The challenge of mission


A retired parish priest who has just celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination says the church is what’s left when the preacher leaves town.

Cardinal Nicholls surprised some churchgoers when he said that you don’t need the Eucharist to be a good Catholic. He was talking about
remarried divorcees who are prevented by Canon Law from receiving communion. But he could have been thinking of his relative, a well known Mill Hill missionary who may have told him that in ‘the missions’ Catholics in general don’t have access to the Eucharist.

Yet in the panic building up around the Catholic Church in Scotland – that is, as older people have known it – key decisions are about to be made which appear to be based on the need, first and foremost, to continue to provide Sunday Mass as conveniently as possible for the those who retain that habit. We don’t see ourselves as a missionary church. The priority is to provide local vicars for Mass and the quasi state rituals around births, marriages and deaths.

Priests in the ‘better’ parishes who still have an impressive Sunday attendance comfort themselves hearing from Church of Scotland ministers whose congregations have all but disappeared. However even in these affluent areas the absence of young adults is apparent. On the other hand, there are still lively Church of Scotland congregations and not all of them in better off places. Furthermore, if we look beyond the main denominations we can see independent congregations who are paying for their own youth workers and sending missionaries overseas. These often are lay led churches with members recruited from the mainline denominations, including the Catholic Church. Why have they not exercised leadership in the churches they were born into?

Because the preacher has not let them. He (sic) has not moved on, job done. He has stayed and become the manager of the plant.

Or, if he has not been able to build up the community, he has been moved to a ‘busier’ parish. The building(s) he has left are closed, their fate to be decided by HQ. Unless there are enough of those who burst a gut building and paying for them. They might be articulate enough to get an agreement that a priest will be good enough to squeeze them in over the weekend.

There are Catholics who have shown in the midst of scandals that they know there is a church beyond the clergy. Therefore there is a church besides the Eucharist. After all what makes us Christian is baptism. If Sunday Mass becomes irregular it will be all that Catholics have to go on. Will the water of baptism prove more influential than the demands of kith and kin? Relying on baptism could make it easier, indeed imperative, to link with Christians from other churches who find themselves in the same boat.

On the missions the priority is not to get those who have been baptised into the habit of Sunday mass. It is to get them fed. To build a school and provide a dispensary. That’s how Catholicism returned to Scotland. ‘Parishes’ were legally the remit of the Church of Scotland. The new Catholic organisations were set up as ‘Missions’.

This is what is expected of newly converted poor Africans. How much more might be expected of healthy and wealthy Scots? Or have we been kidding ourselves they have been educated also in faith? After a century and more of Catholicism in Scotland we are returning to a small number of priests. Is the laity able and willing to manage the building(s) and use them as centres for compassion and outreach to the lost sheep in the ‘new evangelisation’?

I once heard Cardinal O’Brien appealing for more (priestly) vocations saying ‘no priest, no Eucharist, no Church’. I thought of Bangladesh and the villages of the old Portuguese Padroado who (like the Japanese in Nagasaki) had survived centuries without benefit of clergy. It was their daughters at boarding school in Calcutta who went over the convent wall with Mother Teresa and became the founding members of the Missionaries of Charity. Perhaps the single most effective gospel witness in our life time. Of course it takes courage and confidence. And imagination.

Catholics come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some have concluded, not always happily, that it is really non-sense but still belong because of all the cultural associations. Some practise in the sense they go to church but they do not preach because they lack the confidence to tell others what they believe. Some preach but do not practise discomfiting the comfortable.
But there are others, and it never takes very many determined individuals to make an impact, who have the courage and the confidence of the Catholic Idea. Their time has come. All they need now is a bit of imagination.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.