I Need Your Help
An imagined bishop asks for advice.
America, December 17, 2007
T hank you for coming. My name is Bishop Pascal. I am the diocesan bishop of Heartlands, and I need your help. Let me first tell you my situation and some of the options that are being proposed to me for dealing with it. Then I’ll welcome your suggestions or proposals.
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. We have had rosary crusades and the Serra Club Chalice Program and “Come and See” visits to our regional seminary. I promote vocations at every confirmation or Boy Scout ceremony I am part of. We are grateful that this past year we were able to ordain two new priests, and we rejoice at the six solid candidates in theology, as well as the 10 men coming along behind them. In the past year, however, we also lost 11 men through death and retirement. The bottom line is that right now our new vocations are not achieving replacement levels.
I believe strongly in the power of prayer and will continue to urge our people to pray for new priests. They want good new priests and support every effort we make in that direction. But 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. Besides being tiresome, these lamentations aren’t very helpful, are they? I’ve got decisions to make. Real communities have immediate sacramental needs to be addressed right now. 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—voilà!—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. What about time-conditioned celibacy, along the lines of Shinto priesthood—celibate service for 7 years and then return to the lay state? That would challenge long-held beliefs about the lifelong commitment required by the model of Jesus’ life.
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.” Mind you, I’m not averse to bringing up their possibility in discreet circles—I did get off the ladder long ago. I happen to like our diocese and am happy to stay where I am, thank you—but I’ve got decisions to make in the coming year—some, in fact, that I probably should have made five years ago.
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? There was, after all, a time in the church when it would have been unthinkable to ordain a man for service unattached to a diocese; the validity of his ordination was tied into lifelong service of a particular faith community, analogous to the connection symbolized by a bishop’s ring: that he was to be married for life to a single diocese.
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. What does that do to our belief that effective sacramental liturgy needs to be acculturated, to issue from the unique faith life of a particular embodied community with its own integrated leadership?
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. The idea that every priest was cut from the same cookie-cutter and you could just substitute one for another, with no regard for issues of cultural sensitivity, runs counter to the rich development of eucharistic theology over the past 35 years. Do we want to risk returning to a mechanistic understanding that as long as the rite is performed validly, that’s all that matters?
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? Anecdotal evidence has people remarking that they like Sister Elaine’s “Mass” more than Father O’Toole’s.
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?
Turn your chairs to form small circles and share your ideas. After a half hour our facilitator will collect your responses. Thank you. And please pray for the people of the Heartlands Diocese.
George B. Wilson, S.J., is a church organizational consultant who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.