What it is to be Church
Fourth Sunday of Easter (Easter4B), May 3, 2009
By Fr. Alex McAllister SDS
Having just heard the Gospel passage in which Christ describes himself as the Good Shepherd you will not be surprised to learn that this is called Good Shepherd Sunday. Nor perhaps that it is a Day of Prayer for Vocations to the Priesthood and Religious Life—and nowadays thankfully we must also add the Diaconate.
I was talking to one of my brothers who lives in a parish twice the size of this one which has only one priest. A retired priest used to help out with the masses just as Father Charles does here. But sadly that priest died, and now they must look seriously at the situation and may have to make some difficult decisions.
More and more parishes across the country are facing a similar situation. The number of priests in active ministry has dropped by over 20% in the last 20 years and this trend looks set to continue.
I wrote in my annual report to the parish about the vocations crisis saying that I thought had been a boom in vocations since the war and that now we are returning to normal levels. And I stick to this opinion.
What I didn’t say was that before the war the Catholic population was concentrated in certain parts of the country whereas now it is spread much more evenly throughout the population. Catholics are about 9% of the population in England and Wales with higher numbers only in London and the North West.
What this means is that we have a lot of small parishes in relation to most other countries. Many parishes in England have a mass attendance of only 200-300 people. This parish has about 400 weekly mass attendance, but that includes 30 women at the Saturday morning mass in Eastwood Park Prison.
The Bishop told us during his homily at the Chrism Mass recently that there would be more parishes without resident priests. He said: Already this summer it looks as if there will be more gaps than priests to fill them.
He went on to say: This may provide the opportunity for greater responsibility to be taken on by lay people and deacons and an opportunity for everybody to reflect upon the ministry of priesthood. We need to promote vocations to the priesthood and this needs to be a concern for us all. But I believe until we all have a deeper understanding of what it is to be the Church and share in the mission of the Church, there will not be an increase in those offering themselves for ordained ministry.
The Bishop is saying something significant to us all. He is asking each one of us to deepen our understanding of what it is to be Church. He is asking each one of us to take a greater share in the life of the parish.
He reckons that it is only when we play a fuller role in parish that we will see an increase in the number of priests.
I think the Bishop is absolutely right. I discovered my own vocation here in this parish of Christ the King and I think I did so because I was surrounded by people who were very active in the life of the parish. Yes, there were some good priests here but it was the fact that most of the people I knew took their share of responsibility within this community that made all the difference.
Although there are less people coming to mass here now than there was twenty years ago there are just as many activities, just as much going on here now as then. This is a good parish. There is more going on here than in most parishes of its size. There is a high proportion of people who do a lot more than just come to mass.
With this being the case our parish ought to be a good seedbed for vocations. And indeed it is, certainly for the permanent diaconate. But we still need priests and this is something we ought to think about, something we ought to talk about and certainly something we ought to pray for.
We have also benefited from the service of religious Sisters for many years and yet there is only one sister who came from this parish and that was forty years ago.
So it seems that although we do a lot of things very well there is still work to do. We involve young people in a tremendous number of areas of parish life. And Octopus and the Guide and Scout Movements enable lots of young people to develop their talents and gradually assume responsibility.
But do we challenge our young people in the area of faith-development? Do we provide them with an adequate forum in which they can examine their faith? I suggest that we do not. And this is an important area in which we need to do more as a parish.
Please let me know if you have any ideas in this regard.
The Bishop is right, we have to learn more what it is to be Church and we have to take responsibility for mission. If we each do this then we will not have to worry overmuch about a shortage of vocations.