jump to navigation

Here’s the church, and here’s the steeple, open the door and see… hey, where’s the priest gone? July 30, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Religion.

Interesting times for the Catholic Church, at least according to a piece by

David Rice in the Irish Times from a week or two back. He writes about how the French church has begun to change entirely, due in the main to…

…its shortage of Roman Catholic priests. France is also ahead in its response to that shortage. In essence the lay people have taken over the local church and run it for themselves.

In one diocese in northern France there is only one priest to serve 27 parishes. It means the priest has been reduced to the role of circuit rider who drops by on rare occasions to offer a Mass and consecrate some hosts. For the rest of the time the people run their church themselves. In 2001 the diocese of Nice had to reduce its 265 parishes down to 47.

This sounds as if the Church is on auto-pilot. But it’s not quite…

The secret is that each church has an appointed lay person, called a relais local, whose duty is to run both church and parish, and perform almost all functions save uttering the words of consecration and administering those sacraments only a priest is allowed to do.

A principal function of the relais is to conduct a Sunday Communion service in the absence of the priest – for all practical purposes a Mass without the consecration. There is frequently no priest at a funeral any more.

This is surely a stunning change in the culture of the Catholic Church. And it has intriguing implications for the future shape of it as an institution, at least in Europe…

At the Église Sacré Coeur in Beaulieu, I attended one such funeral, conducted by the relais locale for the church. She received the coffin. There were words of welcome, the singing of hymns, a short eulogy of the deceased, readings from scripture, a brief reflection by the relais, the lighting of candles beside the coffin, a blessing of the coffin with holy water, and prayers for the deceased. It lasted about half-an-hour. There was no Mass, as there was no priest. But there wasn’t a Communion service either.

Note that it is a woman who is relais local, in this example at least. Those of us with even nodding acquaintance with the RCC will know that women have provided much of the support structures across the decades. This appears to be a step forward again. Also worth noting that women do hand out Communion at Mass so the step is perhaps not quite as great as it might otherwise be.

This new de facto structure in the parish is not confined to relais locales. Marie-Anne Hosley, an energetic Frenchwoman whose mother hails from Co Down, has lately been appointed general manager of the parish with its five churches. While her official title is économe, she assures me it is more about admin than money.

And the new structures are replacing those that were traditionally the preserve of priests.

Other lay people – men and women – are equally active in many of the former roles of the priest – parish visitation, counselling, pre-marriage instruction, attending the sick, bringing communion, chaplaincies to hospitals and retirement homes and in some areas to scout and youth groups.

Also it is lay people who, almost exclusively, perform the crucial role of imparting their faith.In the neighbouring diocese of Monaco, Bernadette Keraudren gives many hours guiding catechumens – those who want to become Christian or Catholic. The catechumens go through about two years of guidance, all done by lay people.

Rice makes a central point…

None of this is stop-gap until better times come. This is for keeps, because better times are not coming. Soon there won’t be any priests at all. Or so few that it simply won’t count. So people here see a totally new church ministry evolving, which will inevitably become more formalised.

Which, of course, leads to new pressures.

…the dearth of priests means that the people will ultimately be left without the sacraments and without the Eucharist, the centre of their faith. That is why the relais, and all these other layfolk who are de facto running the church, are asking, when will the Vatican wake up to the facts of life and allow or recognise new ministries?

“Vatican Two talked about us all being priests,” Hosley says. “The priesthood of the laity. So maybe the church will soon have a new form of priest.” That could mean that, in one fell swoop, there would be women priests and married priests. Many here believe that time is not far off.

Not under this Pope, one might think. But, the logic is inescapable.

The response in the letters page has been interesting in itself. Fr. Sean Fagan writes:

There is no need to close or sell the church building. We could ordain a working man or woman or a recently retired person to celebrate the Eucharist and bring the sacraments to the sick and dying. Everything else can be taken care of by a well organised Christian community of lay people with their various gifts, as they are doing brilliantly in France. The “official” church may not be ready yet for married priests and women priests, but they will come in God’s good time.

For the first hundred years after the death of Jesus, Christianity was not recognised as a religion and there were no churches. The Eucharist was celebrated in private houses and the leader was somebody appointed by an apostle or a man elected by the community. More often the leader of the celebration would be the owners of the house, who could be a married couple or a rich widow. Only later was the leader prayed over by the laying on of hands, and only very slowly did our present notion of priesthood develop.

Kieron Woods, indefatigable supporter of the most traditional of Catholic Traditional rites sees it differently:

Since I began visiting the Abbey of Lagrasse last year, four young men have received the habit of the Canons Regular of the Mother of God, an order formed only 40 years ago (see website http://www.lagrassecanons.com). Other young men are testing their vocation with the order, which works closely with the Diocese of Carcassonne in providing an apostolate to families and young people.

The big difference between this order (and many like it in France) and the parishes of which David Rice writes is that the Canons of Lagrasse use the extraordinary form of the Mass, a rite 400 years older than the Carolingian abbey they are currently restoring to a vibrant new life.

Ah well. For every soul there is a market…

And it’s worth pointing out that, reflecting on Woods thoughts, I don’t think that the changes posited by Rice would necessarily lead to a more ‘liberal’ Catholic Church. Granted, in part, yes, a broader base of those to draw upon for such ministries could see more of a liberal tinge to those entering them. But it’s also true that the activist laity, at least in some instances, is actually as or more conservative than the clergy.

As it happens I was discussing this very issue with a Catholic priest recently and raised the issue of the activist laity. He said that in many cases this was an example of right wing feminists. My response was that surely he meant left-wing, but no, he was certain. It was right-wing. When the name Breda O’Brien came up as an example his response was that although right wing she was moderate compared to some. Now, I – and for all I know whoever reads this – may well balk at descriptions of right wing activist laity as feminist, and may indeed find (as I do) that rather self-serving coming from a male dominated institution. Still, from his viewpoint the pre-existing patriarchy may be seeing a newly vocal lobby emerge that in seeking to return the church to a more ‘traditional’ line comes in conflict with a largely ageing cohort of priests whose views while far from liberal are, perhaps, in the main a little more tolerant. Interesting times ahead there.

And watching Ruth Kelly recently on Channel 4 News and considering that she is an Opus Dei member the thought struck me that since John-Paul II arrived in the Vatican a degree of power had been ceded – quite deliberately – to organisations like OD perhaps precisely because they provided countervailing centres to any liberalisation tendencies within older more established and generally clergy based power centres inside Catholicism.

Of course, it is also possible that the impact of reality or not, changes such as a married or female clergy might simply be too much for those who take a more conservative line resulting in schism. That depends on how many are left. And the other alternative? A continuation, or expansion of the current situation with some effort to develop ministries which are close, but not quite, equal to the clergy. A messy solution fraught with contradiction and bound to cause problems, not least in inciting traditionalists. But, if the end is binding together a religion that has lasted almost two millennia perhaps it would be considered worth it.

On that note, interesting to see that rumours continue to swirl in relation to former Anglicans of the Global Anglican Futures tendency who wish to come over. This has to be one of the real curiosities of the Catholic Church. Since the steady stream from Anglicanism has allowed those who are married to remain married. This may well be seen as a reasonable trade-off by the Catholic Church in the short term, and it may assist those arriving of a ‘traditional, but married, viewpoint. Yet it can’t be sustainable if there remains a prohibition on married clergy, or women priests. The further oddity is how that stream paradoxically liberalises Rome – de facto – while also injecting a further profoundly traditionalist element.

A fascinating piece on the BBC News website last year (I found the link in the comments on Splintered Sunrise) noted that even in the North there is a certain dynamic towards Rome by those who seek to avoid the changes in Anglicanism.

Three former Anglican congregations have asked to be received into the Roman Catholic Church, a Catholic newspaper has reported.

The ex-Church of Ireland communities in Down, Tyrone and Laois, were part of the ‘traditional rite’.

A decision was made at a plenary meeting of the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), the umbrella organisation for traditional Anglicans, to petition Rome for such a move earlier this month.

A bit of history…

The traditional rite broke away from the Church of Ireland in 1991, after the House of Bishops of the Church of Ireland decided to start ordaining women.

Traditionalist Anglicans described the move as a “defiance of both Scripture and Tradition.”

It is rare for entire Anglican communities to seek corporate communion with the Catholic Church whereby every member of the parish becomes Catholic and the parish effectively becomes part of the Catholic Church.

One wonders if this is merely a fallback in a broader cultural war and that ultimately their positions, ‘traditional rite’ and all, will be overwhelmed.

A further thought strikes me. Isn’t the Rice article an example of an appeal, or at least an optimism, that some hitherto silent majority will manifest itself and alter the course of the Church? It’s remarkable how that idea proliferates across political religious and socioeconomic thinking. Most political parties labour under the misapprehension that given the opportunity to make their case nearly all would follow. But again, that’s another days work.

And as to why this is of interest in broader terms? Well in part because the Catholic Church remains a power in the land and as such is worthy of analysis, in part because we see the Iona Institute and others attempting to put a social scientific gloss on what are fundamentally religious beliefs (and as someone suggested to me recently, by getting a profile it allows its members to seek membership on bioethics and other councils in the future), and in part because it’s simply quite interesting to see how this and other religious institutions come to terms with a rapidly changing Irish society. And the passing thought strikes me that its not the only entity that is seeing its power draining away – we on the left aren’t doing terribly well, now are we?

Nor does it stop changing, because on Saturday last a small piece in the news noted that:

The Bishop of Killaloe Dr Willie Walsh has asked four Co Clare priests who have reached the retirement age of 75 to continue performing priestly duties due to the shortage of priests…

Announcing his diocesan clergy appointments for 2008, Dr Walsh said the four who were stepping down as full-time parish priests had agreed to remain as “priests in residence” in their parishes and would continue to perform baptism, penance, the Eucharist, marriages and funeral rites.


1. ejh - July 30, 2008

A fascinating piece on the BBC News website last year (I found the link in the comments on Splintered Sunrise) noted that even in the North there is a certain dynamic towards Rome by those who seek to avoid the changes in Anglicanism.

It’s pretty much an old story though – not that one specifically, I mean the conservative-Catholic-is-attracted-to-Rome. If you read the Telegraph (as I do not) you’d not infrequently come across coverage of the inner turmoil of one wealthy Anglican or another deciding whether they should be received into the Catholic Church. Ann Widdecombe comes to mind but there are many others.

On the question of a shortage of priests. This has been true in the history of the Church before now – in medieval times it was not at all unusual for remote (and not always remote) areas hardly to see a priest from one year to the next. And if they did see one, it might easily be a near-illiterate who could scarcelñy be bothered to say Mass.

The present age is obviously different in a number of respects but I wonder whether one of those differences, to compensate for the reduction in the numbers of the clergy, is the existence of the motor vehicle. I can appreciate that people don’t necessarily want to abandon their local church. I spend much time in an Aragonese village which, like all Aragonese villages, has a church despite having a population of about 40, and sure enough the bells ring every Sunday at 9.45 am (although they didn’t last Sunday, oddly enough) and Mass is celebrated. Moreover many rural churchgoers will be older and not keen to travel. That said, I’m sure the Church is capable of providing transport, one way or another. (We are, by they way, just down the road from the Opus Dei headquarters.)

It would be fascinating if the decline in the numbers of the clergy (and I’d like to see figures on this) led to a dramatic change in the role of the laity. But of course, it might also lead to a dramatic change in the nature of the priesthood, since there is one other change that Rome could make, if it wished….


2. crocodile - July 30, 2008

The most interesting notion in wbs’s post is his friend’s idea of ‘right-wing feminists’. Now most feminists of my acquaintance would deny that feminism can be ‘right-wing’, and buy into the belief that there’s a seamless connection between the idea of equality for women and equality – and other ‘progressive’ concepts – in general.
I suppose he means feminism in its political aspects – equal pay and opportunities etc – can be separated from feminism in its social and sexual aspects. Can one be a feminist while subscribing to the Breda O’Brien tendency when it comes to family, church etc? Certainly it seems that there is great pressure from women within the Catholic Church for more participation, even more power, but is there much accompanying demand for liberalisation of church policy on ‘feminist’ issues like contraception?


3. Dunne and Crescendo - July 30, 2008

I think there certainly are right-wing feminists, who believe in the greatest level of equality of opportunity for women in terms of getting on in society but who care little about measures that would specifically aid working class and poor women. I’m sure Condelezza Rice has some sort of feminist beliefs for example, though she may not like the terminology.


4. Claire - July 30, 2008

Great post WbS. On ‘right-wing feminists’ – I’ve known a lot, particularly during my time in England. Religious Anglican and Catholic women could often be labelled thus. Crocodile I’d say your division of political/social aspects is very accurate. The most telling fact is, of course, their position on abortion.

As to whether they’re “real” feminists – well, their position on abortion and contraception is unfeminist, but that isn’t an automatic disqualifier. You’d be hard pressed to find a feminist who doesn’t have a few sexist holdovers (she says eyeing her engagement ring uneasily!).

Reproductive rights are obviously a more fundamental feminist issue than engagement rings, though, and I think it must be considered on an individual basis. Plenty of these women (like O’Brien – I think?) disavow the ‘feminist’ label anyway.


5. Craig - July 30, 2008

You mention Opus Dei, WBS. Opus Dei is a useful scapegoat for those with an anti-Catholic agenda and nowhere near as influential as some people make out. The overblown claims of some conspiracy theorists in regard to OD and the Church (like those who read the “Da Vinci Code” and think it’s actually true) reminds one of the “Black Legend” of supposed Spanish brutality and fanaticism that was peddled by historians in the past.


6. ejh - July 30, 2008

That may be true in part but it’s also true that the Da Vinci Code card gets played almost automatically regardless of whether anybody (with their “anti-Catholic agendas”, whatever they may be) who mentions Opus Dei has ever opened a copy of the book.

Mentions of Dan Brown in this thread before Craig’s posting = nil.


7. ejh - July 30, 2008

Talking of anti-Catholic agendas, the Church has gone quite keen recently on playing the victim. I believe the obnoxious Cristina Odone managed to refer to “persecution” in relation to government education policy the other day. Jesus Christ, to coin a phrase.

As WbS mentioned Ruth Kelly – my view is that a member of a secretive religious organisation should probably not be a government minister, there being a plain conflict of loyalties involved. (The point here is the “secretive” – she can be a member of any religious organisation she likes and hold any office of state she likes, I couldn’t care less. But secret loyalties are another matter.) I also think that having refused to say whether she was a member of a secretive organisation is the sort of conduct which used to get people expelled from the Labour Party twenty years ago.


8. WorldbyStorm - July 30, 2008

Ermmm… it’s not just those with axes to grind about the RCC who have queries about OD.

I would agree that reproductive rights are central to feminism, but clearly there are those who take one element or another. It’s a tricky one because a lot is about self-definition. Does B O’B define herself as a feminist? I only used the term because that was what was used in conversation by someone else to me.

It’s an interesting question as to whether engagements or marriages support or undermine feminism. I’m not sure, but I guess as cultural artifacts they remain potent.


9. Starkadder - July 30, 2008

“As WbS mentioned Ruth Kelly – my view is that a member of a secretive religious organisation should probably not be a government minister, there being a plain conflict of loyalties involved.”

Would that also apply to a man who was,say,
a Freemason, an Orangeman or a Rosicrucian?


10. crocodile - July 30, 2008

‘Would that also apply to a man who was,say,
a Freemason, an Orangeman or a Rosicrucian?’
I don’t think membership of any of those involves allegiance to an authority outside the jurisdiction.


11. ejh - July 30, 2008

It might – it’s worth discussion. Masonic lodges vary greatly in kind, as it happens so the answer in that instance might be “sometimes”. I wouldn’t want anybody from the Orange Order anywhere near the government on principle. As for the Rosicrucians, I know no more about them than what I’ve just read on Wikipedia.

The thing about Opus Dei is, it’s really very serious indeed in what it wants and in what demands it puts on its adherents: and secrecy is fundamental to what it does. . This means it can’t be treated as just another religious belief, like being in the Methodists or something. I don’t think it’s the only religious organisation which fits those criteria, but I’m not aware of any other government ministers that have, actually, been members of them, and as Ruth Kelly has (and is) and as we’re discussing Opus Dei (and as I was raised a Catholic and know bit more about Opus Dei than some other organisations) I mention her and them. If you’ve got any other practical examples I’d be glad to talk about them.

Incidentally, I’m sure a certain amount of tosh is talked about Opus Dei. Round where I live they’re popularly supposed to control almost everything, including my local bank, Ibercaja. This does not prevent me having an account there.


12. Dunne and Crescendo - July 30, 2008

De Valera wasn’t happy that members of his cabinet were in the Knights of Columbanus. On more than one occasion he declared that such societies were not needed in Ireland. It didn’t stop the Labour Party having not one but two leaders who were Knights though!


13. WorldbyStorm - July 31, 2008

I’m with ejh on this one. OD is not a vile conspiracy, but, it’s a serious operation. I think the crucial thing which I referenced above is what its strategic purpose within the RCC is.

De Valera was interestingly complex on religious issues D&C. Isn’t there a book out about the 37 Constitution that covers that area?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: