The church in NZ is undergoing an organisational change of far reaching significance and impact.
Both Wellington and Christchurch are undergoing well signalled and contentious amalgamations and church closures. Dunedin and Palmerston North dioceses are having to increasingly struggle with geographically wide pastoral areas and dimishing resources.Hamilton is in a state of paralysis whereby nothing will happen until a new Bishop is elected. I don't know enough about Auckland to comment (perhaps someone else can?).
The fundamental issues, in my opinion and from what I know of talking to people in these dioceses, are as follows:
1. Not enough priests
2. Empty pews, bulging schools, little connect between the two
3. A lack of a national, coherant strategy for ongoing youth involvement and formation.
Now anyone else writing this column could argue very well that these are not the main reasons at all – we each bring our own perspectives. Over the next three weeks I'm going to discuss each of these points. As with all my posts there are heaps of gaps and avenues left unexplored, so I'm looking for readers to chip in with their thoughts as well!
#1: Not Enough Priests
Looking across the country as a whole we see an increasing rise of lay pastoral leaders/ assistants in parishes, coupled with rationalisation/ closure of parishes. It is obvious I think to all that we need more ordained ministers in our churches, priests who are not just "cluster supervisors", rushing from service to service with little time, energy or ability to carry out pastoral work. That each parish cannot have access to a full time priest should be a source of motivation and urgency, but it doesn't seem to be, not here at a grassroots level anyway. We are encouraged to pray for our priests, there are awareness campaigns, retreats to discern vocation etc, however I wonder where are the fruits? There are some for sure, but do we need a greater emphasis to ensure a greater harvest?
I remember hearing a Bishop speak five years ago explaining to our amalgamating rural parish that he had declined opportunities to borrow large numbers of Indian and Filipino priests on the grounds that they would not fit culturally in many rural parishes. This would have solved his diocesan wide issue of not having enough priests, but he turned it down. Can we really afford to be so choosy?
The flipside of less priests means the rise of lay people in parish leadership roles. I haven't had direct experience of these situations, except for the following story - I once led a Eucharistic service because our 80 year old priest was too sick to get out of bed. My training for it was at very short notice, I was underprepared and certainly not fully cognaisant of what I was doing. As soon as I started the service, announcing that Father could not be with us that day as he was sick, I watched a quarter of our parishioners get up and leave. I was nervous and ill-prepared anyway, you can imagine how people voting with their feet made me feel! It wasn't personal of course, it's just that people come to mass to recieve Eucharist from a "man of God" – not to hear me talk and fumble my way through. They can get that at any local start-up church. More is expected from the Catholic church.
So apart from that one uncomfortable experience I can't really comment on the role of lay pastoral leadership. I can say I wouldn't want to be part of a priestless parish, but that looks like it will be the reality for us in the next few years. Our current priest has a very large area to cover, he's busy every day, and is generally working hard on his one day off a week too. It looks unsustainable both in a practical sense and also in terms of his general health. The day will come when he is no longer available to us and under the current model we will have a lay person in his place.
In my opinion we need to do more that just accept this reality. I would question why we are not inviting more overseas priests to come here. We are an increasingly multicultural society - why wouldn't a priest from overseas be made to feel welcome? Have we lost sight so quickly of our place as missionary country?
I wonder too whether faithful Catholics encourage their own sons and daughters to explore a vocational calling. My own son had an interest when much younger, that's gone now, however he has a lot of growing up to do and it is a conversation we've had and will continue to do as and when the time is right.
I will draw a loop too in my final post in this series between the work with youth and the call to vocation, as that is another area that in my opinion is under-resourced. The likes of Hearts Aflame do great work in promoting vocation, but is it enough?
I think also we need clarity around what our Church is and what it stands for. There is just so much confusion and woolly thinking, summed up well by Marty's post earlier this week and a few recent comment threads here lately. If you were to attempt a "sales pitch" (excuse the crude terminology) to a young person on the priesthood, how would you describe it in this day and age? In some scenarios where priests are overworked it appears little more than being a Master of Ceremonies. The vocation to priesthood should of course be so much more.