Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Thoughts with the Lune Valley in Brighton

I had a visit from Fr Paul Harrison yesterday, blogging is a bit incestuous. Both of us have a bit of an interest in history. In between having lunch and visiting the Royal Pavillion we talked quite a lot about lay ministry, with the overarching question of are more people involved in Church now than fifty years ago. Both of us have done a bit of research, mine maybe more on the level of anecdote than Fr Paul's, who did a MA on Preston Catholicism.

In Brighton 50 years ago there were thriving organisations. The Church was made up of small groups, I am sitting in my office and around me are old framed photographs of the various sporting groups that used to be in the parish: the parish swimming team, boxing team, football team etc. There were obviously plenty of things for young men. In all of them there is a priest involved, then of course there were four priests in the parish, what these pictures show is the Church's involvement with men, it took them seriously, it knew they were going to be the future priests and fathers of families, mangers of buisnesses, trade unionists. Then ordinations in (or at least) from this parish were a regular thing. There are no records but I am told there was here an extremely thriving SVP group, that used to visit the slum housing and a Legion of Mary that used to go parish visiting, from door to door. There was also the Catholic Evidence Guild, I am not sure if they were actually "of the parish", or simply preached on the promenade, "in the parish" during the summer. In the notice books there are references to The Guild of the Blessed Sacrament, the Scouts, the Agnesians, the Altar Guild, the Union of Catholic Mothers, The Catholic Police Guild, the Catholic Nurses Guild etc etc.
There was great optimism, in this parish in that period a social worker called Mary Garson together with the parish priest set a group of women to care for those in need, from this, she founded the Congregation of the Sisters of Grace and Compassion, a religious congregation that is thriving in India and parts of Africa.
The Sisters of Grace and Compassion are still in Brighton but of the other organisations none of these exist today, except the SVP, and that seems normal for most parishes. What we have instead are a few small "faith sharing groups" and lay involvement is limited to the finances, Extra-Ordinary Ministers of Holy Communion and readers, in the past there were none of these, there were altar servers and a very proficient choir that sang chant. The sanctuary ministries have replaced the apsotolic ones.

There has been a huge shift of lay involvement; from lay people very obviously sanctifying the world, directly proclaiming the Word of God and "doing" the works of mercy, to what we have now; most lay ministry being centred on the liturgy and within the Church. In practice there has been a very significant change in Ecclesiology. Some people have said we have clericalised the laity and laicised the clergy, a bit of a harsh statement but certainly the main focus of the laity has been the sanctuary and not the world and possibly the role of priest has changed from being the sanctifier to being the manger.

What has intervened is Vatican II, the Council's main aim of course was to engage with the modern world, its teaching is all about empowering people to evangelise and to proclaim Christ in the world. In Northern Europe at least this has not happened, on the contrary we have shrunk as a Church. Our diocesan seminary for example in 1962/3 doubled in size, now the number of students would still be uncomfortable small even in the old building.

There are obviously good sociological reasons for the decline; women working, the television, the decline of the family, contraception are just a few reason that are put forward. What we in the Church so often try to avoid is to suggest that the problem might be the Church herself. Hans Kung, in one of his early, more orthodox works says, "The Church ceases to be the Church when it preaches the Church", yet for 50 years it strikes me that that is precisely what we have been doing. We have been obsessed with liturgy, with lay-involvement in parish structures, parish councils, the role of women within the Church, ecumenism, catechesis. All these are important but only of people who are already "churched", and not directly concerned with revealing the face of Christ. Fifty years ago every fifth or sixth entry in our baptism records was a convert, nowadays it is three, four or five a year, in many parishes none. The Evangelisation that many believed that would follow the wonderful documents of the Council just didn't take place.

The Pope in his "The Spirit of the Liturgy" sees the sign of the Church looking inwards at its celebration of the Liturgy as signifying and possibly even causing this sense of introversion. The priest facing the people creates a smug little huddle that looks in on itself. If the image people are presented with day after day, Sunday after Sunday is the priest looking at the people over the altar and most especially prays to God whilst directing his gaze at the congregation, o0ne might be led to suspect that God is to found there rather than elsewhere, beyond and above the immediate community.

I am sure that is one factor, another, which was certainly signified by the change in the Liturgy, is the change in catechesis. In the past, it wasn't so much the Church that catechised, or even the school, but the family. Fr Paul told me about some Traveller families he had prepared for First Holy Communion, and how well they knew the old catechism. Mother or Grand-Mother had simply passed on the faith they themselves had been given, but most families have lost confidence in simply doing that. The liturgy changed and catechetical emphasis changed, and parents , I think, lost confidence in passing on their faith. In the non-literate, self reliant culture of Traveller families that didn't happen so much. When I was first ordained, the question, "Do we still believe in ....?", was applied to the Real Presence, Purgatory, Hell, Eternal Life, Papal Infallibility, the Catholic Church, Confession, the Divinity of Christ, the Virginity of Mary, well practically every aspect of Catholic life.

One of the things the Pope has been urging us all to do, is the rediscover the riches of the Vatican Council, get to the texts rather than its accursed "Spirit". I am concinced that one off the purposes of the recent Motu Proprio, was just the reconcilliation of the Lefebvrists but the reconcilliation of today's church with its past, reconcilliation with our history and most especially with our theology, look again at Archbishop Ranjith's reported recent comment.

(added later)
The most important thing for lay people is to live out their baptism, loving God and their neighbour. Pre-Concilliar theology would lay great stress on the obligation to "save one's soul", by receiving the sacraments worthily, and therefore acting as a leaven within society. If you were married then the obligation was extended to ensuring the salvation of one's children, hence all that pre-concilliar school building and education.
Any collection of pre-Concilliar parish sermons certainly do not speak a great deal about sex, as I was told in the seminary, society was too delicate, Fr Paul sad the closest to it was "keeping bad company". Being honest, doing a fair days work for a fair days pay seems to be much more to the point, coming to the aid of one's neighbour seems to be very prevalent, which might account for the high number of Catholic doctors and nurses and the other Catholic professions.
The motif of the Second Vatican Council was the Church's engagement with modern world, it wasn't something new, certainly in England and presumably elsewhere it was of tremendous importance in the pre-Concilliar Church. What is pretty obvious is that it did not come to birth in the Council Hall but was alredy up and running, since the Council it seems to have fallen flat on its face.
In our diocese there was a plann to build a Church every mile in the city, and in the countryside a Church every five miles, now the future is bleak and we are closing or amalgamating Churches wherever we can.
The problem is not just a lack of vocations to the priesthood and religious life but a lack of vocations to teaching and even marriage.


JARay said...

You have hit on a very serious aspect of today's Catholicism and its contrast with yesterday's Catholicism.
When I was a boy we always had a May Procession around the streets. Everyone turned out.I well remember walking from Leeds Cathedral to Kirkstall Abbey along with the young men of my parish. I believe that it was the Knights of St. Columba who organised that one. It took three hours to process from the Cathedral to the Abbey. It has stayed in my mind ever since.
I spent several years helping to run the Scouts in my parish. A priest was the "Scoutmaster" and I was his assistant. He set it up but the day to day running was up to me and my friend Bernard who ran the Cubs. Bernard and I were great friends. He became a priest but I dropped out. You may guess my sadness at discovering that he died of cancer and I never even knew that he was ill. The tyranny of distance divided us then.
The Parish was a vibrant, even exciting place where I centered most of my youthful activities. There was always a Parish country dancing session every Sunday evening after Benediction. Even when I was doing my National Service I tried to be back home to go to the dancing. Fortunately I was stationed only 40 or so miles away for most of my service and I bought a motor-bike.
Sorry to burden you with my past history but your opening comment brought it all back.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting and thought provoking. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Well said, Father. Far too much naval-gazing rather than focusing on Our Lord, and all the claptrap that goes with it.

Anagnostis said...

Several years ago BBC Scotland broadcast an hour-long programme in which three Scots clerics - a Presbyterian minister, an Anglican theologian and a Cardinal - wandered around the Holy Land sharing their reflections on the life of Our Lord. The Calvinist Minister, a rare soul from the remote West Highlands, with great simplicity, said a number of penetratingly beautiful things about Jesus; the Anglican, erudite and devout, offered a number of very interesting and orthodox insights; the Cardinal, God rest his soul, bored on almost exclusively, and to general incomprehension, about the Second Vatican Council.

On the side of the angels said...

you seen this ?

Fr Ray Blake said...

On the side of the angels,
Don't be ridiculous!
I can't get onto Holy Smoke, I have tried, it remebers I have tried and won't let me any further. I think it is a marvellous joke.
I am barely able to run this parish effectively!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Fr - very thought provoking. There's a lot to take in there, especially about the lack of 'vocation' to the sacrament of marriage. Without Holy and heroic Catholic families everything falls down like a house of cards. So much needs to be done.

Ttony said...

Father, your conversation with Fr Paul has resulted in a manifesto! Here is a programme for the next Archbishop of Westminster.

Well put!

Equiti Albo Crucis said...

Thanks Fr. for a great article. I was just noticing the other day in Church that there were several stained glass windows all donated by one of several women's guilds of the parish. Now those groups have all disappeared. I have started a blog to the restoration of true Christian chivalry tuitiofidei.blogspot.com. An intended result is to get men involved again in the life of the parish and encourage a stronger spritual life. Also to realize that the Knights of old were warriors but were first and foremost men of faith.

Father John Boyle said...

Thanks Fr Ray for this penetrating post. May I recommend the St Patrick's Community to you for a parish mission - led by lay people who will direct your people to true faith and devotion and involvement in society and certainly will not clericalise them.

Dextimus said...


I dare to post a translation of your excellent post into my blog:

God bless!

Fr Ray Blake said...

I am very honoured, that you have taken time to translate it into Polish.

Anonymous said...

Did you know that Father Z has reproduced your post, with lots of bold?

Anonymous said...

Very astute observation.
But what concerns me, a 24 year old practising Catholic about to get married to a 23 year old practising Catholic (we both believe that marriage is our vocation), is what can be done to improve things.

Young people in their twenties are all searching for the truth, for a way to live their lives.
I think the chance to explore the faith in a group - of what it really means to be Christian - Catholic is crucial.
Some things work really well: Lourdes, Youth 2000 and others.
Particularly Lourdes but we need something sustained.

I hope to start a group for young people when I'm married any ideas would be welcome.

Loving one's neighbour is also crucial and I think visiting the sick, helping the homeless is crucial and a good way of getting 'non-churched' people involved.

I also think improving the liturgy is important and reclaiming Catholic culture is vital.

There is certainly hope as not all young people have left the Church and many live their lives through faith in Christ.

There is, of course, so much more to be done.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Antonio Vetrano,
You are right I chose not to publish your comment, because it didn't make any sense and tended towards, I think, the blasphemous.

Anonymous said...

good post...Miles Jesu talks about Priests who want to be lay people & laity wanting to perform priestly roles...we need to be formed in the lay apostolate correctly through institutes such as Miles Jesu. Thankfully my husband & i receive excellent formation & can pass it on to our family...

Anonymous said...

A great article and so true of many parishes I have been to.I recently came across my Guild of the Blessed Sacrament book of Guild Services, Prayers and hymns. and they are so pray and meaningful and brought bact many happy memories. The Latin translations were excellent. If only we could have them back.

Anonymous said...

We need to pray for vocations to the Priesthood and to marriage.

I still believe our youngsters want to get married and live happily ever after - but society paints such a depressing self centred picture and when they look at their friends and in many cases their own families marriage doesn't always appear a holy choice.

Anonymous said...

A book pertinent to this subject that I couldn't reccommend more is Iota Unum by Prof. Romano Amerio which you can get here.

Do consider getting it Father

Anonymous said...

I am polish. This is great website.

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