Martin Newland reports from Birmingham on the key issues raised by the National Conference of Priests at this year's meeting
THE National Conference of Priests, which held its 1988 annual meeting last week at Birmingham's Newman College, has no legislative power and has in the past been dubbed a talking shop by cynics who measure success by the ability of an instituion to provide for sweeping legislative change.
The NCP is a very different creature. It provides a forum for the establishment of i brotherhood among priests; it convinces priests that they are not alone in the difficult business of looking after a parish; and it allows for a vita? exchange of pastoral ideas, convictions and policies which ensure that the diverse benefits of the local churches become available for all.
Above all it provides the priest with a change to objectivise his ministry, to see it as abeing thing rather than a doing thing, a vision that is vital for a healthy priesthood.
At the beginning of my time at the Conference I spoke to a contingent of delegates from the vibrant Welsh Church. Their natural good humour, their obvious commitment to the church and to their ministry (and to Wales), offered a unique insight into what the Conference offers — the ability to express what priesthood means in the local Church.
"We are glad to be Catholics. Flippant people think that all we are ever up to is swinging incense and dressing up. These things have developed out of our humanity, our faith", said Fr Thomas Regan of Belmont Abbey who joined me in an impromptu interview together with Fr Bill Isaac of Cardiff Archdiocese and Fr Haydyn Blackey of Menevia Diocese.
A striking aspect of the interview was these three priests' vision of their ministry. They had no time for the "social worker" model of priesthood which strays from its cultic basis.
"We have got to be at the altar — this is the pattern set for us by Christ", said Fr Regan. "Everything we do must stem from the sacramental ministry," said Fr Haydyn.
This does not mean that the priests envisaged themselves as a separate priestly caste. "There is no way we are on pedestals. Our parishioners have realised that we are human, indeed, we have come to realise that ourselves," said Fr Regan.
The Welsh contingent displayed a notable love for their Church, they were clearly glad to show off what is fast becoming the most dynamic example of Catholicism in these islands (more Welsh Catholics go to Mass than anywhere else), and they were at pains to show that Welsh Catholicism, though distinct, is part of the rich diversity of British Catholicism as a whole.
"We follow Rome, we are all Catholics, but we are much more aware of being the Church in Wales rather than the Roman Catholic Church alone," said Fr Isaac. "This does not mean We come here as a church within a church, however."
Priests to consult
"A PRIEST should not take arbitrary decisions without consulting all those likely to be affected by them". This excerpt from one of the resolutions passed by the NCP testified to a growing awareness among priests that the laity are becoming a force to be reckoned with.
"There will always be people in the back row with pursed lips, handbags on laps and hats pulled down over faces who refuse to do anything risky," Fr Regan told me. "But the vast majority are concerned for the life of the Church. They want to learn and they are committed to ecumenism, the liturgy and to social action."
The Conference was determined to lay down guidelines for accountability of priests, both to fellow priests and to parishioners. Delegates mentioned cases where a parish had struggled to get some project under way only to see a new priest arrive who dismissed the whole scheme. There was also a distinct reaction against appointing priests to parishes without recourse to the parish's needs. Bishops were exhorted to recognise "the continuity of existing parish programmes and lines of development" when appointing a new priest to a parish. Delegates also asked that there be "proper training offered to all new parish priests and specialised ministries."
The NCP made it clear that accountability to a laity that is rediscovering the implications of baptism is necessary for the future of the Church.
ONE area in which the laity are expecting the clergy to take a lead is in the area of social justice. Another Conference Proposition overwhelmingly endorsed was that all parishes should take up "an option for the poor". Some delegates went beyond mere good intentions and recommended that parishes take up regular collections for the underprivileged. Delegates also asked that the NCP Standing Committee start lobbying the
Government over the failure of its overseas aid-budget to match even half of UN guidelines for rich countries.
Addressing the Conference Archbishop Derek Worlock of Liverpool, the NCP's link man with the bishops, latched onto the problem of the poor with characteristic eloquence. He suspected that priests strayed from social issues either because they could not understand the dilemmas themselves, or because they were fearful of the charge of political involvement.
The archbishop outlined areas of social injustice where Catholics' voices must be heard the so-called "trickle down" effect which in the long term benefits the poor (if the rich are taxed less and therefore create more wealth), centralisation which removes power from local government, housing reforms, education reforms and so on.
The role of the priest is not to take up party politics, but to "be there" with his people and to articulate the fears of those who have no voice.
Some priests reported that their parishes were coming increasingly to grips with poverty and deprivation. Parishes, for instance, are beginning to establish credit unions which amass funds to cope with debt incurred by families who have gone too far with their credit cards.
THE sacraments, especially Confirmation, were also areas of concern for delegates. Priests spent two hours discussing the age at which children should be confirmed. Salford Diocese confirms children before First Confession and Communion along the early church pattern, believing that the sacrament is more to do with initiation than adult commitment.
Many delegates argued that with continuing formation becoming the model and with appropriation of baptismal commitment well into adulthood being considered increasingly as the norm, confirmation at such an early age left the Catholic bereft of sacramental nourishment from about age seven until Marriage or Holy Orders.
The NCP was painfully aware of the need to involve young adults in the Church after Confirmation as well, and mourned "the lack of support and challenge to our young people in the parishes." I was told by one delegate that the smaller discussion groups were greatly taken up with the need to provide for continuing formation. The challenge thrown down by the new RCIA programme, with their reliance on growth in faith, not merely its maintenance, was evidently hard to ignore.
STILL harder to ignore at the Conference was the need for delegates to confirm their commitment to ecumenism. Each priest came from a community that had been erecting tentative structures aimed at reaching out to nonCatholic neighbours.
There was much support for the NCP's official response to the ecumenical instruments aimed at translating the "Not Strangers But Pilgrims" process of interchurch dialogue, born at Swanwick last year, into a tangible reality.
Delegates focussed on one area in particular which would help foster ecumenical relations the facilitating of inter-church marriages. Not only was "an especially sensitive approach from the clergy and local Christian communities" counselled for those engaged in ecumenism, but the appropriate Committee of the Bishops' Conference was urged to set up appropriate ecumenical rites for the administration of interchurch marriages.