There is a great diversity of opinion on how to move the church forward. Some may even wonder if organized religion should be promoted at all – such is their disdain or disinterest. We forever hear about aspects of a solution to the dis-function of the church such as married priests, women priests, and the unfortunate general exclusion of women from many forms of authority and influence. One could wonder where to start with reform.
For us believers, the church is to continue the mission of Jesus Christ in our world. To understand the Church’s deepest nature, this position paper uses a three-fold division of responsibility that the church has: to proclaim a message, to celebrate the sacraments and to exercise a ministry of charity. [Pope Benedict XVI, God is Love, n25, a]
Even at the height of the child sex abuse crisis, there was no serious challenge to the value of the educational and social services of its ministry of charity: Catholic schools educate more than 750,000 students; 1.5 million people are treated in Catholic hospitals annually; 75,000 are served by Catholic aged care facilities. There is the great work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and other agencies. But one of the issues is the way our varieties of charitable outreach operate independently of each other and indeed of the parish. This is particularly clear in regard to the school. Schools seem to be a wonderful jewel in the Catholic crown. But there is a disjuncture. As a generalization, I suspect that schools were professionalized while parish priests received scant oversight. There was little accountability and minimal on-going formation for the clergy.
What we do know is that our work of service needs nourishment, lest the Church becomes, as Pope Francis put it, as a sort of NGO stripped of mysticism.
The Church is to carry on the mission of the Good News of Jesus Christ through time and space. To this end, we presume that the Holy Spirit gives adequate charisms and ministries to meet the demands of this mission. There are some commonalities in how Christian communities will function and “order” needs to be had, but how this happens will depend on cultural aspects and the time and place. A Church truly inculturated will, we presume, have differences in the division of its ministries and how it articulates its theology and practices its liturgy. This hasn’t really yet been generally realized. We still largely work on a model of the Greco-Roman norm.
I even wonder if the supposed three-fold given of bishops, priests and deacons needs to be slavishly followed? These ministries haven’t always been exercised in the same way. A reductionist view would say that these have always existed in the way in which they now exist. The understanding of “overseer”, “elder” and “servant” has changed through history. Deacons were not around for centuries in the western church and the role of priests and bishops has changed over the years. Indeed in the scripture, there are instances where the terms “bishop” and “presbyter” are interchanged. These are functional terms - not status terms - that still need to be adapted to the demands of mission.
The focus isn’t simply to preserve what has presumed to have always existed but to feel able to creatively develop ministries that meet the demands of the mission of Jesus Christ in a particular culture at a particular time. Is there really the need to maintain a three-fold ministry and if it is preserved in what form does it take? Why not a four-fold ministry?
As an aside, when I worked in the Philippines 50 years ago, it soon became clear to me that sometimes we were ordaining the wrong people. The parents of the ordained often seemed more suited as residential pastors than their son who may well have been “educated” away from the village life and needs.
This discernment paper makes its recommendations for a joyful, hope-filled & servant community under seven headings:
- That Parish Communities be centres of joy, hope and service for their own members and the wider community. There must be a culture of co-responsibility with the role of women and their current exclusion from ordained ministry seriously considered. Permanent deacons and ordained married men are needed; to strengthen and enhance the intimate bond between schools and their parish communities; to facilitate functional pastoral councils; for laity to be elected and called to share leadership of the parish with the priest.
- That we engage with the broader Australian community around social justice issues; ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and collaboration; the LGBTI community be seen to be served.
- That we celebrate and support the service organisations of the Church such as Catholic health, education and social services
- That we promote an integrated Christian mission of Word, Sacrament and service
- That we have suitable formation for everyone.
- That we rebuild trust within the Church and repair the breakdown between clergy and laity.
- That we have a mission-focused approach to financial accountability; the transparent use of material goods; good stewardship of our underutilized buildings and funds; re-distribution of resources between dioceses.
It is a sort of a catch-all bag but somewhere in there, in doing what the Master asks of us, in being a servant community, our hope will be fulfilled and joy will be ours.
Columban Fr Warren Kinne lives and works on the Gold Coast.
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