Friday, 5 June 2009
Maintenance or Mission?
For the last two days we have been out on pastoral study excursions - an ominous title, but basically just a chance to look at the pastoral life of a priest in particular settings. Today we went to a rural parish in East Stafforshire, to see a parish church that began as a barn in the 1790's, before Catholic Emancipation. St Francis de Sale's church has two other outpost churches, built much more recently, and the whole parish spans 20 miles from east to west, though they only have an overall Sunday Mass attendance of 200. The previous parish priest spoke to us about rural chaplaincy, and as part of that he talked about the amount of time and energy it takes to maintain a number of churches within a parish. One seminarian asked the question I also was wondering: Is it worth the energy to maintain so many Mass centres when that energy could be devoted to the the spiritual apostolate and mission of the priest?
Now, the priest rightly pointed out that maintaining churches is not just about maintaining buildings, but of maintaining the place where people meet God - we are after all, body and soul, and need tangible assurances of God's presence. That seems to be the point in the Leeds parishioners' reaction over the closure of a number of churches in that diocese (without wishing to judge who is in the right in there). That said, I do feel that the upkeep of church buildings should not become the be all and end all of priestly ministry. Also, it is sad to have a church where the priest does not reside, the priest who is the father of that parish family. And for him it must be strange to be the father of what seems to be three different families! How does he give himself properly to one, without compromising his concern for the others?
These are just my gut instincts, and as many have said, there is no easy solution to this difficulty. Some will say it ties into a vocations crisis. Why is there a decline in men training for the priesthood? Fr Steven Langridge has an interesting take on that topic; we are not experiencing a crisis of vocations, so much as a crisis of saints!