BY PETER NOLAN
SECULAR priests may be
come the decisive influence on Church policies in England and Wales when their increasingly articulate society becomes more firmly established.
The four priest delegates elected from different age groups in every diocese will discuss pastoral policy at the National Conference of Priests third annual meeting in ArmIngham in September.
The conference already has a delegate on every Senate of Priests in England and Wales, is represented on the Laity and Seminary Commissions and has formed two working parties with bishops to study priests' living conditions and pastoral policy.
Fr. Peter Flavin, an Army chaplain at Aldershot, and a member of the conference's 12man standing committee, said the organisation was founded at Cardinal Heenan's suggestion to advise bishops on the implementation of the decrees of the Vatican Council. "This is its mission in the eyes of the standing committee," Fr. Flavin said.
"Some people fear it will become a 'bishop-bashing' organisation, but the bishops approved our constitution last year and attend our meetings." The conference could be seen as part of the developing process of consultation within the Church, working for renewal.'
Meeting at Liverpool last year, 'the conference voted on almost 60 resolutions, the first of which, carried by 84 votes to I, was: "That since the standing committee is elected by the elected representatives of the clergy of the country and is therefore truly representative of the clergy in general, it be considered competent to represent them at any international conference . . . or for a particular purpose."
The topic of the priestly ministry led to a discussion of the value of celibacy, which was overwhelmingly supported, as well as motions backing a proper retirement plan for older priests and a fixed salary.
In another context such topics would be the business of trade unions, but the suggestion that the conference was a trade union was firmly denied.
Fr. Flavin said : "We have no right to withdraw our labour. There is no question of being a trade union. The term would make no sense to any of our members." The conference sees its task as discovering how it may best bring the message of the Gospel to the people of England and Wales.
Fr. Flavin believes the conference will help to employ the considerable reserves of the Church in England and Wales more efficiently — 5,000 priests and 25,000 nuns and brothers. Better corn• munication between dioceses would result in more effective pastoral policies.
The first fruits of last year's conference were the formation of the two working parties, and the bishops and priests studying living conditions are now analysing the 1,500 replies received from priests to whom they sent a questionnaire.
The need for a team approach at parish level, with equality of status between curate and parish priest. is one of the topics being discussed. The working party on pastoral policy has based its discussions on the fact that half of Britain's Catholics can be described as lapsed, and believes the situation requires a missionary approach.
It is looking at the possibility of forming committed Catholics into "apostles" and reviewing all resources and policies in the light of a need for an all-out missionary effort in England and Wales.
This year's Birmingham meeting will receive interim reports from both working parties and offer them advice. The conference will be discussing 40 resolutions about the work of the parish priest among his parishioners.
These range from motions on the spiritual formation of the priest and the need for regular "refresher courses," to the appointment of a layman to handle non-pastoral problems and the "twinning" of poor parishes with rich ones.
The discussion of four resolutions has been objected to by the Catholic Priests' Association as likely to give scandal, including the necessity to attend Sunday Mass under pain of mortal sin and the present structure of Confession.
This recent controversy in the Catholic press has resulted in an affirmation by the conference that they at least are known and elected, while the C.P.A. has no such popular mandate.
The fact that the sheer size of dioceses in England and Wales defeats the possibility of effective pastoral care will be the subject of a report to be read to the meeting. Fr. Flavin said St. Ingatius' observation "where the bishop is, there is the Church" was not true where bishops had to employ auxiliaries.
About a third of the priests in England and Wales are critical of the conference, while the same number are indifferent to it, Fr. Flavin estimated. He knew of no bishop who was opposed to it, though some priests feared it because they mistakenly thought the conference was opposed to the traditional Church and wanted to destroy it.
Fr. Flavin and Fr. Sean Kearney of Port Talbot, chairman of the conference, agree that its most difficult task will be winning the confidence of all priests.
Fr. Kearney told the conference last year: "It will be up to us to prove our case and justify the existence of the conference to the bishops and to our fellow priests by making a worthwhile contribution to the life of the Church."
National conferences already exist in several European countries, and Fr. Flavin believes their influence has led to the recent Vatican statement on "Due Process" about the election of bishops.
Here he feels the conference is encouraging a review of diocesan boundaries, as well as what is bieng accomplished by the working parties.
It is no doubt misguided to view priestly organisations in a political light, but as one priest observed, "a bishop can overrule a few priests, but he will have to have a very good reason to follow policies opposed by all the priests in his diocese."
All those interested in the clerical scene await with interest the ideas which will emerge from the meeting of 90-odd priest-delegates at Newman College on September 11.