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Lay alternative to closing parishes

American Catholics in many parishes face the future with increasing uncertainty, wondering just how their communities will continue and how much lay involvement the local church will tolerate.

This year a growing number of otherwise viable parishes are threatened with closings or consolidations because of the priest shortage.

While the U.S. bishops have become adept at consolidating and closing parishes, they have been largely inarticulate when it comes to laying out a vision of where the church in the United States is headed and how it is going to get there. Will we retain our distinctive identity as a eucharistic community? Will we remain a community?

Particularly troubling is the suspicion that the shepherds are silent in the face of the crisis not because they lack the imagination or insight to articulate a vision but because they fear the consequences of giving voice to their ideas. They fear the consequences of tapping the imagination and expertise of well-trained priests and laity in their midst.

The fear is understandable. Under the current administration in Rome, such discussions are forbidden. Our current bishops know what has happened to the careers of those who have gone before them and who have dared to dream new dreams.

The tragedy, of course, is that the church could be so much further along the way toward guaranteeing healthy eucharistic communities with solid leadership. The groundwork for such a model of church was laid by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and an earlier generation of bishops who were invited to lay aside their fears and to think boldly about the church of the future. In the end, those bishops, gathered from around the world, urged the laity to take hold of their church.

The model is formed, waiting beneath the surface to burst into full flower. The numbers tell part of the story. A May 2000 survey (NCR, May 19, 2000) found that the average parish had grown 23 percent in the preceding 15 years, while the number of priests serving those parishes had declined 28 percent. During the same period, the number of deacons and religious were both down 33 percent, while the number of parishes with at least one lay minister had climbed from 30 to 68 percent. Currently some 30,000 Catholics are employed at least 20 hours a week in ministries associated largely with parishes. Another 35,500 are enrolled in 314 training programs ranging from diocesan certification classes to graduate programs in seminaries and universities.

Vatican II provided the infrastructure and a daring vision, but implementation has been terribly delayed by design, by obfuscation and by obstruction.

The revolution of an awakening among the laity has been temporarily thwarted by the Vatican’s barricades. The barricades cannot hold forever.

This still leaves that majority of Catholics who do not follow the ebb and flow of internal church politics wondering: Where is the vision? Where is the continuity? Where is the hope?

There is hope, once leaders are willing to concede that U.S. Catholicism is not going to generate the vocations to meet the needs of the current model of church and parish. The hierarchy is not yet accepting the obvious -- that the priests are not going to be there. (Without making a blanket indictment, one cannot ignore the deep concerns expressed by credible observers about the quality of new priests coming on stream. Too many have been characterized privately and in print as posturing, pompous and pretentious priests who excel at alienating parishioners. Will they really serve the future of the church?)

Despite the failure of leadership, there are some good signs.

In some dioceses, pastoral administrators have taken over parishes that now run smoothly. This is not congregationalism. These Catholics are able to maintain their place in the universal church precisely because they have ownership of their community. These lay-ministered parishes have a model -- those other not-so-numerous U.S. parishes where the pastor himself is able to inculcate his flock with the same feeling of ownership and responsibility, where he joyfully presides over a Catholic community that is clearly flourishing.

Some bishops are taking the clergy shortfall in stride by looking to and providing new models. Lay administrators, lay presiders, lay preachers are not stopgaps. They are the future.

The bishops’ credibility in the year and decade ahead rests on this: Can they joyfully endorse and undertake the negotiated transfer of responsibility for the parish to the laity to ensure continuity where it matters most, in the existing parish communities?

Where the new models are established and the people see them working -- allowing for all the things that go wrong anyway in everyday human existence -- all will be well. People will acknowledge a caring and clever bishop who takes seriously his responsibility to see that the people are served and fed and led.

These measures will succeed only if they are seen as permanent, not an interim “fix” awaiting the nonexistent day of some massive upsurge in male, celibate vocations.

The lay model will gain strength when the bishops accept and realize that this is what Vatican II had in mind. It is no longer just a crisis of ecclesiastical politics. It is fast becoming a crisis of conscience.

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2002