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Does ownership of Catholic parish life exist?

Not wanted and unhappy in his Catholic parish, Tom Perfect finds welcome, community and parish ownership in the Uniting Church…

In this my second analysis of the Catholic Church and modernity (see issue 82 – on transmitting faith to teenagers), I want to focus on the community surrounding Sunday worship and ongoing daily outreach services within parishes.

The example of my recent experience at parish level may illustrate this. In the first two years at my new parish (ie my geographic parish, where I moved to live) my repeated requests to be a special minister of the eucharist and a reader were ignored. Only after I had forced the issue by approaching the new parish priest, rather than the pastoral associates, was I contacted about a time. No one in the “team” introduced me to anyone else in the “team” for my first or any subsequent rostered Sundays. The congregation sat scattered around a vast church, barely speaking responses, and not singing to a motley choir and an unpaid organist. (Yes, our parish can afford it.) As a community it was, and still is, I would think, dying. No new members are welcomed, or encouraged to participate. There is no accessible and promoted and meaningful and attended morning tea after mass.

My visits to other Catholic churches in my area saw a succession of Sunday liturgies in which the priests’ introductions, homilies and concluding remarks apologised for and tried to smooth over the latest pronouncement from the Vatican or from our Australian hierarchy. We seemed to never to move beyond this theme.

I am now a happy member of a Uniting Church parish. I was welcomed at the door on my first visit and handed an order of service. The church is small and tiered, or raked upwards towards the back, so that all can see. After the service everyone stayed for the morning tea in the church foyer. Several people introduced themselves to me including the minister, and spoke for some time to me. I have since discovered that everyone in this congregation, around 60-70 people, knows each other. My name is now said when I am offered communion. They have frequent congregation lunches to which members bring a plate.  Everyone says the responses during the service.  Everyone sings.  There is a small occasional choir and a paid organist. Everyone takes it in turn to welcome people at the door, make the morning tea, perform the readings including the gospel, assist with communion, and, best of all, we get a variety of excellent preachers as well as the minister. Members take it in turn to host the Sunday lunch; occasional speakers are booked for 30 minute talks after the post service morning tea, and mainly speak on social justice work in the local community.

The most obvious thing about this community of worshippers is the sense of ownership of their church: its minister, buildings, liturgy, community, members, education program, outreach services. It is difficult to discern a key figure in the running of the liturgy, such as a priest, as everyone performs equally important functions. When our minister was sick recently, this congregation did not miss a beat. Notices printed in the order of service or announced mention who is sick, or away for a while because of travel or work, and everyone knows who is being spoken about. The preaching is always prepared and read like an essay or paper. They explore the scripture like I have never experienced before.

I often reflect on the kind of church the apostle Paul visited and formed and wrote to. On Christmas day a married couple holding their two small children, did some of the readings. There is always a woman near the altar, and a young woman has been a minister of the communion. There are still very few teenagers, even here, but there are young families with children, who play with toys in the back corner of the church, and there are people in their 20’s and 30’s. I spoke to a middle aged man and his male partner at one of the morning teas, as well as some visiting female Uniting Church ministers.

In this, my new parish, I am never insulted by an unprepared or simplistic homily. I don’t have to listen to anti-homosexual views, or stereotyped views on women, marriage, the family, divorce, sexuality.

It seems to me that structurally, the Catholic parish is badly in need of reform, yet it seems to be set in concrete. It is a structure that does not demand or allow ownership of parish operations, by its members. The priest will be there whether parishioners support him or not. In most senses, it is more his church than their’s. It is a church for naïve believers, for uneducated and/or submissive/passive ethnic groups, and remaining older parishioners. For the rest of us, who are fortunately/unfortunately educated, there is no place. There seems to be a tendency for the church to be fostering a type of religious eunuch or fascist; that rigidly conservative, unintellectual, only moderately educated, submissive, loyal, unquestioning young man, in the hope that he will become a priest (this is my experience gained from 32 years teaching Religious Education in a Catholic boys secondary school). One of my lasting memories of every parish I have been in, including the one where I was Convenor of the Renew program, is of good people “helping Father out”. At various points over the past 30 years we have been put in our place and told that the priest is always the centre of parish life.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur writes about a first and second naivety. The first naivety is the faith one gets as a child, and which used to last throughout a person’s life, if that person was living before the Reformation and certainly before the Enlightenment. For us living in this post-modern world, we need the second naivety of interpretation, loss of faith, and then appropriation of a more mature religious faith. (There wouldn’t be a Catholic child alive in the western world today who has not heard of a paedophile priest or religious. Try being naïve in this context).

The church seems to be struggling with the changes in the kind of demands made by people today; and it doesn’t seem to be responding to these changes.

Tom Perfect is a Religious Education teacher in a Catholic secondary school in Melbourne.  He has a special interest in religion and modernity.


 
 
 
 
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