Reflecting on the way ahead for Edinburgh and St Andrews


The parish priest of the South Edinburgh cluster of parishes responds to Archbishop Cushley’s pastoral letter, We have found the Messiah: the Future of our Archdiocese, which was issued on Palm Sunday. He takes issue with the archbishop’s analysis of the situation.

I sent a written response to Archbishop Cushley after his letter to the deans was published [in which the archbishop proposed reducing the number of parishes from around 100 to 30]. It seemed best not to do anything further until we received the pastoral letter in which the archbishop had promised to outline his vision for the diocese.

Now that we have received a copy of We have found the Messiah and had time to reflect on it, it would appear that there has not been a lot of shift in the ground, if any, from the position stated in the letter to the deans.

The Pastoral Letter contains a short quotation from para 25 of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium (EG). The whole paragraph reads:

I am aware that nowadays documents do not arouse the same interest as in the past and that they are quickly forgotten.  Nevertheless, I want to emphasise that what I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance and important consequences.  I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are.  Mere administrationcan no longer be enough.  Throughout the world let us be ‘permanently in a state of mission’.

These last two sentences quote words from the Aparecida Document of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops’ Conference in 2007 which appears to be a primary source for many of Pope Francis’ statements.

The Encyclical is brim full of encouraging statements of guidance to become a missionary, outward-looking, open, inclusive, adaptable, collaborative, discerning and integrated community.

I believe that the argument that if there is no priest there is no Eucharist, and if there is no Eucharist there is no Church, does not reflect the real experience of the vast majority of Catholic Christians world-wide.  They are unable to have the presence of a priest or the celebration of Eucharist on a frequent or regular basis.  Does that mean that these vibrant communities of faith are not Church?

Paragraph 31 of EG focuses on the role of the bishop.

The bishop must always foster this missionary communion in his diocesan church 

following the ideal of the first Christian communities, in which the believers were of one heart and one soul (Act 4.32)

  • To do so, he will sometimes go before his people, pointing the way and keeping their hope vibrant.  
  • At other times, he will simply be in their midst with his unassuming and merciful presence. 
  • And yet at other times he will have to walk after them helping those who lag behind and – above all – allowing the flock to strike out on new paths.  

In his mission of fostering a dynamic, open and missionary communion, he will have to encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law and other forms of pastoral dialogue, out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear.  Yet the principal aim of these participatory processes should not be ecclesiastical organisation but rather the missionary aspiration of reaching everyone.

The archbishop’s pastoral letter makes many references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC).  I was always a bit sceptical of the Catechism not least because when you reduce truths to simple statements you run the risk of missing the whole point.   An example is the quotation of CCC 760 where the bottom line is ‘…The Church is the goal of all things’.

It is my view that Jesus never became incarnate in order to found a church.  He came to herald a kingdom.  The Church is the vehicle through which the Kingdom is announced and delivered.  The Church is not the Kingdom.

We need our Archbishop to be in our midst listening; pointing the way and keeping hope vibrant; being open to different ways of being heralds of the kingdom in our communities of faith.

What our local church needs very much at this time is leadership that

  • outlines a clear vision;
  • engages in the widest consultation possible;
  • announces clear guidelines for consulting;
  • announces a strategy and a time-line and,
  • throughout all of that, at every stage, is clearly communicating to everyone what is happening and what the next stages are.

So where do we go from here ?

We need an honest recognition that the local church has failed to implement the teaching of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.  We have failed to recognise and value the rightful role of the baptised faithful who are each called to ministry in the church.  We have failed to invest in the training of the laity and therefore equip and empower them to become effective collaborators by taking on their rightful roles and responsibilities along with the presbyterate.

Further clarification of what it means to be an evangelising faith community is clearly stated in the Holy Father’s Evangelii Gaudium.

It seems that the Holy Spirit is giving us the opportunity to rebuild the church in this part of the world by making it appear that we have a crisis in ministry because there are fewer ordained priests.  Perhaps the crisis is in fact that priests are engaged in work that is not theirs and the faithful have until now been largely denied the opportunity to become full stakeholders in the Church.

The way forward for me seems clear.  It takes two decisions and the willingness to implement them.

The first is to allow ordained ministerial priests to do what only priests can / are able to do:  preside at the Liturgies of Healing and Eucharist

The second is to encourage, resource, train and empower lay Catholics to take on their rightful baptismal priestly responsibilities.

So, you might ask: would that work? I would respond: try it and see. I believe that is what was in the minds of the Council Fathers at Vatican 11 and I believe it is the vision of our Holy Father.

So why am I bothering to write these thoughts and circulating them ?

I believe the process of consultation needs to be extended to ensure that we can benefit from the process of cross-fertilisation of the thoughts and feelings of 111 communities.

There are a fair number of parishes where there is a fund of knowledge and experience in the art of clustering.  We surely need to know what others are thinking and feeling in various parts of the diocese and given the lack of structures of communication with the seeming demise of Deanery Pastoral Councils and the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council we need to be inventive in creating open channels of communication and feedback.

I don’t know if these thoughts strike a chord with you.  So many good people have put their lives into achieving what we have in our vibrant faith communities.  Everyone individually, and together as communities, must have the opportunity to share their experience and give their perspective on the future of their community.

I believe we must commit the time and all necessary resources to take this process forward.

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.