ERIC HODGENS. The need for new Church Leadership.

While the Catholic population is increasing, active participation in parish life is steadily decreasing. This means that the pool of future lay leaders is steadily getting shallower. If this decline is to be reversed, now is the time to select lay leaders, train them to lead parishes and then formally appoint them as Parish Leaders.  

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child sexual abuse has put the spotlight on the Australian Catholic Church’s priesthood and seminary training which is in need of an overhaul.

First some facts:

  • Church law demands that ultimate authority of its parishes and dioceses be an ordained priest. (The Catholic Church is a monarchical, clerical organization).
  • The number of active priests is declining;
  • Foreign-trained priests are an increasing proportion of active priests (about a third at present) sometimes bringing an alienating pastoral style, difficulty adjusting to Australian church culture, a preoccupation with money and difficulties understanding their speech;
  • Australian seminaries are producing priests at a quarter of the number needed for replacement. This has been the case for the last 35 years.
  • A significant number of priests currently being ordained from Australian seminaries are very clerical, fundamentalist, ritualistic and less pastoral than the older ones they are replacing.
  • All this while the Catholic population is increasing steadily – a 70% increase over the last 35 years.

The Parish Priest has wide responsibility:

  • Liturgy – he is celebrant of Eucharist, baptism, confirmation, marriage, funeral – including preparation of the rite and preparation of participants;
  • Preaching;
  • Financial management of the parish including raising all funds, keeping parish accounts and signing off on all reports;
  • Financing of the parish, primary school and other parish-owned services including regional secondary schools;
  • Pastoral care – including of the bereaved, the sick, the youth, catechetics, adult education etc. This calls for expertise in education, counselling and other HR skills.

No one person can excel at all of these tasks. Deputing capable others is essential.

Despite the importation of foreign-trained priests the total number of active priests has been steadily declining. This has been going on for 35 years so hoping for a quick reversal is irresponsible. More and more parish communities have to share a priest.

Consequently, lay leaders are gradually taking over parish leadership. This is necessary if parish communities are not to die out.

While the Catholic population is increasing, active participation in parish life is steadily decreasing. This means that the pool of future lay leaders is steadily getting shallower. If this decline is to be reversed, now is the time to select lay leaders, train them to lead parishes and then formally appoint them as Parish Leaders.

Lay parish leaders still need to call in ordained priests for the valid sacramental ministry of the Mass, Penance and Anointing of the Sick. If an ordained priest is not available they have to make do with a similar liturgy conducted by a lay person (referred to as a para-liturgy). The most pressing need for an ordained priest is to celebrate Mass because this has always been the very heartbeat of parish life.

The growth of lay leadership puts a spotlight on the seminaries. Seminaries are still geared to producing ordained priests as parish leaders of the old model. As lay leadership becomes more the norm, the purpose of seminaries will come under review.

Seminary formation is a pre-formation for ministry which ends in ordination. Ordination is an essential pre-requisite to be celebrant of some sacramental ministries – especially the Mass. Ordination would be more accurately called a consecration which irreversibly sacralises a man for life. This understanding of ordination/consecration creates a small but powerful ruling caste with the attendant risk of clericalism.

This stands in contrast to formation for today’s helping professions such as doctors, nurses, counsellors, psychologists. These professions have a shorter pre-formation which, besides academic study, includes periods of professional placement, ongoing assessment leading to registration for a set period with regular re-registration.

Two main criticisms of the existing seminary model are:

  • Pre-formation resulting in a finished, priestly product should be replaced with a shorter combination of academic studies and practical training with ongoing supervision, assessment and registration.
  • Living for seven years in a partly enclosed, all-male community implies an unhealthy, clerical otherness from the lives of the community the student is preparing to serve. Residence during training should be individually arranged with the option of residence with a priest mentor. Live-in courses could well be part of the training.

If these two issues were addressed the seminary could become the centre for live-in courses along the lines of the Catholic Leadership Centre run by the Catholic Education Office in East Melbourne. It could also become the centre for the training of lay Parish Leaders.

This is the direction that church leadership is already starting to take. It is already acceptable within existing Canon Law. The old model is not working. As the saying goes “If it’s leaning – push it”. It would be a wise step to encourage this new development and see where it leads. Simply leaving things as they are is too radical a risk to take.

Eric Hodgens is a retired Catholic Priest in Melbourne.

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Eric Hodgens is a Catholic Priest living in retirement. He writes for P&I, International Lo Croix and The Swag.

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