This article is offered for discussion and prayerful reflection for parish communities to discern the practicalities of their communal mission and parishioners’ own ministries. The National Council for Lay Associations (NCLA) will endeavour to publicise examples of good practice as an encouragement for fellow faith communities. The NCLA’s contact points are provided at the end of this article.
One of the consequences of the reducing number of ordained priestly ministers and the falling numbers of laity is that there will be change from the way parishes currently operate. The declining number of laity has, as a consequence, congregations being formed with a greater proportion of people in their third and fourth ages and also fewer people belonging to lay associations. Parishes will need to be amalgamated or perhaps, more radically, for deaneries to emerge as the focus and centre for priests working together serving the faith communities.
Two reference questions to hold in mind and heart as we move forward are:
“What is the Parish for?” and “Who is the parish for?”
We are received into the Church through the sacrament of Baptism then strengthened and nourished in faith by Confirmation and Communion. Our relationship with God is mended by the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. Marriage and Ordination are the sacraments where laity and the clergy separate but our common baptism holds us all as the Holy People of God.
Priests and laity must work together and appreciate their individual talents and provide support to each other for the benefit of the Church. Formation for both the laity and the priests is the key to shared mission. Just as the priest helps in the formation of laity, the laity should have a wider role in the training of priests. This sharing of faith and life will support us as we struggle with our individual difficulties and fears to discover the richness of God’s love at work in the community. Priests need to be trained to draw out the talents of the laity and utilise the gifts of parishioners of all ages and ethnic groups to encourage shared mission. The emphasis needs to be on service to the faith community. The laity must aid the priest’s ministry in a way that is not threatening to his role of offering spiritual guidance. In May 2002, Pope John Paul II stated that “When church governance is focused more on power than service the whole Church suffers”.
Certain sacraments are the preserve of the priestly ministers, however the sacramental programmes of preparation for Reconciliation, Eucharist and Confirmation ought to be a shared responsibility between the priest and the laity. We suggest that sacramental formation, the RCIA Programme and other styles of adult formation are shared within each deanery.
We urge that laity teams be formed and involved in the planning of liturgies for services and for a pastoral care team to address the needs of the housebound and their “carers”. The Parish should be a community of God that recognises the needs of all especially the elderly and young. Parishioners in their fourth age may no longer be able to physically help others but are a wonderful “Powerhouse of Prayer”. Lay ministerial teams could organise visiting the housebound on a deanery basis with the deanery priests working together to minister the Sacraments of Anointing the Sick and Reconciliation. With this deanery approach the sick and housebound are less likely to become “invisible”.
Young people respond through action, example and inclusiveness and need to be at the core of the Church. Students must be taught in schools that they are an integral part of the Church and their involvement in the parish community is essential. Strategies should be employed in the parishes to sometimes use the language, music and liturgy that reflect young people’s culture, enthusiasm and ideals. This would bridge the gap between the experience of liturgies in Catholic schools and the parishes. Youth Masses and Special Events organised by Deanery Youth Services should be available for the young to help them feel empowered so that they are able to fulfil their crucial role in the Church.
The mission of the Church is to know God and to share that knowledge with others. Each person has their own personal mission to fulfil and needs to learn before acting just as Our Lord taught his disciples before they went forward. Our spiritual life is the basis from which to go out in the service of others.
There is a need to encourage the laity to work together as a Christian community in such concerns as Justice & Peace with considerations of Social Justice leading to Social action. Pastoral action plans, that are complemented and reinforced by the Liturgical cycle, should be prepared as our witness in the local area and the wider world.
Social action needs to be addressed by working together with other Christian denominations so that our ongoing collaboration makes Christian Unity Week a time of celebration of God’s love. Social action needs should also be addressed jointly with other faiths and thus provide a witness to life’s spiritual dimension.
The three interlocking dimensions of spirituality, community and mission need to be bought together in the context of the Parish/Pastoral Council that serves the parish. The faith communities should make themselves aware of the unmet needs of society and see how those needs might be best addressed. We recommend the preparation of a Parish Plan to provide clarity and continuity of purpose and also offer a structure especially where there are changes among the laity and the priests. It is important to recognise that a new priest or layperson will have different strengths and abilities and there may be a need for a readjustment of roles.
Members of the laity who accept ministry in the Parish should be encouraged to train others to perform that role and thus avoid being welded to that ministry and then be seen as a deterrent for other members of the laity to offer their service.
In 1980 Archbishop Derek Worlock was one of the prime instigators of the National Pastoral Congress, which was held in Liverpool to consider the developments in the Church after Vatican II. This generated great enthusiasm and dreams of proper lay involvement in the Church but the excitement was not brought back to live in the local faith communities.
The National Council for Lay Associations considers that the 25th anniversary in 2005 of the National Pastoral Congress and over 50 years since the First World Congress for the Apostolate of the Laity would be a good time to celebrate what has been achieved and build for the future by rediscovering the joy and making it present for all in the local communities. There are still many recommendations from Vatican II and the Pastoral Congress that have not yet been implemented.
Perhaps, then it would be good to celebrate by having a National Pastoral Congress in the knowledge that there is living faith rooted in the local communities. When will the Church in England & Wales be ready to call a second National Pastoral Congress?
NCLA Contact points:
Secretary Mrs. Rita Forster
e-mail address: malcolm-rita @talk21.com
Association representative on the Executive
The article is also available on the NCLA’s website - www.ncla.org.uk