Missions and closures
There was a time when we were urged to look with admiration and for inspiration to mission countries. We were regaled with stories of priests travelling from station to station to say Mass. There they would provide the church’s blessing for those marriages which had taken place and preside over those in waiting, hear confessions – with upturned bicycles to provide the necessary canonical grille with their spokes. (We were all like that in those days).
Between the priest’s visits, the community would be fostered and held together by catechists who led it in prayer, evangelised and catechised converts and children, all in preparation for the next visit of the ministerial priest. It was assumed, perhaps vaguely, that these communities would eventually produce their own clergy to be ordained and establish a proper parish system, each with its own resident priest. Given time, they would be as we are. The structures were assumed to be as eternal as the church.
In the meantime, our situation has changed. The abundant generation of clergy from the first half of the twentieth century slipped away. It was not replaced. The preconceptions and assumptions of a secular culture with new and attractive job opportunities began to have their effect even within the ranks of the clergy.
Vatican II had raised hopes of new vistas for persons and Church. Subsequently, many of the disillusioned priestly generation turned to other paths and packed their bags. Hopes raised and dashed are always more difficult to live with than acceptance of a normality presumed to be inevitable and everlasting.
Some of all generations were found to have abused their status and power to the destruction of lives and the humiliation of us all. No doubt other factors, too various and subtle to explore here, were at work but, not surprisingly, parents were no longer so willing to encourage their sons to a priestly vocation.
On the other hand, humiliation should be a great begetter of humility.
The crisis in organisation, long foreseen by those with eyes to see, arrived with astonishing speed. Other lands were explored to fill our gaps; the poor were called upon to help the rich. At a recent meeting of our deanery, half of those present were from other continents, more than replacing the former Irish contingent. Ireland has its own problems. We were still short staffed. The gaps remain and are increasing.
We have been praying for ‘vocations’ for half a century; perhaps God has other plans. We might also pray that we may ‘accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference’. It is necessary for us to make the distinctions.
There is an old saying that a rebellion in retreat is already defeated. Among other things, the church is a rebellion against the world as it is. It is a sign of the kingdom of God as it should be, not the spoiled creation we see. By its very nature it has the duty to make its presence as that sign felt, wherever our world is. Its duty is to go forward.
Military propaganda always describes a retreat or a rout as a strategic withdrawal to a prepared position to reorganise and regroup. We generally know better. By no leap of the imagination can the present process of parish closures in the church in Scotland be characterised as an advance. If what is in process is Plan A, the follow-up has yet to be revealed. It would seem a more obvious course would be to look for an example of some successful model in the church’s experience to indicate a way forward.
That of the mission churches comes to mind and seems promising. That would lead us to encourage ‘priestless parishes’ to organise themselves as self-sustaining units. These communities would set up services where the presence of a ministerial priest is not required, attend to the sick and the poor and, above all, keep open and maintain the church their contributions built, so preserving the sign of the presence of the Kingdom In their localities. Ecumenically this is even more important in rural areas where the Catholic church can be the only remaining visible sign of a Christian presence. The closure of such a church can cause distress even among other Christians in addition to the dismay, sense of betrayal and subsequent bitterness among the Catholic parishioners.
This latter reaction should not be underestimated. The strength and depth of parishioners’ investment, material and spiritual, in their church and parish is great indeed. Generations of families have made their contributions, often of scarce money and time, to keeping that community alive. They and their family members have been sustained, baptised, married and buried from it. It was their weekly and often daily resource, their sacred place. Without it, they have no centre for their activities and motivation. As they see it, something that is theirs and precious is being taken from them without their consent. They do not see why they should not continue it with the help of a regular priestly visit. In the absence of a resident priest, they have been doing so already. Every crisis can provide an opportunity.
It would be nice if on the bishop’s visit, instead of announcing the closure of the church, he could praise the parishioners for their efforts, ask them if they were prepared to continue, await their answer and commission them officially to do so. If this seems a step away from clericalism, that would surely be in tune with the thinking of Pope Francis.
Bob Hendrie is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh. He was ordained in 1962.