A few days ago I was re-watching a DVD about the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as our beloved Holy Father, Pope Benedict. Soon after his election he went to the shrine of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani - Health (or Protector) of the Roman People - to dedicate his Pontificate to the Blessed Virgin. He offered a prayer there (that I think goes back to Pope Leo XIII) which includes asking Our Lady to protect the Church and lead Her to "a safe harbour from the tempests which beset us on every side." It caught my attention because here in my own diocese there was a scheme entitled "Leaving Safe Harbours". It was to do with re-assigning deanery areas as "Pastoral Areas" where individual parishes would work more closely with one another and where the responsibility for parishes was shared among the area priests. It was part of an attempt to deal with fewer clergy. Each area had a Pastoral Area Leader - a Pal. One did hear at the time the question "If you are in a safe harbour, why leave it?" However, it now seems that we no longer have any PALs and the title has reverted to the more traditional "Dean". Whether our Deans will still be our pals is another matter!
Looking on the diocesan website, I can no longer see any references to "Leaving Safe Harbours". A search brings only passing references in old documents. It seems that it has been laid quietly to rest. I'm told that many of the much vaunted ideas of priests and parishes working together as Pastoral Areas are now being described as only ever being "notional".
It's true that we probably need fewer parishes and that we haven't the capacity to populate all the parishes we now have - either with priests or people -but the parish with its own priest is the basic building block of the Church's formal structure. I think there must be a good reason that the parish has developed and stayed for so many centuries. The idea of a priest looking after two parishes or even three of four whilst maintaining them as individual parishes strikes me as a recipe for mediocrity and a multiplying of the same tasks in each parish for the same priest. I wonder if there is not a built-in bias to develop lay leadership in parishes - by which I mean not proper lay involvement but getting lay people up at the altar where the priest usually stands?
I know that this sharing of parishes leads to some dubious liturgical practices such as splitting up the Triduum ceremonies and sharing them out between the various parishes under the one priest's care. The three days are meant to be understood as a unit, one celebration of the one Pascal Mystery. A letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship states:
where there are small parishes with only one priest it is recommended that such parishes should assemble, as far as possible, in a principal church and there participate in the celebrations.
On account of the needs of the faithful, where a pastor has the responsibility for two or more parishes, in which the faithful assemble in large numbers and where the celebrations can be carried out with the requisite care and solemnity, the celebrations of the Easter Triduum may be repeated...
... but not split up, I think.
For the people to be able to identify their priest and for the priest to feel bound to his people in what is meant to be an espousal relationship (as with a bishop and his diocese) means that having more than one parish (or one diocese) is a bit like having an extra-marital affair, which means that one of the "partners" always ends up with less attention than they should be getting!