Monday, 13 March 2017
In conversation recently I was privy to some unsettling information about how badly we laity can be treated for simply being ‘Catholic’. I cannot name the Diocese in which these events took place; the parish or any individual persons, since that would bring persons into disrepute and would lack in charity. ‘X’ is allowing me to share the events only because s/he feels clergy can learn from them.
The information concerns a catechist (‘X’) who has been working in that capacity for 16 years under two successive parish priests. It is true that ‘X’ was unconventional by today’s standards: s/he would instruct the children that while it was legitimate to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion in the hand, the norm was still to show God great reverence by receiving Him on the tongue, preferably kneeling, asking the children if they would like to give this reverence to God. No child had refused in the previous ten years; all were happy to do so and many continued on for some years (except when at Mass in School –and why that was the case can only be a matter of speculation). It is also true that the previous pastor had refused permission to the school to use the sanctuary as a stage for an interpretative dance on First Holy Communion day, and since ‘X’ had supported this, it may have created a negative image of ‘X’ that played into these events.
When a new pastor was appointed ‘X’ asked to meet with him to determine how he wanted the First Holy Communion programme to run. The pastor, having been shown a copy of the materials used by ‘X’, and informed that the school provided the bulk of the instruction in at least weekly sessions (while the parish did only a monthly session), and that on the day of First Holy Communions the school would provide the music, the readers and offertory bearers (with the parish supplying only the servers and the Communion breakfast), ‘X’ was told to go on as before.
As such ‘X’ followed the established pattern of putting a note in the Bulletin calling a meeting for the parents of interested children. On the Sunday this was published the new pastor announced at the Notices at Mass that the meeting was cancelled so that the school could be more involved, but did not approach ‘X’ before or after Mass; and when approached by ‘X’ to ask what was going on simply said, “I’ll get back to you”. Then, on a Sunday in January, the children already in preparation by the school –a fact unknown to ‘X’– were presented to the parish at Sunday Mass. Not wanting to cause public upset ‘X’ wrote privately to the pastor asking why s/he had been cut out of the loop (so to speak); saying s/he felt the way things had been done was furtive; that it lacked transparency, and was damaging to his/her good name, s/he having been visibly sidelined by the public cancelling of the meeting. S/he also noted that it was hard to know how the school could be more involved, given the extent of their involvement (as noted above). A three-line reply was received from the pastor saying thank you for your letter and “your concerns have been noted”, but no explanation was offered. ‘X’ replied by noting that his/her concerns had not been addressed, but this resulted the following Sunday in an announcement (at the Notices during Mass) that there was to be an open parish meeting with the Bishop the following Sunday.
At that meeting one of the parishioners said the pastor had been receiving hassle (though how they would know about the existence of private correspondence is anyone’s guess); the Bishop stated that the parish was to support its new pastor and that more people need to be involved now, while the pastor himself said the meeting had come about because he “had told ‘X’ (actually naming the catechist) to go on as before, then thought that was not for the best”. This left ‘X’ feeling publicly disparaged, so s/he made the decision to write to the local Episcopal Vicar, the Vicar General and the Bishop to say how hurt and disturbed s/he was by the sequence of events and the way the meeting had been handled, since it publicly named him/her and indeed left him/her all-but labelled a problem.
At any rate, replies to ‘X’s letter from the Bishop and the EV were once again three-line replies stating nothing more than “we acknowledge receipt of your letter” -not even that “the concerns had been noted”. At no stage was an attempt made by any of the clergy to dialogue on the issues or to seek reconciliation, though these are quite the ‘buzz words’ at the moment. In that workplace bullying might be described as “a blame culture, and the tolerating of aggressive behaviour”; where bullying can be verbal and nonverbal, creating feelings of humiliation and defencelessness with an undermining of the individual’s dignity, it might be said that ‘X’ experienced workplace bullying in that s/he was sidelined publicly from the pulpit; had his/her concerns left unexplained and was publicly named at an open meeting in the context of “someone causing hassle”.
There is perhaps an excuse for the Bishop in that he may have been given erroneous information, for ‘X’ had been Parish Bookkeeper and Vulnerable Persons Link Person as well as Catechist, and it might have seemed that there was a monopolising of lay roles here, yet the reality is that several parishioners there generously gave of their time and in multiple roles –indeed a quarter of those attending Mass there have an active role in the parish. I have seen the list displayed in the parish hall of all parishioners who undertake tasks (which range from Fundraising via coffee mornings and raffles through Piety Shop Manager, Gardening and Cleaning Teams to more formal roles of Annual Financial Returns Officer, Buildings Manager, Gift Aid Officer and Housebound Visitors) so there was no monopolising of roles by ‘X’. That said, while the Bishop may not have been aware of the extent of lay involvement in the said parish, the same cannot be said for the Pastor who either failed to determine the extent of lay involvement in his new parish, or simply failed to disclose it to the Bishop before seeking a meeting with him and the parish. Perhaps the excuse we might make for the pastor is that very early in his time in the parish he gave his ear to those who appeared professional and integrated, and was swayed by them.
Conceivably, the cause of all this may simply be that ‘X’ was excluded in order to eliminate the Reception of Holy Communion on the tongue and to include so-called ‘liturgical dance’ to the First Communion Mass, or simply that the group from 25 years ago sought ways to return to prominence by getting the new pastor’s ear. Interestingly, within a month of arriving the new pastor asked if the collections at the Old Rite Mass (requested by a group of parishioners on the publication of Summorum Pontificum) were being sent to the LMS or kept for the parish; ‘X’ pointed out that they had always gone to the parish as it was a parish Mass, not an LMS Mass –but one wonders why the new pastor would have thought otherwise in that this was a Mass asked for by a parish group and attended mainly by parishioners (about 6 or 8 people attended from outside the area).
What this scenario sadly shows us is that Catholic laity cannot expect to receive support from their local Catholic pastor or the local Catholic Bishop in the promotion of ‘the Faith we have received’. Perhaps it is not out of place to say that one may not even expect to receive the support of Rome, since we have seen a lot of changes in the last fifty years.
Sadly, ‘X’ has now disengaged from his/her parish. My purpose in writing this Post is, fundamentally, to encourage clergy to consider not making any changes to their new parish in the first year of an appointment, and to take that time to get to know the characters of the parish. Had the new pastor done so he may have become aware of the actual extent of lay participation in the parish; avoided falling into furtive behaviours and into naming individuals at a public meeting of the parish in the context of being ‘hassled’. Clergy might also like to consider that those who carry tales and complaints to them (no matter what their profession: teacher, medic, lawyer) are often the ones to be avoided -professionals are not immune to the human frailties that affect us all, and can still be inclined to bring others down so as to achieve their own ends or a position of higher prominence. Bishops might like to reflect on the fact that handing over too much responsibility to laity does not empower but disempowers the many at the hands of the few. What is needed is the promotion of priestly vocations, not a clericalising of those who dominate among the laity. What inordinate ‘lay ministry’ can do is set up disempowerment and division amongst the laity, while creating a clergy who fail to become Fathers to the parish and thereby unable to care for the common good, having lost control of the parish to those laity who wrangle best.