"Where is it All Heading?"

Some Reflections on the Future of Ministry

The diocese of Fort Worth recently had an insert put into all parish bulletins informing the people of two changes in the offing. First, that due to the shortage of priests the diocese would be appointing several non-ordained Catholic laypersons to assume the full leadership of some parishes starting this fall. And second, that the diocese can no longer promise that Eucharistic liturgy can be provided on every Sunday in all the parishes across the diocese.

As a response to these sobering realities the diocese is hoping to devise a method of distributing priest-presiders so that every parish in the diocese will, in the course of a year, have the experience of Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest. In the future, some Sunday a given parish may experience this form of lay-led worship even though it is blessed with the presence of a resident priest-pastor -- because its pastor happens to be needed to preside at some other parish that day!

The church of Fort Worth, although it is perhaps being more proactive than some other dioceses in developing its response to the fast approaching future, is not unique in the situation with which it is grappling. Sooner or later -- but faster than most church leaders are prepared to admit or face -- the same wave of reality will wash across the whole of the church in America.

I do not propose to sort out the reasons that have led us to this situation. People of different ideological stripes will point to various things that have 'gone wrong.' But apart from the fact that the web of possible factors is complex and will keep church historians in business for centuries, the effort at unmasking villains is a luxury not worth the game. We have organizational, pastoral, and theological work ahead of us. Now.

Organizational Reflections

At the operational level the issue is one of conserving precious human resources, determining how to make them serve the common good of the local church. Many people are calling for changes which can increase the pool of priests: opening up ordination to married men or to women, inviting resigned priests back to ministry, recruiting priests from other priest-rich continents, changing the requirement of celibacy to a temporary one instead of a life-long obligation. Each proposal may be offered quite honestly in a constructive effort to insure that our church retain its essential character as a Eucharistic church. None should be treated disparagingly. And each will involve the challenging of some significant assumption on which the church's practice has long been based. The lunch we are being offered in our hunger will not come free.

Operational procedures, such as the deployment of priests (do we rob the rural areas to serve suburbia, simply because there are more communicants in the metroplex?), will give bodily form to changes in policy. And policies will in turn rest on a complex interaction among conflicting hopes and fears. In this issue (as in most others) decisions will finally be made on the basis of images: images of what we are most afraid of losing and will work to avoid, or -- hopefully -- images of a future which attracts and energizes us in spite of the costs it exacts of us.

Pastoral considerations

Mention of hopes and fears brings us to the pastoral work to be done. Now we leave the realm of structures and practices. We move to the realm of spirituality, of the drama of personal and communal journey in the Lord.

As this reality of fewer priests--- and especially dramatic responses to it --- becomes 'real' to people out in the pews, they will undoubtedly experience a wide spectrum of emotions. Some have been living mentally with this reality for years and are already angry at church leaders' evident avoidance. People at the other end of the spectrum of awareness will find themselves shocked and numbed. Many will probably use the tone, if not the exact words, of Magdalen after the crucifixion; "They have taken away my Lord; and where have they laid him?"

Given each person's unique story, any one of these emotional responses could be quite appropriate. Pastoral leaders need to receive each with respect, not trying to put a Band-aid on the pain and confusion. For some people great gobs of their Catholic identity will be ripped up when they are told they will not "have Mass" some Sunday.

Leaders will eventually have to be prepared to give a clear and convincing rationale for whatever choices the diocese makes. But they need to understand that even the most cogent explanation will not take away the pain and confusion. For that, the best thing they can do is to take serious steps to insure that the services which 'substitute' for the Mass are prepared and led by lay people whose obvious faith is complemented by excellent formation in the skills of presiding.

Theological considerations

At their core the changes we will experience raise serious, if less immediately articulated, theological questions. I suggest but a couple.

Just what role does -- or should -- participation in Sunday Eucharistic liturgy play in a vibrant Catholic life? There are whole Catholic countries where Mass is provided weekly, yet for centuries regular attendance at Sunday Mass has certainly not been the sole or even the highest criterion of serious Catholic life. They have a deep commitment to solidarity and communion with their neighbor; they take care of their poor, making personal sacrifices to do so. In other places, though the people may have the possibility of Mass only quite rarely, their faith is alive and has been transmitted across generations from layperson to layperson, sometimes at the cost of martyrdom.

How does a church remain deeply eucharistic even though the Eucharist itself is celebrated only rarely? The flowering of sacramental theology was undoubtedly one of the great achievements of the Council of Trent -- but in its emphasis on the Sacraments did it unintentionally split 'the seven' sacraments off from a belief in the sacramentality of all creation, life and work? The liturgy is the source from which Christian living springs, as well as the summit to which it returns, but has that fact --- and the very availability or even convenience of liturgy --- led to the loss of appreciation for the actual life in-between?

Questions, questions. Ultimately we must hold onto two convictions. The Spirit is still at work at the core of the church. And the God who leads us into the future has something to teach us. Can we be open to learn it?

George Wilson, S.J., does church organizational consulting with Management

Design Institute out of cincinnati, Ohio.