Page 10, 11th August 2000

11th August 2000
Page 10
Page 10, 11th August 2000 — Doubts

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Father Richard Barrett answers readers' questions IN MY pun 1:51.; there has been talk of clergy re-deployment and my parish priest has let me have a copy of a report from the Diocesan Steering Committee that sets out plans for the fit ure here in the north. These plans seem very pessimistic about vocations and involve the clustering of parishes.

All this is put down to the shortage of clergy and the need to make financial economies all round. Surely such steps are a little draconian?

THERE is an economic and a theological dimension to this query. This week we shall deal with the economic and next week the theological.

The Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, sent round a pastoral letter to his clergy this year in which he pointed out that plans would have to be made to cope with expansion. Yes, I said expansion. The Archdiocese serves a population of six million Catholics and that number is set to increase by a million every five years for the foreseeable future. Cut to a northern diocese in the UK and there a diocesan committee is planning for decline. There are those who feel that radical property reviews like the one sent in by this reader (even though it is called a pastoral plan) advertise decline and therefore accelerate it. Others wonder about demolishing traditional buildings and preserving the barns and suggest that such planning for a bleak projected future is really an exercise that vindicates Anthony Archer's observations in his Britain —A Mile of Two Churches. The Archbishop of Paris had clergy shortages some years ago they argue and he simply turned over some ot his parishes to the new movements (like Emmanuel, Community of St Jean, Neo-catechumenate etc.). Other dioceses twin with foreign dioceses and have exchange programmes with their clergy on fiveyear contracts. But not our friends in the north — evidently they have ruled out such solutions. So is this just a case of a lack of imagination or is it perhaps a sign of a waspish ecclesiology?

It cannot be denied that economies of scale would dictate that unnecessary expenditure and surplus plant should be cut out of any streamlined machin ery in a 2Ist century diocese. This may be hard for some people to accept, but the Catholic Church does not exist primarily to provide attractive landscapes for watercolour artists. The idyll of a church in every hamlet is something of a 19th century pipedream that is now only peddled by a few romantic clergymen who feel it is still their job to build community and keep the home fires burning. It was a dream that presumed three things – that distances to church he calculated in walking miles; b) that a church building is more important than its people and c) the jobs of the priest and the local politician are essentially the same.

The first assumption has been dispelled for ever by the invention of the motor car, the second belied by the realism of Vatican II ecclesiology and the third has been dispelled forever by the appearance of the Code of Canon Law.

With regard to the big picture, it seems sensible to economise with outgoings especially in the structure of dioceses. In this light, moves to create new dioceses (ie Thames Valley, Kent and Hertfordshire) and therefore multiply already heavy financial burdens on the faithful (a diocesan bureaucracy costs a fortune to run) would seem to be more madness in the face of hard economic and technological facts. Why would any sane efficient clergyman want to turn Britain into a Little Italy? In fact the principles of economy of scale would dictate that we should be considering the merger of existing dioceses rather than the proliferation of new ones just as many bishops are now wisely considering the merger of parishes and the shutting down of Mass centres that litter the countryside and stretch the older clergy. In this connection it has been suggested by one finance director that Southwark could be merged with Westminster, Hertfordshire go to Northampton, Kent to Arundel and Brighton. Clifton could be merged with Plymouth, Hallam with Middlesborough, Leeds with Nottingham, Brentwood with East Anglia, Shrewsbury with Salford and Lancaster with Liverpool. This would save a fortune, keep the clergy happy and release more funds for formation.

At first sight it seems a far more sensible solution than dissipating funds for a dozen more remakes of Chesterton's The Napoleon of Notting Hill. in the present circumstances we could try a page from across the pond. How is it that in California it takes one archdiocese to cater very ably to the same number of people that is served by 26 dioceses in the UK? So asking the hard-working faithful to fork out monies for more commissions in order to staff new dioceses the size of a parish in LA seems inconsiderate at the very least.

We should say that merging parishes and closing surplus churches makes consummate sense in the age of the motor car. Nowadays people drive to the supermarket for their shopping, drive their kids to school, drive to the gym, and drive to church. Why so many Mass centres for a population that is in large part mobile? The age of 19th century planning and the artificial "communities" it created should make way for the era of mobility. Of course some people interpret can 214 (the right to spiritual goods) to mean they have a right to a church in their driveway but the Supreme Court at Rome has recently decided otherwise. It is for the bishop to decide where, when and how the right to spiritual goods is supplied in concrete.

TT IS ALSO for the bishop to decide when churches should close and to do this he is simply required to

consult the presbyteral council not to sign an elaborate treaty in a railway carriage with a parish council after much indecorous protest in the local press (calm 515, 1222). Harsh but true. The motor car has changed ever/thing — this should mean a dose of realism among pastors and among people. The merger of existing parishes into larger units will free up many clergy presently languishing in the equivalent of the village postoffice.

Yet such major restructuring can be forestalled by what the new Archbishop of Birmingham calls twodimensional catholicity (outwards and upwards), i.e. importing foreign clergy (though the word "foreign" should not exist for members of the multi-cultural society par excellence). Why none of the pastoral plans sent in have considered this very obvious solution remains a mystery. After all if it can be done to British football – surely it can be done to British dioceses?

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