About ten years ago two clergymen who had been students when I was a student – though they were both older than me and both ordained priest before me – addressed our annual diocesan conference for priests. They had both attained positions of eminence – Monsignor Rod Strange was Rector of the Beda College in Rome, and Bishop Crispin Hollis was Bishop of Portsmouth – posts that they both still hold today. I needed some convincing that they would be the right choices for speakers – I knew them as fellow students! But they came and they both performed excellently, and were very inspiring for the priests and deacons of the diocese who came to hear them.
So why was I unsure that they would be the right ones to ask? Bishop Hollis, in his second talk to us, put his finger on it: he thanked us all for inviting him, and for listening and taking what he had to say seriously – because, he said, when he talks to the priests of his own diocese, the response he gets is much less gratifying – they know him too well, and they can’t accept that he has much to offer to them. I think that Our Lord runs up against a similar problem in returning tohis home town: they know him too well, and they won’t listen to him, as they might listen to someone from another place – particularly someone from somewhere more glamorous (Jerusalem perhaps?), or who had more of a pedigree (not just the carpenter’s son).
Another surprise for me came towards the end of the Conference, when I went to each of them to ask how much they wanted to be paid for doing us this service – writing two talks each, attending a conference, being willing to engage in discussion with the priests and deacons of the diocese. Both of them said they didn’t expect anything – it would be nice if we could cover their travel costs. People in secular employment of a similar grade would probably have expected at least £500 plus travel. In this way also they were following the path of Our Lord, who came free of charge to the people with the gifts of the Word of God, healing, and salvation. I did wonder (and have often wondered since) whether our present commercial instincts mean that we don’t value people who give their time and their efforts free of charge. Would people pay more attention to what I say if I took more from the parish for my keep? I hope not!
So there are difficulties for all of us in attempting to take seriously Bishop Malcolm’s requests for us to help him plan for the future. He has been our Bishop for eleven and a half years, and we are perhaps too used to him now. I’ve been parish priest here for fourteen years, and perhaps you are all even more used to me! But it is very important for us all to keep in mind the experience of our Lord in returning to his home town. We are told that He could work few miracles there because of their lack of faith – even Our Lord could not do the will of his Father if the people were not willing to co-operate, to trust him and his vision, and to accept what he had to offer.
So it is important that we accept our Bishop’s invitation to reflect with him about the way we will be the Church of the future. We do so knowing that he is the person chrged with ensuring that the mission of the Church – to preach God’s Word, to proclaim the truth of the Catholic faith, to celebrate mass and the sacraments and ensure that they are worthily celebrated throughout the diocese, to care for those who are ill, poor, and in trouble, and to gather together the faithful of Christ into the one communion. But we also know that he is himself a man of integrity and compassion. He does not want to remove any priest from a parish – he knows the time will come when he has to do so, but it will always be a regret for him. He certainly does not want to close any place of worship – and if he has to do so, then that would be even more a matter of great regret. He has made it clear that he does not intend to move me from here this year (unless there are disasters of course, over which he has no control); and if it does become necessary for us to relocate, he would wish us to remain a community and to find ways in which we could still come together to worship God and to celebrate the sacraments and to listen to God’s holy Word and to socialize as the body of Christ. Sohe has made it clear that if, due to circumstances beyond our control, a parish does have to lose its own buildings (or some of them), the proceeds will remain the property of that community for them to use for their own benefit, always, of course, in consultation with Bishop Malcolm himself and his advisors. Bishop malcolm is certainly not into asset-stripping!
I am grateful to those of you who have responded to these requests for feedback earlier this year, and for those few who have responded in the past week or so. I would ask all of you to keep reflecting on these important questions, so that, if the time should come when there is no resident priest here (or we have to share our resident priest with another parish), or even we have to relocate, we have a basis on which we can start tomake the necessary decisions abouthow to maintain ourselves as a christian communion, the body of Christ in this place.
Shall I take part in the course for catechists?
Shall I come to the safeguarding training?
Shall I form or join a prayer group – whether in Church or at home?
Shall I help in some way in Church, to assist in the celebrations of Mass at weekends, for the greater glory of God?
Could I visit someone who is ill, elderly, or housebound?
Could I join the SVP, or consider becoming a eucharistic minister?
Could I work for justice and peace, or for CAFOD, or in some way help those in the world much less fortunate than we are?
How would this parish maintain itself as a christian communion
without a resident parish priest?
if we had to relocate elsewhere?
Bishop Malcolm asks us all to reflect on such questions, and to pool our thoughts so that he can discharge his responsibility to make appropriate and wise decisions for the whole diocese.