To the parish priest who has everything, give him another parish

Sacrosanctum Concilium,

At a recent dinner with the Vicar General of an Australian diocese, he quipped, “to the parish priest who has everything, give him another parish.”

The five priests seated with him laughed at this.

But, as the conversation turned to the realities of our failing diocesan infrastructures, the tone became more serious.

Two priests were managing three separate, cooperating parishes, three priests were managing two amalgamated parishes and the Vicar General had one parish.

The six priests around the table were managing thirteen parishes with a total of thirty distinct communities between them, doing the work of ten previous parish priests.


Amalgamation looks like the solution until you ask what problem it is trying to solve.

The amalgamation of parishes is an attempt to solve the problem of institutional collapse in dioceses in three ways.

  • amalgamation solves the problem of too few priests being available to provide sacramental ministry.
  • amalgamation presumes that the parish structures are integral to pastoral life.
  • amalgamation keeps the civil and canonical framework of parishes as a managerial structure that provides a living for a priest and income for a diocese.

As a diocese’s infrastructure of pastoral and sacramental life becomes untenable, the notion takes hold that the problem lies with the parishes when the problem lies in the episcopal mindset.

Having solved the structural problem through amalgamation the newly blended parishes should function happily in this new future designed by others.

However, the gloss of efficient pastoral functioning covers a multitude of unresolved issues, like

  • the independence of established communities,
  • the lines of communication between previous separate parish groups, and
  • the stretch of the clergy who are expected to respond.

The amalgamation of parishes does not ultimately solve the larger organisational and theological questions amongst which are:

  • who can preside at the Eucharist?;
  • are the laity part of the fabric of parish leadership, discernment and management?;
  • are the liturgy, sacraments and priestly ministry just functional elements of diocesan structures?

Coming to the end

of the present ‘organisational road’

begs the question

of a new church

and a new form of church leadership

that isn’t restorationist

but more deeply missionary.

Social and Cultural Elements of Change

Often the social and cultural dimensions implicit in ecclesial change are forgotten.

Solving the structural problem using clerical and lay workarounds takes little or no regard for the anthropological (human) and social (cultural) dimensions of worship and community.

They often ask fewer people to do more to keep the boat afloat.

Keeping former parishes going with liturgies of Word and Communion on Sundays as a stop-gap for Mass seems a nice alternative. However, it reframes our understanding of the Church by undermining the centrality of the Eucharist.

Eventually, the diocese reframes itself according to what it cannot provide.

Looking for answers among the dead

Many argue the real change will come with lay-parish leadership, lay-led liturgy, replacing the parish with the schools as the “new parish”, importing clergy and seminarians, ordaining married men, ordaining women, geriatric men and similar solutions.

The answer might be found in some, or all, of these, but I am reminded of Christ’s response in Luke 9:56-62, “leave the dead to bury the dead”.

All these suggestions are deeply inauthentic because they do not address the substantive issue; the death of the local churches.

Churches do die; historically, we have only to look at North Africa.

The death of a local church—diocese or parish—is not a comforting experience.

There is a deep sense of loss.

Coming to the end of the present ‘organisational road’ begs the question of a new ecclesiology and a new form of ecclesial leadership that isn’t restorationist but more deeply missionary.

Pope Francis has offered a missiological vision similar to St Pope Paul IV’s in Evangelii Nunciandi: “The conditions of the society in which we live oblige all of us therefore to revise methods, to seek by every means to study how we can bring the Christian message to modern man.”

He acknowledged “the split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time” and that the ‘Gospel must be proclaimed by witness’.

Function and structure play a role in this, but they shouldn’t drive the change because we are a theological community and theology immersed in life must lead us in the work of evangelisation and mission.

Downsizing and right-sizing

When people speak of downsizing, often they mean “right-sizing” the house and garden for their current and future needs.

Finding the right size for today’s local church means relearning what it means to be a Missionary Church.

The experience of change and diminution will continue; nothing can stop it at this point because the cultural changes influencing contemporary Catholicism are very strong.

The Second Vatican Council sought to provide us with the tools we require to engage with the enormity of the change and reengage with the world as it has become.

What does a diocese or parish look like in the 21 century in a small, secular country like ours struggling to articulate its cultural self-understanding and not possessing a millennial-long shared language of religious institutionalisation?

Integral to this consideration is the emerging new church that is already replacing the church of my consciousness.

It will be different because it already is.

As the Church of my generation and older dies out a new Church may emerge and it will be different.

Then again, without a suitably led ongoing discussion about what it means to be Church and what evangelisation and mission look like today, the church may indeed look very different.=

  • Joe Grayland is a theologian and a priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North. His latest book is: Liturgical Lockdown. Covid and the Absence of the Laity (Te Hepara Pai, 2020).

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