On Saturday, 14 April, sixty four people from fifteen Hallam Diocesan parishes gathered at the Pastoral Centre to consider, “How we can be a Church community without a priest resident in the parish”.
The session was organised by the Sheffield Deanery Liturgy and Spirituality Group and opened with Morning Prayer of the Church.
Bishop Ralph acknowledged that the western Church is ageing, with diminishing numbers of priest and laity. There is great social change in the western world and the Church, which once had many confraternities and devotions. In considering what elements of church community are non-negotiable, he referred to Pope Francis’s new encyclical on Apostolic Exultation. Church community is a response to the call to holiness that is addressed to all and to each personally, to let baptismal grace bear fruit in holiness, to be open to God and turn to him in every situation. We must allow God to love and liberate us and be guided by the Holy Spirit. This involves perseverance, patience and meekness, joy and humour, compassion, boldness and passion to evangelise, to leave a mark on the world and to belong to the universal Church, diocese, parish.
Deacon Andrew Crowley of St Patrick’s, Sheffield then went on to speak about the experience of belonging to a parish without a resident priest. St Patrick’s found out what happens, when a parish priest suddenly dies. Priests do many things that others in the parish could do. Parishes can function with good administration (including IT) and a pastoral leader. Those open to the Spirit will be guided. The nearby Sacred Heart parish had an “In case of emergency” plan that could be set into action if anything happened to the parish priest.
Deacon Andrew also referred to the call to holiness, our baptismal vocation to follow Jesus and do what he does. Cultural changes mean the Church no longer grows by generations of Catholic families carrying on the faith. More are baptised into the Church than die in it. We should not keep things as they have been for years, for the sake of it. We must become Church in a different way. What drove the apostles was not keeping tradition, but proclaiming the joy of the resurrection. Pope Francis’ encyclical “Evangelicum Gaudium” says parishes should be evangelical sanctuaries, outward looking with missionary outreach, going out to the whole world proclaiming the good news. We may be downhearted, but Christ is with us. Andrew suggested that we can develop a holistic parish action plan, train welcomers, keep contact with new people, develop a parish leaflet. He further suggested that we need to look at how our faith can become alive and our liturgy be a lived experience. He highlighted the need to care for the neighbourhood in the parish, to relate to the area by, for example, making the parish known to schools and care homes, to care for each other and build a common life together. A sense of humour is important. Jesus is with us. Jesus attracted people. His community grew.
Frank Mc Dermott is Parish Co-ordinator of Stainforth’s Our Lady of the Assumption. He explained that Our Lady of the Assumption parish was built with subscriptions from local miners. Closing such parishes is the death knell for the Catholic community in those areas. Since 1995 this parish has experienced prolonged periods without a resident priest. This has made them a vibrant, welcoming, outward-looking Eucharistic community, a model for a strong, outgoing missionary Church, rooted in prayer, learning that no one is more important than anyone else. Years ago they washed each other’s feet, as the Gospel tells us to do. Frank, however, reiterated the Bishop’s words about being strongly linked to deanery, diocese and universal Church. It is dangerous if we all do our own thing, with fewer priests and people. Recent statements by parishioners show that they appreciate being open and transparent; liberating; emphasising welcoming; being a beacon and oasis; an important Christian presence; being open to think and be part of the mission of the parish; allowing all to flourish. They meet, not as a parish council, but as a parish in council, modelled on the Acts of the Apostles, with no separate, secretive finance committee, or elected pastoral committee.
For the past fifteen years the parish has had a weekly Saturday evening Mass, but none on Sundays. However, the people feel that their lives have been touched by many priests and deacons who have served them. They have a midweek service of Word and Eucharist and lay led baptisms and funerals. An annual bereavement service is tailored to suit the needs of those who use the church. The parish objectives are summarised on its banner, which reads, “WELCOME. We warmly welcome you to our Catholic Christian community, as we try to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Peace to all who enter here, gratitude for the past, enthusiasm for the present, hope for the future.” Frank, as co-ordinator, values the regular support and guidance he has had from bishops and deans and feels very blessed to be part of Doncaster Deanery’s Parishes of Hope.
Frank has produced several publications, “Communities of Hope”, a practical workbook, with Christine Dodd; “Walking with my God”, a prayer journal, with Donal O’Leary; “The Easter People”, foundational tools for a forum of priests and people and “In Sure and Certain Hope” for use of lay leaders of Christian funerals.
Group discussions followed, with decisions about what parishes could do over the next year. The workshop gave useful, encouraging insights into what can be achieved by prayerful communities, focused on Christ’s call to, “Be holy because I am holy”, empowered by the Holy Spirit and linked closely to deanery, diocese and universal Church. We need gratitude, enthusiasm and hope. Parish life is in crisis, but we are parishes of hope. We are baptised. We are the Church.