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Letters Extra

Unaccountable parish priests are making lay participation impossible
03 July 2014

Mary Geoghegan’s account (The Tablet, 28 June) of an authoritarian and unresponsive parish priest applies to many parishes and, as she rightly says, such an attitude goes contrary to the spirit and teaching of Vatican II. The difficulty that bishops have in remedying such situations is because of canon law which legitimises any parish priest’s absolute rule over his parish. This was pointed out in an instructive article by Fr Paul Hypher entitled Authority in the Parish, published in Priests and People, August-September 1997. The article shows how canon law attempts to juxtapose absolute rule for the priest with the baptismal rights and responsibilities of lay parishioners, and adds: “These two positions are frankly contradictory and the Code seems to be blind to the consequences of having such an inbuilt imbalance between the juridical rights of the priest on the one hand and the obligations with no juridical status attached which belong to the laity on the other.”

The English and Welsh bishops did, nevertheless, meet their obligations to Vatican II in 1995 with their powerful and inspiring document The Sign we Give which encourages parishes to develop collaborative ministry, rooted in Vatican II’s baptismal theology, as the model for parish life and mission. This approach challenges the priest to enable communion to grow rather than "to run the parish" and emphasises that “it is through the quality of relationships that he will most effectively invite people to make full use of their gifts and energy in ministries and other activities.”

The document may have had a mixed response when first published but is enjoying a genuine renewal of interest and appreciation now (and is still in print). In my diocese the local branch of A Call to Action has made the promoting of The Sign we Give and collaborative ministry its chief aim. Mary Geoghan’s desire for lay parishioners to play full roles in parish life and mission is what collaborative ministry is designed to bring about.

Michael O’Shea, Storrington, West Sussex


Parish priests are unaccountable. A bishop once explained to me that it is the prerogative of the bishop to appoint parish priests but once appointed they are not subject to detailed day to day scrutiny. The bishop sets down policies for the parishes of the diocese and carries out regular visitations of the parishes but within those bounds each parish priest must decide for himself what the priorities of his parish will be.

The Church is made up of millions but only a small percentage is priests. These priests have given up much in order to serve the Church but it does not make them infallible in all parish matters and yet most are dictators. Their training must be faulty as the vast majority believe the laity to be either wolves or brainless sheep desperately in need of priestly guidance and authority. True, the laity needs guidance but so too do the priests - we all need each other. I have lived in nine English and 12 overseas parishes. In all that time I have only encountered one priest who truly listened to his parishioners.

Priests are afraid of their flocks. But priests take heart: your parishioners are not all wolves in sheep’s clothing.

David Cairns, York


Mary Geoghegan wrote about parish clergy’s and bishops’ responsibilities towards the application of Vatican-II’s recommendations. I’m unaware of any Council precept to marginalize the tabernacle (and consequently relegate the Real Presence), the reversal of which by her parish priest appears to cause her consternation.

As a committed “Vatican II Catholic”, I’m sure Mrs Geoghegan is aware that the first Council document (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1963) stipulates that “The use of the Latin language must be preserved in the Latin rites” (article 36); that “steps are to be taken to ensure that the faithful are able to say and sing... the Ordinary of the Mass” (art. 54); and that: “Gregorian Chant should be given pride of place in liturgical functions” (art. 116). In their zeal to realize the Council’s vision, may I assume that she and her fellow parishioners have ensured that these prescriptions of Sacrosanctum Concilium are provided for in their parish liturgies, with the aquiescence of their priest? If so, it seems to me that, liturgically at least, fidelity to Vatican II is assured.

Regarding the perceived passivity of the bishop over her priest’s admittedly unusual decisions vis-á-vis the rôle of the laity in parish life: has it occurred to Mrs Geoghegan that, in the circumstances of that parish, at that time, he might conceiveably have been acting with the support of his diocesan Ordinary?

Peter Mahoney, Hertford


Thirty years ago I lived in a West London parish where our senior priest insisted on the title Team Leader, which was inconvenient for me at the time I was applying for positions in Catholic schools that insisted upon a reference from the parish priest. Our Team Leader certainly lived his team ideals and involved his fellow clergy, full time catechist and parish council in all major decision making.

When the time came for him to move his successor immediately defined himself in newsletters and elsewhere as parish priest. I distinctly remember pointing this out to his fellow clergy who assured me that this was merely a change in title. It was not very long before they noticed a major change in vision of church and decision making processes and their dismay was plain for parishioners to see.

Not long after this, in a leadership role of a joint Catholic and Church of England school, I became aware of a very different way of doing things. When the local Church of England parish church wardens interviewed prospective rectors the school leadership was given a voice in the selection process and thus guaranteed some continuity in mission direction in both parish and school.

I found this all the more amazing in that my next major encounter with significant clergy changes was when former Church of England priests were given charge of Catholic parishes and were often unwilling to involve parish councils in pastoral ministry.

Quite recently in Kerry I attended a powerful and empowering 20 session training course for members of parish pastoral councils. Perhaps the most worrying message I took from the course was that parish pastoral councils are suspended whenever there is an interregnum between parish priests. It struck me that, in Church of England fashion, this is exactly the time when a vibrant pastoral council should be most active in the Lord's work.

What is so different between my past experiences and present reality is that today bishops have little or no personnel choice when it comes to filling clergy vacancies.

Alan Whelan, Beaufort, Co. Kerry


In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis speaks about the role of the bishop:

“The bishop must always foster this missionary communion in his diocesan church, following the ideal of the first Christian communities, in which the believers were of one heart and one soul (cf. Acts 4:32). To do so, he will sometimes go before his people, pointing the way and keeping their hope vibrant. At other times, he will simply be in their midst with his unassuming and merciful presence. At yet other times, he will have to walk after them, helping those who lag behind and – above all – allowing the flock to strike out on new paths. In his mission of fostering a dynamic, open and missionary communion, he will have to encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law, [34] and other forms of pastoral dialogue, out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear. Yet the principal aim of these participatory processes should not be ecclesiastical organization but rather the missionary aspiration of reaching everyone.”

The sections of Canon Law to which the footnote relates refer to a number of church structures including Diocesan Synods, the College of Priests as well as to Diocesan and Parish Pastoral Councils. Since I assume our bishops are accountable to the Pope, I look forward to hearing our Bishops’ Conference endorse his exhortation and to seeing them actively work to ensure these or similar "means of participation" are put in place where they do not currently exist at diocesan or parish level.

Steve Bethell, London N8

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Comment by: SteveBethell
Posted: 10/07/2014 23:11:50

Alan, no, not hard to believe. 40+ years ago I was a student at The City University in Islington who regularly visited the Catholic Chaplaincy in Gower Street when Bruce Kent was senior chaplain. It was a time when I was inspired to explore the opportunities that Vatican 2 was offering to lay people. It was a time when there was, in East London, the wonderful bishop Victor Guazelli as well as priests and a cardinal archbishop who were happy to work with the laity and welcomed their input and involvement. For over 40 years, the inspiration I received from those people has kept me involved in parish life. In my parish, I am happy to say, we have a ‘Parish Team’ that has continued with 3 successive parish priests; all of whom have welcomed its input. What I find sad today is that ‘A Call to Action’ (ACTA) groups in dioceses across the country find it necessary to have a mission statement calling for “an atmosphere of openness and dialogue with each other and with our bishops” and of creating “a climate of respect for all where such a dialogue may be fostered”. As I said in my letter, I hope that our bishops will heed Pope Francis’ exhortation and, in all our dioceses, return to such dialogue and consultation using the structures set out in Canon Law. That is the hope of the ACTA group in Westminster even though it has seemed a one-sided dialogue.

Comment by: alanWhelan
Posted: 07/07/2014 09:11:22

Steve, Hard perhaps to believe but just over forty years ago I was London University parish representative at a Westminster Diocesan Pastoral Council where topics such as contraception, lay involvement, catholic education, etc, were all hot topics. These annual meetings of lively parish representatives were chaired by lay person Bernard Bligh, from Hemel Hempstead. Cardinal Heenan and Bishop Butler were in attendance and there was a great sense of optimism that we were together involved in the work of The Lord.

These meetings were not just talk shops and among the very positive outcomes were the formation under Cardinal Hume of new diocesan structures such as five pastoral areas and the a widely representative and very much enhanced Education Commission presided over by Bishop David Konstant. The raising of age of Confirmation and it's clearer identification with parishes and families rather than schools was another very positive outcome of these meaningful engagements of clergy and laity.

As a People of God we have everything to gain from a reintroduction of genuine representative diocesan pastoral councils in those dioceses where they have fallen into abeyance.