Thursday, 14 March 2019

Synod 2020. Number 8. “It is surely one of the greatest deceptions of the Devil, to present Christ’s Catholic Church as merely a human institution..."

St Wolfgang battles with the devil.


I will start here with a quote from Bishop Mark Davies' recent Pastoral Letter:
“It is surely one of the greatest deceptions of the Devil, to present Christ’s Catholic Church as merely a human institution..."
Talking with some of my brother priests and with laity, there is a very real fear of the direction in which the Synod process is taking us.  Ah, yes... I know. Nothing is decided now, there is no agenda. we are all listening and from that listening will grow the agenda and the proposals on which all the 500 members of the Synod will vote.

However, the manner in which the Process has so far been presented seems to many biased in a particular direction. The "feel" of the liturgy and prayer, the choices of those chosen to lead and present things for us to think about. All these things give a visceral intuition that there is indeed a preferred direction of travel.

Openly expressed among many of those I have spoken with is the fear (and I use that word carefully) that the direction of travel is towards opening up what have previously been priestly roles to the laity. Lay led parishes, further lay led communion services, lay led funerals and so it goes. All this under the guise of imagining that this is what the Holy Spirit is telling us because there are not enough priests - and why should the priests have all the "power" in the Church anyway. A view, perhaps, that if we are not allowed to ordain women as priests or married men, then we can open the way to alleged power and oversight through the back door. Already in the Synod sessions, we have heard much criticism of anything perceived as "hierarchical", even though the Church self-describes itself as exactly that - hierarchical (very clearly in Lumen Gentium, chapter three).

There is so much wrong with these views that it's hard to know where to begin.

Now the claim will be that there is no evidence for these presumptions. That I am setting up an Aunt Sally in order to now proceed to knock it down. But the Synod process tells us it wants to listen - to ALL our fears and hopes. These are fears being openly spoken about.

To be clear, the Second Vatican Council and post-conciliar teaching speak very clearly about the vocation of the lay faithful. It is this:

Lumen Gentium makes the point about the lay apostolate that’s turned out to be of exceptional importance in light of post-conciliar developments concerning lay ministry. The  apostolate proper to Catholic lay people, it says, doesn’t take place within the structures and institutions of the Church, but out there—out in the secular world. The laity have...

“this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth” (Lumen Gentium 33)
 “There will continue to remain even afterwards distinctions between a lay person and a priest, between a religious and a non religious: there exist different functions and different paths within the Church, and one thing is not the other. To place everything on the same level would not only be false, but also foolish. Nevertheless, the Council has brought about an opening in this sector, that represents a part of a new opening of the Church herself, as willed by her… The Christian liturgy signifies … the communal adoration of God on behalf of all the baptized as they sit at table with the Risen Lord.. It has, in this case, the characteristic of embracing all: everyone, even if they have different functions, are all subjects, because all form part of the body of the Lord… I think that the renewal of theology of the laity must start here, from the renewal of theology itself and of the reality of the liturgy, which is not a privilege of only the clergy; nor something to be enclosed within a glass case of its valuable past, but it is by its essence a liturgy, a universal worship.

(This last taken taken from: J. Ratzinger, L’apertura della chiesa al mondo nel concilio Vaticano II, in: Idem, Il nuovo popolo di Dio. Questioni ecclesiologiche, Editrice Queriniana, 4ª ed., Brescia 1992, 310-325, 313 ss.)

“The lay faithful's position in the Church, then, comes to be fundamentally defined by their newness in Christian life and distinguished by their secular character." (Christifideles Laici 15)
Christifideles Laici expresses at the same time a deep appreciation for the contribution of the lay faithful, both women and men, in the work of the apostolate, in evangelization, sanctification and the Christian animation of temporal affairs, as well as their generous willingness to supply in situations of emergency as was the case, and continues to be, in some parts of Asia. Here, we can also note by way of example, the efforts of numerous lay catechists.


Because of their specific nature, the lay person is engaged in world affairs, a trait that defines their particular vocation in the church and the world. Their main task is - through the testimony of their life - to make Christ visible in the world, to permeate the world with his Spirit and to order it according to his will.


Through their Baptism, the lay faithful participate in the threefold mission of Christ as Priest, Prophet and King. They, together with ordained ministers and religious, and in light of their common dignity conferred by baptism, are jointly responsible for the mission of the Church. The laity have a particular and distinguishing mark, that is their secular character, that the Second Vatican Council had indicated as proper to the lay person: “What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature”.

This, though lengthy, is well worth reading in full.

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The concerns I have heard talked about are based on what has often been seen before - legitimating lay "ministries" by the use of rulings made for mission territories or for particular and exceptional circumstances and never envisioned to become the norm.

Among these we may count:

The normalising of the use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. Only meant for times when the distribution of Holy Communion would become unmanageably lengthy. So when one priest in some mission territory is confronted with hundreds of communicants. Not when there are only 20 people at a midweek Mass.

The same applies to Eucharistic Services in the absence of a priest. These were originally only for Sundays where it would be impossible to get to Mass. "Whenever and wherever Mass cannot be celebrated on Sunday, the first thing to be ascertained is whether the faithful can go to a church in a place nearby to participate there in the eucharistic mystery." (No. 18)

Cf:  Directions for Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest. Cong. for Divine Worship. 1988.

So... not envisaged on a Monday morning on Father's day off or as a means of "empowering" laity to preside.

Here in the Archdiocese of Liverpool, we have also recently moved to training lay faithful to preside at funeral services. On an instinctual level, I react to this with the thought that if we as priests have given up burying the dead, we might as well give up the whole shebang! This practice was already going on unofficially before, with priests delegating Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion to carry out funeral services. I am in the fortunate position of not having very many funerals in the parish where I am now. Not once, in ten years, have I ever been asked by priests from other parishes to help out by taking a funeral in a parish where there were many funerals.

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To my way of thinking, the whole drive towards placing the lay faithful in the roles of the clergy is completely misguided. Active participation in the life of the Church doesn't call for it. It was pointed out on the Synod day we had recently that in 1960 in the Archdiocese, 50% of practising Catholics were involved in some sort of lay organization or sodality. 50% seems a pretty amazing number to be involved in specialized lay ministries - Legion of Mary, SVP, Young Christian Workers etc. All aimed at reaching out to others perhaps outside or on the peripheries of the Church. How great would it be to have more of that today.

Perhaps the desire to give lay faithful priest's jobs is because - mistakenly - the priesthood is seen as power. The real power in the Church, spiritual power, lies in another vocation open to every member of the Church - that of holiness. As priests, we all recognise holiness in people in our parishes and have great respect for them, would take great notice of what they said. Recognising a personal holiness greater than our own. Mother Teresa was not ordained but she had the ear of the great and the powerful, who wouldn't ignore her - she had a very real power.

When we hear talk of holiness, it's easy to dismiss it unrealistic but if we only focus on practical structures and charitable endeavors then we are not staying true to the very nature of the Church. We are back to where we started at the beginning of this post...

“It is surely one of the greatest deceptions of the Devil, to present Christ’s Catholic Church as merely a human institution..."

Well, this post is becoming unmanageably long, so I will draw it to a close but want to continue next time with some of the more positive alternatives we might look to. Some that seem to be working in other dioceses but represent new thinking rather than the now rather jaded projects of recent failure.



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