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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8 Responses to ERIC HODGENS. The need for new Church Leadership.

  1. Leo Gamble says:

    Eric, I agree with every word of your article on priests

  2. Angela Dupuche says:

    Eric, insightful as always! Bishop Long said much the same to the Commission when speaking about accountability. Accountability is the problem! I believe we need married and women priests but given the type of formation you describe

  3. George Allen says:

    As Pope Francis says, clericalism is a Church cancer that needs to be excised. Power needs to be taken from the clergy and given to lay people. I believe the Baptists have a lay Board of Management in their parishes and that this board has the power to hire and fire pastors, as well as run the parish. The Catholic Church needs to adopt a similar practice to stop the drift of progressive Catholics from its ranks.

  4. Joan Seymour says:

    While lay leaders are just ‘deputizing’ for an ordained priest, they will always be accountable to a person who is only accountable to his bishop, and that in a very limited sense. The lay leader will be the employee of a man who has no idea of just employment principles. If the priest is a kind and compassionate person who lets the lay leader do his/job, this can work for a while. If the priest is a bully or simply refuses to be accountable for his actions, the layperson has no recourse. My own experience tells me that what the priest says, goes, in terms of hiring and firing, employment conditions etc etc. If the Church wants lay people to lead, they must change accountability structures or they just won’t attract competent and committed laypeople. Is it so impossible that the lay parish leader would be on equal footing with the ordained minister who celebrates the sacraments?

    • Noel McMaster says:

      The road bump in this knowledgeable essay is the reference to having to call in an ordained priest to celebrate particular sacraments. I wonder what kind of praxis, or sorting out what is the right thing to do (orthopraxis) in life at large, would feed into this kind of ritual. Ritual, (say, the Eucharist), is supposed to be something of a self-validation of what we as a community think is worthwhile doing. I’m not suggesting a different kind of priest for ritual occasions, rather an alternative ‘organisation’ of the church, something of the “little flock” of the Gospel, (with a dose of Francis’ reference to smell).

  5. David Brown says:

    is it true that more people (absolute numbers or % of population?) claim the be catholic

    are these census numbers or some other dreaming ?

    I was hoping our society was gradually getting more civilised but perhaps like our politics, religion is also regressing

    (less religion meaning more rational/civilised)
    (left politics also more civilised)

  6. Patrick Doody says:

    Hello Eric
    A blast from the past here. Holy Saviour 30 years ago. Your comments were “on the money” then and have remained so ever since. But, all the more vital now. Keep at it. I’m sure you well know there are many lay Catholics ready to stand up, on the admin and organisation side, especially, if given real authority (not nominal), encouragement and the opportunity. I remain active in parish finances and administration where the pp has delegated me authority to act. Satisfying because I can tangibly contribute. The pp isn’t an accountant, or banker, and I’m not a priest. Hope you are keeping well.
    Kind regards
    Pat D

  7. Murray Stapleton says:

    Well done Eric.

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