The Personalist Project

Accessed on November 28, 2021 - 1:07:29

Consider a concrete case of parish affairs

Katie van Schaijik, Jun 24, 2020

To get a better idea of how a parish lay association might work in practice, let's think concretely. Consider a common situation: Fewer priests means one of the regular masses at a given parish has to be dropped. How does "which" get decided? 

I've seen it done two ways. 

In our parish, the new pastor simply made the decision and announced it. Parishioners were not consulted in advance, nor were we invited to offer feedback about it afterwards. There was a sort of impression in the air that to object would be unreasonable and unfair. You can't expect fewer priests to keep up the old schedule, and no matter what they decided some people were going to be unhappy about it, so the only thing to do is to accept it patiently and pray for more vocations. Give the overworked, harried priests a break.

Neither, as far as I can tell, was there any coordination with other local parishes. As a result, at least a half dozen Catholic churches within easy driving distance of our home have a daily mass at 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. None has one in the evening. So, area Catholics whose schedules won't allow them to get to morning mass are out of luck.

Another pastor I know took a different approach. He made an announcement to his congregation that they were going to have to drop one of the Sunday masses, and asked for their input about which. He took the time and trouble to draw up and distribute a survey on the question. He was a bit taken aback by how little response he got, but he took what came into prayerful consideration and then made the best decision he could. 

What he got was a public demonstration, instigated by a nun in residence, who had said nothing to him about the issue in advance. She deemed his decision to drop one of the Spanish masses an outrage against the immigrant minority. She organized a protest outside the church, complete with signs and slogans decrying the injustice and demanding that the mass be restored to the schedule.

The pastor felt hurt and alienated. He had gone the extra mile in trying to include everyone in the decision-making process, and this was the thanks he got. Who could blame him if he were to draw the lesson that it's pointless to spend time and energy consulting the laity? 

A man who worked for my in-laws' business for decades has been volunteering for the Church in his retirement. He told us on a recent visit over coffee that it takes some getting used to. "Look, your father was always open to ideas, but we all understood that he was the boss. He made a decision, and boom, it got done. Here the pastor has to listen to a long story from this one, then long story on the other side of the issue from that one, then three or four other people have to chime in with tangents or problems or perspectives, and it goes on and on. It takes forever to get anything done, because he can't just make a decision." He wasn't blaming the priest. He understood that there are important human and religious values at stake. A good pastor doesn't want to act like a boss. He genuinely wants to listen and be receptive to his flock. But still. It's maddeningly impractical.

Now imagine there's a lay association of the faithful in the parish. It’s got a governing structure, elected leaders, a vehicle of communication, a budget, regular meetings with minutes and Roberts Rules, etc. How would a situation like this play out? Here’s how:

Seeing that the priests of the parish are overburdened, the Pastor judges that the mass schedule will have to be reduced. He approaches the elected head of the lay association. “We’re going to have cut out one of the Sunday masses. Can you help me decide which one?” “Sure, Father. Give me to the end of the month, and I’ll get back to you with the consensus.” 

He or she then raises the issue at the next regular business meeting. Someone moves to appoint a committee to host a discussion, gather views, and conduct a vote. That gets approved and accomplished. A notice about it is posted at the association website. Opinions are solicited and freely aired. There’s a lively back and forth online. In due course, a “group conscience” vote is taken, and the head of the association brings its results to the Pastor. Not everyone is thrilled with the outcome of course, but they accept it willingly because they know everyone had a chance to weigh in, and each one’s vote counted as much as anyone else’s. Meanwhile, the pastor didn’t have to expend an ounce energy on the issue. No one complains to him about the outcome, because everyone understands he wasn’t responsible for it. Rather, he accepted the duly-established consensus of the people.

Picture something similar over things like when to have the church open, whether to have perpetual adoration, what the terms are for use of the parish hall, whether to have an atrium, etc.

Let the laity take over everything that falls within the competence of the laity. Let the priests concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the Word. Everyone will be so much happier.