Page 12, 15th September 2006

15th September 2006
Page 12
Page 12, 15th September 2006 — The day I discovered I was no longer a 'parishioner'

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Locations: Portsmouth


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The day I discovered I was no longer a 'parishioner'

Dioceses are not free to cast aside time-honoured ecclesial concepts, argues Edmund Matyjaszek Words can be a blessing poetry, song, nursery rhymes, murmurs of affection — but wrapped in a lawyer's phrases, or smothered in corporate newspeak, they can frustrate and torment.

Our Catholic Cabinet Minister Ruth Kelly touched on this the other day when she spoke about the word "multiculturalism", saying: "We have moved from a period of near uniform consensus on the value of multiculturalism to one where we can encourage... debate by questioning whether it is encouraging separateness."

Whatever words such as "multicultural" may mean, we often know instinctively what is being expressed: a cluster of views as to what is held valuable. In the Church the same can be true. Are you, for instance, a "traditional" Catholic or a "progressive"? A "Fair Trade" parish? Do you go (or not, as the case may be) to Confession or to Reconciliation?

What is interesting in Ruth Kelly's phrase is her identification of how our views of a word can change. "Consensus" overnight becomes "debate". The ground shifts. Words mean something different. But it is a little different for us, as St John said: "In the beginning was the Word ... the Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth."

As English Catholics, we have 20 centuries of usage, of words, hymns, liturgies, prayers; we benefit from a language soaked in this same Christianity, giving its colour and tone to the whole of our poetry, our history, our customs and constitution. When Winston Churchill said: "Never in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many

to so few" he was not just echoing Henry V at Shakespeare's Agincourt: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers." He was also echoing Scripture itself ("Many are called; few are chosen"). The English language is an echo chamber of remembrance.

Perhaps, then, we should put new words "on parole", lest by letting them loose into the community at large they behave badly and (as with "multiculturalism") have to be brought back into custody.

In the Portsmouth diocese, where I live, there is at the moment a most co-ordinated attempt to grapple with the catastrophic collapse in Catholic practice. In 1965 the Mass count here was 73,971, with 130 diocesan priests. In 2004, the last year of official figures, the Mass count was 37,153. In other words, in 40 years Mass-going has halved.

The number of diocesan priests also has fallen, to 85 in 2004. More critically, fewer than 20 of our priests are under 50 years of age. Soon, we will not have enough priests to celebrate Mass even for the halved attendance. The Pastoral Research Centre describes the overall slump in attendance since the 1960s as "the greatest pastoral and demographic collapse" since the Reformation, This is a national, not a diocesan crisis.

The diocese's response was commendable. Meetings were held locally, then centrally. The fruit a 37-page pastoral plan was issued to parishes in September 2005, along with a small A5 summary. An absolute emphasis on the Sunday Eucharist was accompanied by the development of "Larger Pastoral Areas", or LPAs, that entailed "a radical reassessment of our parish culture".

That is when it all began to get, rather as with Alice in Wonderland, "curiouser

and curiouser". For in the AS summary the word "parish" occurred nowhere except in the introduction.

Fast forward to this July. The informative and readable diocesan newspaper Portsmouth People carried a long column on "The organisation of Pastoral Areas". New words featured prominently: "Pastoral Area" (no longer "Large" or "Larger"); "Worshipping Community" ("a group of people who gather regularly to celebrate the Eucharist in a particular place eg church, chaplaincy, prison, school"); "Leadership Teams-, "Co-ordinating Pastors" and "Area Pastoral Councils". The word "parish" did not appear once.

So what happened to it? It is now to be a "Worshipping Community" at a "Mass centre". Parish Councils are to be "Worshipping Community Pastoral Groups". There are to be 20 to 30 Pastoral Areas. That makes.about one priest, or "Coordinating Pastor", per area in a few years time. As an administrative re-organisation, it is a good one, matching personnel to duties in a time of famine.

Is the word "parish", like "multiculturalism", moving away "from a period of near uniform consensus" on its value? I understand that the Portsmouth experiment is being watched with interest. As a parishioner oops, a member of a worshipping community I certainly am following it closely. 1 want to know what to tell my sons. Are they parishioners? Do they have a parish priest?

This is where the Alice in Wonderland rule "when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean" fails. Some words do have meaning, and "parish" is one of them. Article 2179 of the Catechism says that "a parish is a definite community of the Christia'n faithful established on a stable basis within a particular church". Article 2226 says that "the parish is the Eucharistic community and the heart of the liturgical life of Christian families."

Parish is a word linked to "diocese", which is rooted in the Greek word for a house oikos. Diocese is di-oikos, to govern or manage. Then there are our own phrases, such as "parish pump", "parish councils" and "parish records".

Mgr Keith Barltrop, director of the Catholic Agency to Support Evangelisation, has recently attributed the dramatic fall in churchgoing largely to a failure to pass on the faith to the next generation "a crisis of transmission". But words are all we have to do this. Change the words and transmission could be interrupted. What do we teach our children? One must proceed with caution.

1 am not snaking a local point. When I raised these issues in correspondence with the Diocese of Portsmouth, the most gracious reassurance came that there was no intention of dropping the word "parish". Indeed, is not a Pastoral Area the old parish writ large for an era when our practice is writ small?

We should not blame the diocese for the decline in Mass-going. No, the fault is in ourselves. We seem to be on a demographic suicide mission.

But I would still like to put some of these words on parole. I wonder if the response to this crisis requires something different than "Implementation Steering Groups". Do we need further "outreach", or greater "diversity"? Or more "specific links with particular worshipping communities"?

Perhaps it needs a miracle. Anyone going to Walsingham this year?

Edmund Matyjaszek is a poet and playwright

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