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Dr Philippa Martyr: Neither Fr Relaxo nor Fr Apocalypto

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Boutique parishes serve a Church that no longer exists. They spread the Church’s resources too thinly, and Catholics and clergy start to live in little silos and never meet or worship with each other.

If you start thinking about smaller dioceses in Australia, you start thinking about other things. That’s why I’ve been watching diocesan reform in the US for a while now.

The places that stand out for me are Cincinnati and Chicago, where they’re reducing numbers of parishes quite radically. However, this model could also work in our urban Church in Australia.

The idea is to create larger zones by consolidating several parishes – but just keeping one church open as the Mass centre for that zone. This would eliminate what we might call ‘boutique parishes’ – the little ones with tiny congregations and not much else.

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Don’t get me wrong – I love boutique parishes. I’ve attended Mass at many of them. There are ten operational Catholic parish churches within a five kilometre radius of where I live.

They all have quite small congregations, except for the biggest church in the area. And they’re all liturgically different (and that’s putting it mildly).

Their pastors run the gamut from Fr Relaxo, who is so liberal that he practically has his own rite of Mass, to Fr Apocalypto, who has been preaching on the coming chastisement at every homily since 2014. Both have loyal followings.

Boutique parishes serve a Church that no longer exists. They spread the Church’s resources too thinly, and Catholics and clergy start to live in little silos and never meet or worship with each other.

They may or may not live together. I’m a big fan of priests living a common life … but I’m not a priest …”

Parish priests who stay too long in one place can go a bit feudal and ‘unique’. So can some lay Catholics.

In the US, the plan is to have one large Mass centre for each zone. This will bring Mass-going Catholics out of the boutique parishes into one church where they’d have to meet each other and worship with each other.

I’m sure you can hear the weeping and gnashing of dentures from here. And it’s true – most people absolutely hate change at the parish level, and especially change on this scale.

We’re not talking mega-parishes. We’re talking about taking four churches with Sunday congregations of around 200, closing three of them, and bringing those 800 people to the Sunday Masses at one church instead.

With three Masses on Sunday, that’s only 267 people per Mass – a nice solid congregation. You could offer a couple more Sunday Masses if you were worried about being swamped.

Who will say all these Masses? The team of clergy that serves that Mass centre. Closing boutique parishes frees up priests who can then serve across a zone.

They’d be rostered for Confession and Mass at the Mass centre, and cover each other on holidays and sick leave. They’ll share out the other tasks like baptisms, weddings, funerals, and hospital and aged care chaplaincy.

They may or may not live together. I’m a big fan of priests living a common life, but that’s because I’m not a priest.

I am, however, someone who knows that living with other fallible people is the easiest way to become less selfish and possibly more holy.

We have a problem with ‘bachelor priests’ – selfish, fussy, and closed-off – which will not be solved by marriage. But it might be mitigated by having to share accommodation with their brother priests.

I am, however, someone who knows that living with other fallible people is the easiest way to become less selfish …”

Many of them won’t want to live together because they don’t know or like each other very much. Some of them know each other too well (at least by reputation) and wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing bathrooms.

It’s sad to think of diocesan priests not getting on with each other. It’s an indictment of any diocese and shows neglect of this important dimension of priesthood.

In-fighting and playing favourites in the chancery office doesn’t help. Sending out-of-favour priests to difficult postings or remote areas also doesn’t help.

Then there are the priests living double lives, whether gay or straight. No one living this kind of life willingly gives it up, and they won’t risk getting caught out by living in community.

Living in community will expose the lazy – but also the alcoholics and porn addicts, who might then get the help they need. To me, these are all arguments in favour of diocesan priests living in common – but again, I’m not a priest.

There is a lot wrong with the Church in Australia. (If there wasn’t, I would be reduced to sharing cupcake recipes in this column).

This means that you can’t reform parish structures properly without also working to restore trust between priests, and between priests and bishops. This is a great opportunity for healing, if local bishops are prepared to be brave.

Related:

Dr Philippa Martyr: A great way to finish the Church

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