Monday evening in another, on Tuesday in another and so on. The people in each of those communities view that midweek liturgy as their central act of worship for the week—fulfilling the Sunday obligation, if you will. An arrangement like that challenges our identification of Sunday with the Lord’s day. On the other hand, I have to ask myself: did our church already fracture that identification when it introduced Saturday night Mass?
Cut back the number of Masses. In some communities pastors have tried so hard to accommodate the desires of their people that too many Masses of convenience have come to be expected. Add multiple Saturday wedding Masses and, at times, many priests find themselves violating canonical prescriptions concerning the number of Masses a priest may celebrate on a weekend. I can mandate reducing the numbers, but of itself that won’t be sufficient to deal with the communities where I will need to find presiders in the coming years.
Introduce regular use of the ritual officially called Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest. Midweek. Communion services are common in many parts of the country now. The church permits and has created officially sanctioned rituals for this kind of a service. I can inform my priests that when they have a sound reason—vacation, retreat, study program or the like—to be absent from their parish over a weekend, they are not to scramble around trying to find replacements but have a trained layperson conduct such a service. Does this practice risk treating the reception of Communion as something separable from the sacrifice of the Mass? Do we want to take that risk…?
You see, whichever option I actually choose—and I must make a choice—challenges some conviction that has shaped our identity as Catholic Christians for a long time. If we aren’t willing to challenge any of them, we will just continue trying to do what we have always done, and our situation will become more and more stressful. My question to you is painful but simple: which traditional conviction do you want me to challenge this year?
-George B. Wilson, S.J., is a church organizational consultant who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio

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