PRESENT at the first open sessions of the third annual meeting of the National Conference of Priests in Birmingham last week, I found the debates a moving revelation of how very much our priests do care for their people.
Topics discussed relating to the Conference's theme of pastoral policy ranged from the election of bishops, Catholic schools and liturgy to 'inservice' training for priests, the sacrament of penance and the need for a survey of priests.
A resolution in favour of allowing Saturday evening Mass for fulfilling the Sunday obligation was supported by the argument that it was a growing practice all over the world. Fr. Flavin, an army chaplain from Aldershot, Hampshire, said : "Large sections of the Catholic community experience complete impossibility in getting to Mass on Sunday.
"Priests take risks to say Mass in all army camps in Northern Ireland on Sundays," he said. To make things easier for both priests and soldiers he strongly supported Saturday Mass. Fr. Puttman of Sheffield, gave examples of how not being able to attend Sunday Mass troubled the conscience of the sick; an extension to Saturday would be humane and Christian, he said.
The Conference voted by a large majority that bishops should consult priests and laity regarding Saturday evening Mass as fulfilling the Sunday obligation.
Regular confession and the administration and theology of the sacrament Of penance were discussed at length. Fr. Tony Smith, of Liverpool, said : "People had voted with their feet" echoing the general consensus among those present that the practice of regular confession had drastically declined, even among seminarians and priests. Fr.
Smith said the private nature of confession had led to its remaining unchanged and the conference were the only people who could do something about the present situation.
"People are losing the help and graces of forgiveness," he said. "Kneeling down before a hole in the wall cannot be done — it's just not on. We must restore the idea of a forgiving community and press for reform."
But Fr. Mooney, of Wilmslow, Cheshire, found general agreement when he admitted that he felt ashamed at confession and would prefer it to remain "a hole in the wall." Many priests expressed worries about lack of theological guidance for confession and Fr. Swaby of Grantham, Lincolnshire, got applause when he suggested penance ought to be more positive.
Fr. Swaby said : "Confession should be used to seek out the attitudes behind wrong action. What people fail to do is even more important than what they did wrong?'
Fr. Marteau, of St. Charles Square, London, ,distinguished between counselling, which was concerned with psychology, and forgiveness. Some exceptional cases fell between the two, such as homosexuals, but they were still distinct and different fields. The idea of community confessions and the concept of reconciliation involved in the sacrament Of penance were also touched on. One priest reported many lay people felt that penitential prayer at the beginning of Mass was sufficient.
Fr. Carey, of Saltash, Devon, said some of the falling off in numbers going to confession was due to the canon of the permissive society that "everybody should do their own thing." Many sins of a sexual nature were no longer felt to be sins. Canon Mullen, of Liverpool, found it "a very basic and alarming situation in the Church where sensitivity to sin seemed to have disappeared — ptnitents felt no shame al confessing 'it's been six months since my last confession'."
Fr. Finn, of Liverpool, queried the presumption that frequent confession was right. "Must we think that because numbers are falling that we have failed?" he asked, noting the number of communicants had risen. The reform of the confession rite is currently being studied in ,Rome. A substantial majority supported the resolution that "the present approach in the sacrament of penance is a great hindrance to its full possibilities for spiritual formation both of children and adults." An equal number supported "the option of face-toface confession by adults."
When two motions urging 'in-service' training for priests were discussed, it was discovered several dioceses and groups had already started courses and the problem was lack of support by the clergy. Fr. Marteau reported he had sent 183 letters to hospital chaplains offering a course and had received only three replies — all of which said they were too busy to attend. "None of the others replied," he said.
Priests reported training schemes being planned or implemented in Salford, Leeds and Northampton. Fr. Crowley of Manchester said that many priests did not believe a knowledge of subjects such as the theology of confession was practical. "Lay people and even nuns are passing us out educationally," he said.
The Conference learned the Hierarchy had recently set up a committee to look into in
service training, perhaps in response to a motion in its favour passed by the Conference last year. It was decided to withdraw this year's resolution.
During a brief discussion of the question of communion in the hand, a member of the standing committee observed the lack of it "would make for great confusion entering the Common Market." Only 14 delegates voted against the motion that "the Hierarchy apply to Rome for permission to allow the reception of com• munion in the hand."
Catholic schools were not the subject of a resolution but crept into a discussion on the Catholic community and the liturgy, showing them to be a major cause of concern. One group's report asked "if the millions of pounds spent on Catholic schools are commensurate with the return." A priest pointed out that the school was responsible for only 15 per cent of the influence on young people, the .parents accounting for 65 per cent and the youth's age group 20 per cent.
One group said good Catholic teachers were often unwilling to join the staffs of Catholic schools. Those offering opinions 'felt the system badly needed overhauling from a religious point of view and criticised lack of contact between priests and the schools.
The conference favoured the idea of industrial chaplains and a substantial majority voted that "there are many values in the present parochial system but it has its limitations. The time is ripe for evolutionary change in the system. Opportunities should be created in suitable areas where priests are willing to work together on a wider basis in such matters as the spiritual formation of the priests social activities of Catholics, evangelism, ecumenism, etc."
Cooperation with the laity and their being instructed that "as members of the eucharistic community they shared with their priest the responsibility of knowing and caring for those around them," was carried with only one dissenting vote. The recognition "of the great services of women, both lay and religious, in the work of the Church" and the need of the Church in England and Wales "to utilise their potential to the full," was unanimously supported by the all-male vote.
Sociologist Fr. Conor Ward's survey of a Liverpool parish community, where he found that the only relationship was vertical — the people knew the priest, but had no real horizontal relationships with one another. was twice mentioned by delegates.
Fr. Phillips, of Greenford, Middlesex, said that people saw priests as "stuffy, irrelevant, part of the establishment." If they sec us caring, giving homes to the homeless for example, they would be attracted, he said.
Fr. Dorricott, of Rayleigh, Essex, called for "more eyeball to eyeball contact and family visitation. It may be some priests' particular purgatory, but we must do it," he said, to loud applause. Others suggested the increasing practice of saying Mass in people's homes would help the growth of a community feeling.
A resolution that "the Hierarchy make more radical experiments in ordaining people to the priesthood especially for their own community," failed by one vote to get the required two-thirds majority to carry it.
Increasing specialisation has led to the 'formation of innumerable professional groups concerned with the common interests of their members. The NCP is an expression of this trend within the Church, the common interest revealed at the conference being the people of God.
The NCP is also, I believe, a reaction to the feeling of isolation affecting many priests in today's sprawling dioceses. For many, bishop's visitations are rare and usually formal occasions and the world seems to end at the parish boundary.
The more conservative of the Conference's critics would be slower to condemn if they had sat in on the discussions which led to what they might term 'mad' resolutions being rejected or fundamentally refined. Proof of tangible achievements will have to await the report of the two bishop/priest working parties on priests' living conditions and pastoral policy.
That diocesan clergy of all ages are deeply aware and responsive to the challenge to their role implicit in today's society emerged clearly at the Conference. And only one began his address to the gathering 'with 'My dear people,' before being drowned in laughter.
Fr. Sean Kearney of Port Talbot was re-elected chairman of the Conference and 'The Church's Mission in the World' chosen as next year's Conference theme.