Ampleforth Abbey

24 March 2018

With laity at its heart, the Church has a chance to grow

Fr Michael Phillips has contributed a thought-provoking piece to The Universe on his experience of engaging laity in the day to day life of the parish:

"There has been much recent whingeing about the decline of priests but is that because we cling to what we have known or because we are not prepared to adapt?

The steadily diminishing number of priests is something that priests have had to live with for a number of years. Some have adapted in the way that I did, by involving the laity of the parish in the role of catechists. The laity, in those parishes, where reluctant to take on these roles which were previously done by the priest, but slowly came to realise that they had a real part to play in the growth of the Church.

The decline in the number of priests is not a disaster scenario, bit it is a great opportunity for the laity to be involved in the growth of the Church. They have many gifts and skills which the priest does not have. The hidden assumption that a priest, by virtue of his training, has all the social skills needed to connect with people in the modern world is a fallacy.

I am writing after 20 years working as a parish priest in two of our Benedictine parishes. It was an interesting time to be a parish priest! With the ever-decreasing number of priests in both the dioceses and the monastery, I had to decide where my priorities lay. Although I was trained as an accountant, I decided that I would not touch the account books, but leave this to the parish secretary. I provided a system, for the computer and taught her how to use it. She was also able to handle the newsletter after I had provided the Mass intentions.

I had never been a cook, and decided that I was not going to spend time learning to do this. I asked that the parish provide me with midday mean and do the shopping!

This freed up my day, and enabled me to get to know the parishioners by visiting them, and getting to know the children in the schools by spending time with them. I got hold of a computer programme which had a database for parishioners which enabled me to build up a record of parishioners with their addresses and the family members, dates of birth and reception of the sacraments. When I left to go a larger parish, I felt that I had left behind a solid base for my successor.

In the larger parish I was able to make the same basic provision for food and finances, but discovered that Father had to make all the decisions. The first question I was asked on my arrival was ‘what colour flowers would Father like for Christmas?’ There was nothing wrong with being asked, it showed me where I had to begin. I inherited a Parish Council that was very good at saying, ‘yes, Father.’ I knew that I needed to know what they felt on a number of issues, and decided that I had to provoke a response. Since Easter was coming up, I suggested that the Archbishop had spoken about the possibility of having the Vigil readings read from an armchair on the altar. It was true! This is what he said, but it produced a flood of outrage from the whole Parish Council and thereafter, I couldn’t say anything without provoking a discussion. It was good to get the honest opinions of a representative group of the parish.

Since Father was expected to do everything, he expected to do all the Sacramental preparation, train the altar servers and choose the hymns for Sunday Mass. I found a very good choir master whose only mistake was to suggest that Father should sing the Exultet on Holy Saturday. Because I cannot sing, I suggested asking one of the female members of the choir to do it instead! The choir master sang it beautifully! I found an excellent man for the altar servers, boys and girls, bit Sacramental preparation was more difficult. However, having provided them with a course and training them to teach it, the catechists found they could do it and more importantly, that they enjoyed doing it. I started with the Holy Communion programme and worked my way up through Confirmation to Marriage.

Getting volunteers to prepare couples for marriage was a real challenge. I wanted three couples who would be able to prepare up to ten couples annually for marriage. Finding a course was difficult. I sampled many dioceses, but settled on that used in Liverpool, which had a straightforward course that didn’t require a psychological assessment. I realised that every diocese had a different approach but I got there in the end. Best of all they did a wonderful job, which they enjoyed.

Chaplaincy in secondary schools was a problem. I was not able to spend time in the day at the school. I was able to say Mass on a regular basis, and attend Penance services arranged by the RE teachers. I suggested to the governors that we pay half the salary for a lay chaplain for a trial period of two years and the idea was accepted. It worked, and the school picked up the full salary after the trial period.

The other attempt I made on youth was to establish a youth club under the parish hall. Two good ladies ran it from me. It became a gathering point for the young, with no particular purpose and was very popular.

I mention all of this because it was my way of coping with the diminishing number of priests. I started off on my last parish with four assistants and ended up with one! I think some parishes have taken the load off the priest in similar ways over the years, but many priests have been more resistant to relinquishing the ways in which they were brought up. However, the laity in their turn need to understand that it is their Church, and not that of the priest. The priest is there simply to minister to the local community; the priest is a passing phenomenon!

Now that I am retired, I have time to reflect on what the next step should be, as the number of priests diminishes further. Perhaps, just as in some missionary countries, the priests will go round from one community to another distributing the sacraments, while in each local community there will be lay catechists, men and women, who will prepare the faithful and lead the prayers in Church on Sunday. These leaders, men and women, will grow out of the community, but will have to be trained. There are too many people out there, clerical and lay, who prophesy doom for the church. I can see no doom, but we need to cast off the shackles of a system which is no longer fit for purpose. We need to reach out to the laity and make real use of their many gifts."