ONE OF THE important obstacles to the acceptance of religion is to be found in the opposition to the institational forms it assumes.
One not infrequently hears the remark, "I believe in Jesus Christ, but I have no time for the Church." It is an attitude so common that it merits our consideration.
The undesirable consequences of institutionalism can appear in many ways and exist at many levels. but it is those forms of it which emerge in parish life which are of concern to Inc.
The first of these arises from the overpowering urge which institutionalism generates in some people. an urge which leads them to set up in their parishes institutions or organisations, preferably such as are branches institutions or organisations which have attained national or international status: such as, for exsimple, The Catholic Women's Leagae or the St Vincent de Paul Society.
Unfortunately it is not infrequently found that such parochial branches arc compelled to limp along with no more than a mere handful of members', and that in doing so they consume a great deal of time and energy for a very inadequate return.
Regular weekly or monthly 'fleetings are held, minutes of the meetings are maintained and accounts are kept, annual reports arc prepared and published. and everything is dune to create the impression that the orgonisation is active and alive, whereas in fact it is doing little more than catering for the desires of those who like to feel that they are members of national or international groups.
The second danger arising from excessive institutionalism within the parish is more serious in as much as it is less obvious.
The existence of such organisations within a parish often has the effect of setting up two levels of parishioners; those who are members of one or more of the groups functioning within the parish. and those who use the parish for no other purpose than to fulfil their religious duties.
It is not infrequent that the second group are made to feel that they are not living up to the full ideals of their Christian faith, whereas in fact their behaviour may mean no more than that they dislike being members of organisations and do not share the institutional urge of' the others, Yet another consequence of organisations within a parish is that they tend to consume a disproportionate amount of time of the parish clergy in their duties of either chairing these groups or of showing an active interest in them.
This disproportionate use of their time can result in the unavoidable neglect of other priestly duties which are of extreme importance, such as plaaprsieshd. visitation and care of the I am confident it is the experience of many priests engaged in these. duties that not only are they very necessary, but also that they pay rich returns for the time consumed in carrying them out.
It is amazing how gentle often is the nudge required to bring a lapsed Catholic back to the practice of his Faith.
This is not entirely surprising as lapsed Catholics. many of whom have a long tradition of the Faith behind them, cannot but experience a nagging void or gap in their lives and are often happy that someone has shown himself concerned enough about their welfare to call them back to the practice of their haith.
Perhaps., however the most dangerous consequence of institutionalism within a parish is that it can engender an undesirable degree of selfishness among the parishioners.
The belief that organisations exist within the parish for the various needs of its members can and does lead to people shrugging off their common duties of charity towards their fellow men OF1 the plea that organisations_ already Cost or that purpose, and that therefore it is no longer necessary for them to make their contribution.
The dangers of over institutionalism within a parish are dangers that are not immediately evident. It has taken me some years of close and intimate study to appreciate that such dangers exist, and to understand that they at times, however unwittingly are capable of doing harm to the parish.
Indeed my curliest reactions to parish life in England were feelings of joy and delight that the parishes here could claim to have in them organisations which could cope with every type of need that might arise among their parishioners.
Led by the realities of experience, however, l have been compelled to forego those early feelings as the realisation of the dangers of overinstitutionalism has become clearer.
Under such circumstances, I have been greatly heartened by the proposed agenda for the coming National Conference of Priests in England and Wales. It was a delight to discover that the lirst two items are reconciliation of the lapsed and parish Visitation. This has assured me I am not alone in my conclusions.