Dealing with a crisis

An old friend recently died in Britain. She had been a life-long devoted member of the Catholic church, and up to her final illness had been involved in her parish in the most practical way.

An old friend recently died in Britain. She had been a life-long devoted member of the Catholic church, and up to her final illness had been involved in her parish in the most practical way.

If something needed to be done, and she could do it, then she did it. If a volunteer was needed for this or that, and this or that was within her capacity, then she volunteered. To express it in the vernacular: she put her money where her mouth was.

But she did all of these things quietly, without display, and because of her gentle nature, and the generation from which she came, she never sought acknowledgement. Self-publicity would have been anathema to her.

But when it came to her death, her friends and fellow parishioners, and even people who had not been personally acquainted with her, celebrated her life by attending her funeral in very large numbers. Her kindness and generosity were recalled. People said so many nice things about her in death that they would not have said to her in life, and indeed to which she would not have listened. In other words, she was given a great ‘send-off’.

Her son described her funeral in a letter to me. “We kept to the traditional music”, he wrote, “accompanied in time-honoured fashion by a fine church organ”. “Mum”, like so many of her generation, did not “go” for guitars or folk masses. The hymns, too, were traditional. “When last did you hear a hymn to the Sacred Heart”? he asked in his letter. (Actually I heard the hymn sung in the Church of the Resurrection recently!).

Because of the large congregation, the “traditional hymns” were given a very touching and rousing rendition.

The letter continued. His mother had been, like so many exiles from Tipperary, a subscriber to ‘The Nationalist’ and so he was not unfamiliar with this column. Knowing what he described as its ‘lively interest in current affairs’, he wrote that the fact that the celebrant of “Mum’s” funeral ceremonies, Father Steven, was a grandfather, might evoke a response. And indeed it did!

Father Steven, a good friend of his mother, had been parish priest of his local church for the past twelve years. He was a married man, with a family, and now had become a grandfather. His clerical life had started “in the high Anglican tradition” and he came into the “Roman fold over the issue of women priests”. He was welcomed by the then Bishop of Arundel and Brighton. He was one of several ordained clergy from the Anglican tradition who joined the Roman Catholic church, and who have since given good service to parishes and communities in the circumstances of what the letter describes as the “ever dwindling number of our own clergy in the diocese”.

Obviously, the quality of that service was not hindered by his marital status, nor his family responsibilities. Though some of the more conservative parishioners at the time “took to their cars to favour the Benedictines at Worth Abbey or the friars in Crawley”, Father Steven is now a much appreciated and hard-working pastor.

So: in the manner of all good examination-paper questions: Compare and contrast the foregoing with what follows!

Some years ago the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore organised a very comprehensive consultation process with parish communities under the title “The Listening Process”. The objective was the renewal of parishes, and the involvement of the laity in that renewal. The context, though not over-emphasised, was obvious to all of us still in the pews, and that was the declining number of priests.

This decline has not been arrested, and again, those of us still in the pews, can see the increasing burden of work now carried by fewer and fewer aging priests. Indeed few of us getting on in years would be capable of carrying out our daily duties if we had to be awakened from our sleep, some times a few times a night, to answer urgent calls to the ill and dying, or to respond to accidents and emergencies.

The response of group discussions in the Listening Process was interesting. There was a recurring theme: the status of former officiating priests who had left the ministry, especially those who had married. It was felt that many of these men were still devoted to their church, and would have valuable contributions to make, if they were allowed to do so. What’s wrong with inviting them back? This was the question raised (and never answered) by ordinary committed lay members of the Catholic Church. What is so wrong with marriage and family that it should become a prohibiting factor in service to the People of God.

Ordinary people, unfamiliar with the minutiae of church governance, find it difficult to understand the total exclusion of decent men from, at least, some form of ministry, not just as a means of dealing with a serious crisis, but because it would seem the right thing to do.

There is, after all, the dichotomy of that exclusion, and the inclusion of married clergy from a sister Christian church, as in the grandfather Father Steven, the friend of my friend and who officiated at her funeral ceremonies.

What makes it right in Britain and wrong in Ireland?