Page 4, 26th March 1971

26th March 1971
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Page 4, 26th March 1971 — How to bridge clergy-laity gap
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How to bridge clergy-laity gap

IT still hits me with rather an unpleasant shock when I visit Catholics and find myself regarded as some sort of policeman. This happens whether the Catholics in question arc regularly at Mass or whether they have been away for years. They all seem to think that I have come to check on them fn one way or .another. And they seem rather surprised when I show some interest in them as people.

If anything, this is worse when the Caholics in question come from abroad and are now living in this country; they seem astonished at receiving a visit from a priest, and certainly do not wish to know him socially. I am not saying this because I wish to diminish the demands to be made on priests by way of responsibility for the Church. It is just that I do think something has gone wrong through the association of the clergy in many people's minds with authority of an uncomfortable kind.

The way in which a priest is received in a house is a test of the Christian spirit of the priest himself, as well as of the family concerned. The development of the Church in this country depends very much upon the discovery of a new way of living the relationship between the ordained clergy and all other members of the Church.

There is no point in blinding ourselves to the fact that the pattern of life of the clergy, both religious and secular, has been moulded very much by social and educational considerations, instead of strictly Christian ones. We shall not be able to forget about these overnight, but at least we should be aware of them and try to see how far the necessary modifications can be made.

In thinking about the ministry, we come up against all the problems involved in the painful rebirth of Christianity in this country. In the Church of England, we have a clergy still tied too much to inherited institutional, cultural and economic structures which have for a long time lost their sociological significance, although only a minority of the Anglican clergy themselves seemed to be prepared to recognise the fact.

In the Free Churches, amongst whom we can classify ourselves, there are other patterns of ministry, healthily independent of State ties and linked more closely to the people for whom they are responsible. But here, too, there is considerable uncertainty about the future.

The pressures due to differences of theological opinion are now happily disappearing, but it must be recognised that ecclesiastical rivalry did in the past provide a lot of the steam behind clerical conviction, and the pressures of the secular state have reduced somewhat the standing and consideration which the clergyman used to enjoy.

A new relationship between clergy and laity; a new relationship between the Church as a whole and the national life: the problems in these two areas hang together. In trying to solve them it seems to me that we must start from the Catholic community, because it is already the "free Church in a free State" which is more and more accepted as the pattern for the future, and because within it the process of renewal Is already profoundly at work.

In the first place, if we are to understand, not only the role of the clergy, but the nature of the Church itself, the recruitment of those who are responsible for guiding the life of the Church must in future come from the whole range of Church members, and not as at present, almost entirely from young people of student age.

One may expect that it will in future become quite normal for men to enter the ranks of the episcopate, and of the college of priests who work with the bishops, from those who have been engaged for most of their lives as family men in professional work and in the lay apostolate as well as from those who have been engaged in specialised work as clergy from their twenties onwards.

In parish and pastoral councils, we shall gradually build up a pattern of co-operation between clergy and lay people, which will mean that the

present sharp distinction between the two groups will tend to disappear and will be replaced by other ways of dividing up the work programme. The ways to positions of responsibility for the Church will therefore become much more diverse.

The sacrament of Holy Order is given to those who are chosen for special responsibility in the apostolic and pastoral work of the Church. It is in accord with the nature of the Church that this setting apart should be regarded as definitive: the choice comes from God, and involves using men to be a sign of his permanent involvement in the salvation of the human race which he has created. But that does not mean that the ranks of those who receive the sacrament should necessarily, as a matter of normal custom, be fed only by young men who feel themselves to be called in their late teens or early twenties.

While young people will certainly continue to be called in this way, it is more in accord with the inner unity of the Church and with the true pattern of co-operation between all its members, that men should be drawn into the presbyterate and the episcopate at all ages and after a wide variety of human and Christian experience.

It is a deformation of the role of the clergy if their work is assimilated to that of men

undertaking an ordinary secular career. The Church and the clergy are not a department of state. Like the family and all the more fundamental human roles and relationships, the clergy are not to be regulated in their essential work by public authority. Their work is concerned with man in his completeness and in his freedom as a person and not with this or that subsidiary activity.

It is, therefore, right that they should be recruited from all parts of society, from those who have proved their ability to live in a free and mature way as human beings in the spirit of Christ, and whom God can, therefore, use to spread his teaching and his spirit amongst other people.

The seminary system has been of enormous benefit to the Church and should certainly not disappear. It should, rather, be extended. There are many disadvantages in taking men aside for a long period of concentrated training and then putting them back into society as men very conscious of their individual status and special responsibilities. It is this particular way of going about things which opened the way to anti-clericalism of the nineteenth century.

We need now to shift our emphasis; we need to put the onus on the local Christian community to look after their affairs and to produce their leaders, some of whom could, in due course, become members of the group of presbyters who work with the bishop in the running of diocesan affairs.

In its fundamental meaning, the word "seminary" does not imply an enclosed college. It refers to all members of the diocese to whom the bishop can look to help him in undertaking different forms of responsible work. The institution concerned with training this particular group should in the future occupy itself not just with young men and with the early years of priestly formation, but with every aspect of training for the work of the Church, including the retraining and formation in new skills which are from time to time necessary.

All this involves seeing the Church not as a corporation with its own set ways of doing things, but as an agency responsible for vitalising human society as a whole, and therefore very adaptable in its methods and choice of individual aims. We have been mesmerised by the idea of the Church as an ordered way of life like that of an army, with its need for appointing and training officers with fixed ranks and grades.

When this ordered society was seen as tied in a particular way to a secular society which was meant to be strictly ordered as well, the situation was made still worse. We now have to find ways of bringing the life of the Church more into tune with those biblical images which imply the flexibility and variety of life and growth, and which encouraged to the full the discovery and working out of personal vocation.

If this is to come about, plans will certainly have to be made in. the appropriate quarters and the existing institutions revised. But together with planning and reorganisation there must go a change of attitudes among those who are at present "launched" and involved in the work of the Church. This means accepting the fact that we all have a common purpose, that of finding our way to being true human beings by following the example of Christ.

If the laity do not welcome the clergy as people who are as

concerned as they are to be normal human beings, and treat them instead as unwelcome officials, then the clergy are bound to suffer, and will be thrust back into impoverished and inadequate human attitudes. If the clergy do not recognise their solidarity with lay people, including the fact that any of the laymen with whom they work may one day join them as priests responsible for the Church, then they will perpetuate the idea of the Church as a special organisation with limited aims, instead of identifying it with all the breadth of opportunities and activities which are open to human beings in this world.

Fr. Michael Richards is Editor of "The Clergy Review."




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