Thursday, 9 February 2012

Priest's role needs to change

The role of the priest is an often lonely and unsupported one.
Former chair of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission Baroness Patricia Scotland said as much last year “The priests and religious are people too – they need friendship and comfort and someone to have a glass of wine with or watch the football,” said Baroness Scotland.
There has been much talk of the crisis that has engulfed the priesthood. This until relatively recent times amounted in the main to a shortage of those willing to take up the vocation.
The crisis though concerns more than lack of numbers. The abuse crisis that has engulfed the Church has caused many to question the role of the priest as it is presently constituted.
Some argue married and female priests are the answer. This is not the case, it is just as easy to have an authoritarian unaccountable married or female priest as it is a celibate male one.
The problem is the role itself. At present priests have too much power in the parishes. There is slightly more accountability now with parish councils having become more commonplace but these can merely amount to rubber stamping bodies.
I recall hearing about the parish in the Midlands where it had been agreed a sustainable heating system would be introduced. A new priest came in with his own ideas. He did not want this form of energy supply and reversed the decision. A parishioner told of her feeling of total disempowerment. The only way she could make a protest was to move to another church something she did not want nor should have had to do. She had been in the parish for years, the priest for literally five minutes.
The line management structure in the Church is very hierarchal. Direct responsibility is to the bishop and above. The nature of this relationship was underlined in the recent high court ruling in the case involving Portsmouth diocese, where the Church was found vicariously responsible for the actions of its priests. This related in the case in question to abuse.
This relationship can be disempowering for the priest who has no independent source of income or pension in the future. It is not a partnership of equals.
The role of priest needs to change. There is a need for accountability to the parish and local community. Priests also need support. One problem is that lack of a real job description, a recognition of what makes a "good priest" in the 21st century context.
All too often the role seems to gravitate between that of the policeman and social worker, taking in everything else inbetween. Many priests provide fantastic pastoral support to those in the parish. Others are more authoritarian, telling people what they must or must not do.
What of the role of the priest as an empowerer of the local community? The shop steward come community organiser role that demands skills that get the mass of the parish involved in working for social justice.
What sort of training is provided in the seminaries? What do they see as the job description they are trying to form young priests to serve?
The weekly homily is a plum spot for giving an inspiring message but I have always been struck by the ability of so many priests to talk pie in the sky rather than link to the every day life of those to whom they are preaching. This means many switch off. When the message is delivered in accessible form it can be disempowering.
This is a terrible waste, as drawing on my own childhood I remember clearly the passionate addresses of the Franciscan Friars then at St Anthonys, Forest Gate in east London. They inspired and got us all thinking about living the faith.
What few priests do seem to do these days is provide proper formation in the parishes. All too many lapse into the role of overseers of maintenance rather than mission.
Many ofcourse lack the skills themselves to develop adult formation of the missionary faithful but this support should be available. A better formation of priests and remoulding of the role to be that of the servant rather than the master of the parish community could transform the priesthood.
The role of the priests needs some serious consideration as part of a much larger look at the whole hierarchical structure of the Church. At present the role of priest is a lonely, largely unsupported one. Too much is expected. The priest cannot do everything. Then what of the excellent priests leaving the Church for a variety of reasons?
Democracy and accountability needs to be introduced at every level of the Church starting with the priest. The role needs redefining with training provided to meet the requirements. There also need to be support networks in the community for those taking on the role of priest. Only such change will bring about the sort of priesthood that can help take the Church forward in partnership with the parish communities

1 comment:

  1. Paul, what you have written is so true.
    The Church needs to re-think many aspects of its life, not least the priesthood.
    Unfortunately, the present trend is not towards re-thinking, but towards re-treating... to the past.
    Many articles about this issue at