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Voices Online Edition
Pentecost 2002
Volume XVII, No. 2

Facilitating - or what?
In trying to develop more active commitment to the Church, are we asking the right questions?

by Joanna Bogle

A well-intentioned lady was handing out questionnaires for a research project after Mass. This is not about individuals or particular communities but how you see parishes and their needs developing in the future, she explained, adding that the questions were really only a guide, to facilitate discussion, and that the results would be collated and presented to a local university as a research project.

This seemed like a good opportunity for getting across ideas, so I was glad to take part. I hope that the final document will at least give some voice to my views. But the questions posed were indicative of a certain mindset, and I felt they were worth sharing.

Question 1: We are constantly warned of the shortage of priests, which, it is said, will become more acute each year. If the priests in smaller parishes are removed, how do you think those parishes will cope?

There is nothing wrong with this question, but it assumes that the number of priests will continue to lessen -- until, presumably, we reach zero or, at best, a tiny number that barely manages to renew itself. Should we not consider this rather odd? Why should the priesthood wear itself down to almost nothingness in any given country in any given era? Are there precedents for this? Isn't it a bit odd simply to assume that this is normal and even inevitable?

In my reply, I suggested that, since the number of priests being ordained annually is rising across the globe, we should find out what's going wrong in Britain. There are American dioceses with full seminaries -- could we learn from them? What is it that they are doing that we aren't? There are religious orders -- the Legionaries of Christ spring to mind -- with crammed seminaries. Again, they are clearly getting something right that we are getting wrong.

Question 2: What do you understand as collaborative ministry -- have you ever heard of it? Have you attended courses? Are you engaged in a ministry within your parish? More than one? How much ongoing formation have you received? Do you consider it adequate? How can we build and sustain a sense of community?

These questions all reveal the bleakness of a jargon shared only by the members of a certain (slightly cult-like!) group. To any young Catholic -- say under 40 -- phrases like "collaborative ministry", "build a sense of community" and "ongoing formation" sound in the ears like a death-knell.

It's the jargon of middle-aged ecclesiastical bureaucrats. It cuts out the youthfully enthusiastic, the freshly-converted, the on-fire-with-the-Lord, and also the prayerfully wise, the faithful campaigner, the all-night-vigiller, the tireless pro-life worker.

As it happens, I am over 40, and the veteran of many a Church Committee, Working Party, Conference and the like. I know the jargon. I've read the booklets. I've studied the worksheets and seen the Empowerment Projects and watched the group dynamics. So I know that collaborative ministry will, in practice, mean that a team of self-selected people announce that they are now running things, thus placing a barrier between the ordinary faithful people and the priest. The people engaged in ministry will tend to be largely female and middle-class. Talk of building community will, in effect, mean middle-class people getting together at church events with posters saying fashionably nice slogans, with coffee and quiche afterwards.

Ongoing formation means talks and lectures with clip-boards and name-badges and coffee in polystyrene cups. All of this excludes busy people with homes to run and families to raise and jobs and responsibilities to undertake. It emphatically excludes young men, whose energy and vigor mean a low boredom threshold and who are alienated by the superficial and the self-important.

Question 3: If you have never been involved in ministry or other activity in your or any other parish is there a reason, or more than one reason? Why not?

I have actually gone to some lengths to avoid being a lector in church, as I think there are far too many women as readers and also as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. At times, it looks as though the Church has run out of men, as everything seems so female-dominated. Boys have long regarded Church as soppy, girly and full of old women, but the problem is now far worse than it has ever been. So I have deliberately excluded myself from the sanctuary, where I am not needed.

I am active in dozens of Christian causes, none of which I would pompously describe as a ministry, and many of which are outside the formal structures of the local parish. In pro-life work, charitable events, and a range of other things I don't intend to list, I have found that the crucial thing is for us all to have a cheerful spirit of willing service: if I fail to become involved when my help is obviously needed and I am in a position to offer it, I consider myself at fault.

Question 4: How can we encourage people to take on responsibilities and leadership within the parishes and diocese?

By teaching the Faith in an enthusiastic and convincing way to the young. By ensuring that boys and girls are given a vision of service and commitment to the cause of Christ and His Church. By recognizing that we have a specific problem with boys and young men -- as they are the group most obviously absent from our churches -- we need to examine why. By prayer, and by reminding each other of the central importance of prayer in all our lives.

By recognizing that in marrying and creating a happy, hospitable and devout Catholic home we are also exercising a crucial ministry. By teaching that by being loyal and trustworthy Catholics in our civic responsibilities, and in our business and professional lives, we are also showing leadership. By praying for our priests, honoring their sacramental office, and giving them practical assistance in ways that enable them to fulfill their sacred duties better.

By showing courage in sticking up publicly for what the Church teaches. By working with the New Movements in the Church (in Britain, this includes FAITH, Youth 2000) flourishing and fostering many vocations to the priesthood. By honoring our Church's heritage of heroes, saints and martyrs who have so much to teach us.

I enjoyed doing that questionnaire. I wonder if the resulting research report will reflect any of my thoughts and comments?

Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, lives in London, and writes frequently for the Catholic press. Excerpts from her book, Feasts and Seasons, appear on several pages in the prayers and devotions pages on the WFF web site.

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