Fr Craig Fitzpatrick, Assistant Priest of St Jude’s Parish, Worksop and Oldcotes,
Judicial Vicar and Chancellor of the Diocese, shares with us thoughts on ‘Pruning the Vine’.
At the Mass of Chrism this year, the Bishop noted in his homily that sometimes we, as Christians, are called to walk closer to the Cross than we would like. He went on to say that, perhaps, this past year has been such a time. As a Diocese, we are now at a stage when difficult decisions have to be made to ensure that the Church in Hallam remains faithful to the mission entrusted to us by Our Lord. The important phrase here is, ‘have to be made.’ The Bishop hasn’t shouldered the burden of reorganising Diocesan structures simply to be awkward and antagonise people. He’s done so because we all have to deal with a very real and urgent problem: a diminishing number of both Diocesan clergy and Catholic laity in Hallam.
In the halcyon days of the 20th century, following the Restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy in 1850, we witnessed a burgeoning of Catholic practice in England. New churches were built and priests were recruited from abroad to deal with the increased demand for the riches of the Church. However, we now have to deal with the reversal of that historical reawakening. A lot of our churches in the Diocese are emptying, for a variety of reasons, and the number of priests that can be deployed by the Bishop has fallen. Yet the increased number of church buildings has remained quite stable. The blessing and curse of this situation is that many parish communities, which have shown their faith and strength over the years, are now facing the need for a new expression of that same faith and strength.
The needs of the world have changed, and this is what the Church has always addressed; the needs – but not the demand – of the world. It is tempting to want to remain in the same position, because we find security there. It was a willingness to change and take risks that prompted previous generations, our parents and grandparents, to provide for a developing Catholic population in this country.
The seminary which I attended, St Cuthbert’s College, Ushaw, closed its doors as a seminary, after over 200 years, in 2011. I like to think that the first people who would have insisted on its closure, once it stopped serving the Church’s mission, would have been the very people who risked violent persecution to build it. They did not risk their security so that things could stay the same, but because they saw a need and wanted to answer Christ’s call. The first parishes I was assigned to after my studies in Rome, St Hugh of Lincoln in Chesterfield and St Joseph’s in Staveley, tell a similar story. Both were built by the industry and vision of previous generations of Catholics who recognised a need. The doors of both are now closed. The strength of character of the parishioners there was a source of untold blessings for me, and will stay with me forever.
After Chesterfield I was assigned to St Helen’s, Oldcotes, and St Patrick’s, Harworth. St Patrick’s has now closed, because of falling numbers and the poor condition of the building. It recently merged with the neighbouring parish in Worksop, along with St Helen’s. The example of the parishioners of St Patrick’s after its closure has truly been special. Now firmly a part of the new parish of St Jude, I think I used to embarrass them by singing their praises but they really did show such a wonderful example of how to engage and embrace change, even though they would rather have not.
This is, of course, not to say that change does not cause great anxiety and upset. As a parish priest in all these places, I have been there with my brothers and sisters and seen their worlds turned upside down. Though people might not always think so, I know Bishop Ralph stands with the priests and people of the Diocese, and keenly feels their anguish and their anger. But he is there with us, leading us through what is often a dark path. And as a successor of the Apostles, he knows that is what he is called to do. So he will bear our complaints, our grumbling, and yes, even our anger, because he seeks to respond to his vocation from the Lord. If he didn’t, I think he would have left us shortly after being appointed to Hallam.
Our Lord gives us the example of sometimes having to prune the vine so that it will bear more fruit. We live in a time when the vine of the Church has to be pruned, and that is traumatic. Yet this has been done many times over the centuries, and often more severely. The other aspect of Our Lord’s teaching about the vine is that apart from Him we can do nothing. As branches of the vine we are dependent on Him for life. And as a Church we are called to grow together. This is the reason why we should share our gifts with each other, because change will affect us all sooner or later but we don’t need to face it alone.
So even though change has come to us, let us not be afraid of it and run away. Let us embrace it, like our parents, grandparents, and earlier forebears. Let us show the World that the Church is still there to respond to its needs, though not its desires. Let us be united as Catholics, so that we will bear abundant fruit that will last.