Page 10, 19th May 1978

19th May 1978
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Page 10, 19th May 1978 — Bishops caught betweenVatican and demands of laity
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Bishops caught betweenVatican and demands of laity

Continued from page 1 Catholic faculties. A quarter of these were women. Of the 869 male students only a very small proportion are likely to opt for the priesthood, but many more will offer themselves for pastoral work. Nor is this training as it might intellectual elite. confined to an elite. Many parish and diocesan centres now exist and are training people in pastoral work and, the gospel. There are a miriad of study groups and 'parochial work groups'. Such training has resulted in a much more confident laity.

They want to take responsibility, are no longer content to be treated as children. The phrase 'father knows best is simply no longer practically true in the Netherlands.

This has shown itself most clearly at parish level, not least in the liturgy. In 1974 alone there were 734 liturgical work groups involving 1,428 out of the Netherlands 1,800 parishes.

These groups aie responsible, for preparing the liturgy and

adopt many of the tasks that we in Britain leave to our priests. Each of these groups had an average of 10 members.

There are 4,000 chruch choirs in the Netherlands with a membership in excess of 100,000 people. More than 25,000 Catholics take part in parish deanary of diocesan pastoral councils. There are 168 full time pastoral workers back ed up by 1,582 pastoral work groups with a membership of nearly 17,000 people.

I was deeply moved by the Masses I attended during my visit and for the first time began to think that perhaps those in Britain who complain that the new Mass is flat and has lost the glory of its former tridentine days have a point. Here was beautiful music (the Church in the Netherlands has sometimes been called the singing Church). not in Latin but in Dutch, not in Gregorian plain chant but in modern music.

Here, too, were symbols brought alive, a candle lit as the word of God was read, a girdle placed on the altar by a member of the laity to show that not just the priest but all of us are bound together and to God in this celebration.

here men and women gathered together around the altar freely, and without embarrassment. Here nearly everyone received communion. Here, too, was unhurried silence. It didn't seem to matter how long it went on.

The Dutch Church has often been accused of 'free lancing' in its liturgy. But in fact the official translations of the mass completed in 1976 are used in between .70 and 75 per cent of celebrations.

Variations are made for special occasions such as youth services, ecumenical services or masses celebrating a theme particularly relevant to the local community. However, I found none of the 'heretical' practices I was so carefully warned about before I left Britain.

So in Britain how can we increase our learning? Who will be our teachers? how are we to deepen our understanding of the gospel and Church traditions?

Is it possible that our seminaries can open their doors? Or would the presence of lay people (and heaven help us women?) threaten too much the 'separate' identity of our priests and cause 'problems' for a celibate clergy?

Although some valuable work is already being done in adult catechists, for most of us the day we leave school is the day we cease to study religion in any formal sense. Thereafter we must be content with what we can pick up from the odd sermon or newspaper article.

True there are some study groups but one great disadvantage we face in Britain is that we have no knowledge of either numbers of existing groups or the strength of demand for more.

Nobody has bothered to research these phenomenon or to document what resources ex

ist so it is almost impossible to match those who want to learn with those who have the ability to teach.

In Britain much argument centres around how the liturgy should be performed yet little attention is given to how to improve a. A new liturgical centre is to be built in England and this can only be a step forward.

In most parishes now we have lay readers, although still very few women are offered this role. We exchange the sign of peace and lay people take up the collection. But is this to be the limit of our participation? Surely this will mean that Mass on Sunday has little to do with the rest of the week.

Could not small groups of parishioners take it in turn together to come together once a week and prepare the theme for Mass.

And what of our church music? 'Modern' music in the Church in Britain seems to have been totally confined to adapting folk hymns, often with strong reaction from older parishioners, or to assimilating hymns from other Churches.

Where are our modern song writers? Are parish choirs being encouraged to write and sing their own songs and teach them to the congregations? Arc the contributions of music students

being accepted or are they

simply not contributing?

If we in Britain are to come of age these seem to me some of the questions to which we must address ourselves, not tomorrow or the day after but today. Nor is it any longer any use waiting for our bishops and priests to• tell us to do these things.

In Britain when one talks of Christian communities of lay people one talks of small groups of, at most. five or six people living and working together. In the Netherlands one talks in terms of hundreds not tens.

Such groups basic communities as they are called have grown rapidly in the Netherlands in the last 10 years. There are now in the region of 250 each with between 40 and 1,000 active members, Each community has its own history and varies widely in its social involvement, style of life and the.area in which it works. They all share common roots in their desire to get back to the basics of the gospel and the general acknowledgement that this word of God has come to them through the traditions of the Catholic Church.

Most of these groups began because of a general disatisfaction with the Church, because of a feeling that the Church was no longer relevant to the needs of people in the modern world. Many were frustrated that their efforts to change the Church or simply to live within it in a new way were constantly crushed by authority. In some places, as is already happening in Britain, the laity began to vote with their feet. Refusing any longer to accept that the geographical area where they lived should determine the church where they worshipped.

In Amersterdam, for example, people began to flock to a parish where a youth group flourished around a dedicated pastor. First the parents came, then others followed. This 'volunteer church' as it is sometimes called now has about 1,500 people attached to it with a central core of 300 who meet regularly to study, pray and work politically and socially in the area.

Another community near Veldhoven in the south of the Netherlands began more than 10 years ago when a nurse, a university student. a Jesuit and a nun came together for friendship and support. As they began to discover themselves by living together in friendship their community blossomed.

At first a small room was set aside for prayer, now they have built their own chapel. At first they were only four now they are more than 40. At first they lived in one house, now they have six.

In the beginning activity was. on a small scale but gradually more and more people flocked to the community. Now they run a school of faith where people come to study and undergo a period of formation.

Anyone who wishes to join the community first spends three months in an 'exodus group' where they try to experience through study and prayer the ways in which their life is oppressed and pass from such bondage to the promised land of hope. The community is now running its 23rd session of three month long exodus grOups.

Not all who come for these three months join the community, so many more than the central core of 40 have been involved with the community. The community also offers retreats for anyone who wishes to come, they have close contacts with the local community and many work in ordinary jobs in neighbouring towns. Throughout the emphasis is on friendship, as one of the cornmunity members put it: "We hope our community is a river running through the bed of friendship."

People involved with such communities are by no means all young. Ages range from new born babies 'to those in their 60s. What they have in common perhaps is that they felt homeless in the Church so they have built themselves a new home.

This does not mean however that such communities are trying to form an alternative Church. Their links with the institutional Church may be tenuous but they are still Catholics.

The debate at the National Pastoral Consultation in Velclhoven was dominated by the question of how such cornmunities could be acknowledged as a legitimate part of the Church. How better links could be established between the communities and other groups in the Church.

Naturally such questions bring conflict and traditional elements in the Church fear that the existence of such groups will undermine the puri, ty of the faith and the authority ot the bishops. The progressives are demanding a pluralism in the Church that many traditionalists are not yet ready to accept:

How does this compare with our experience in Britain? Well there are certainly hundreds of community groups. The difference is that most of them have absolutely nothing to do with the Church and only a few of them are consciously inspired by the gospel.

Those discontented or 'homeless' in the Church seem either to leave altogether or to join community groups where they express their Christian apostolate of social action but keep their spiritual lives to themselves.

There are of course exceptions, but these communities tend to keep quiet about their activities because they feel that they will be labelled 'experimental' and the full weight of ecclesiastical disapproval will descend upon them.

They have long since tired of endless battles with authority. T heygo on their own way, sadden ed that the Church cannot yet accept them but knowing that they may discover new ways of `being Church' in the modern world, They have become to a certain extent an 'underground' Church.

The question is now will they Lear the Church apart or can they be brought together in a creative dialogue? In the Netherlands I was impressed with the charity and openness with which this debate is being conducted. • Unfortunately in Britain as yet we have no forum with the exception of newspaper letter columns for such a debate to take place. Will our National Congress in 1980 provide such a forum, can we afford to wait that long?

If not where can we begin? In the Netherlands they have a Commission for Pluralism which has two study sections, one for the progressives and one for the traditionalists. This commission has been in close contact with both the basic communities and with traditionalist groups, trying to understand their needs, dis cover how they see the Church, and what unites them in a common faith. This session of the Dutch National Pastoral Council was entirely devoted to the theme 'believing together and being Church together.'

Do we need such a commission in Britain? Or can we create forums at a local level? Much thought needs to be given to ways in which people can share their hopes and fears For the future of the Church without feeling that 'the other side' is trying to exclude them from the life of the community or rob them of their heritage.

But perhaps the biggest question to be answered is does the will to come together exist or are we already so polarised that we must go our separate ways?

My own personal reflection, and it is rooted more in blind hope than in knowledge of practical examples, is that it must be possible. If the Church is the Church of Christ then it much be big enough for all of us. perhaps not in a monolithic unity as of old but in mutual respect and a belief that different ways of living and worshipping are equally valid.

The growth in responsibility of ordinary Dutch Catholics and the formation of basic communities has almost inevitably brought with it demands for a total rethink of the concept of authority and the role of bishops and priests in the Church.

In the basic communities the priest is no longer the sole authority, he may be set aside for leading the liturgy but in the life of the community he is one and equal among many.

The person in a position of authority, most obviously the bishop and the priest, is no longer exclusively accepted because of the position he holds. For an increasing number of people the acceptance of authority depends on the extent to which the person exercising it is a genuine exponent of the group in which he holds authority.

In other words the priest or bishop can no longer find his identity exclusively in his role, he can no longer claim expert wisdom on all the issues with which he is confronted in a complex modern society.

Where he has sought to do so he has lost credibility and all vestiges of authority in its best sense have disappeared leaving only the exercise of naked power ... you will obey because I am your bishop and I say so. I control the buildings, the schools, the money, I say what is orthodox, define what changes are allowed. Obey or you are out on your ear.

A complicating factor is of course relations with the Vatican the supreme "authority". One has only to think of the recent directives from the Vatican to our own Church to discontinue the practice of General Absolution welcomed by so many Catholics to understand how bishops are caught between demands from the laity for greater democracy and the knowledge that Rome has the power to suppress developments it considers too "progressive."

In the Netherlands this conflict is out in the open. Here it has been bubbling for many years but is only just beginning' to surface.




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