Sunday, 21 September 2014

Shock and Awe

I suspect that Blackfen is not the only parish in the country to have recently, or to be about to, experience a change in parish clergy. Such changes can lead to a certain shock among parishioners as new clergy with inclinations and pastoral orientations different than those of their predecessors establish their wishes in a parish. I suspect that it has ever been thus, and this is not a phenomenon that is particularly new to the Church of our own times. I recall my mother, for example, speaking of a Fr McCormack, who served in their Lancashire mill town parish in the early 1940's, as being a priest who inspired people and got things going (perhaps most remarkably two YCW sections, in which my mother and at least one of her sisters played a significant role). When he moved to other pastoral duties, I think I can reasonably surmise that a certain amount of disappointment was felt by some at least in the parish.

Part of the cause of such shock may be failings in charity on the part of arriving clergy - but remember, the clergy are as human as the rest of us, and we might well find similar failings among ourselves. But in our own times, I think there may be a more structural aspect, too. At the time that my own diocese learnt of the appointment of a new bishop, I commented on what I might hope for in the new appointment in a post entitled Hopes for a new bishop:
The experience of living in the diocese is that there are some parishes where I am happy to attend Mass and some parishes where I am not happy to attend Mass ... and most parishes that sit somewhere in between, not scaring me away but not exerting a positive attraction either. This is usually down to the parish priest because, for all the talk about lay ministry, it is still the parish priest who drives what happens in a parish. I am atypical in that, not having lived in the diocese when I was young, I do not enjoy a strong affiliation to one parish rather than another. So I look to the new bishop to achieve a greater unity among the priests of the diocese, so that lay folk like myself can live a greater unity of ecclesial experience from one parish to another. A unity in the celebration of the Liturgy and catechetical life seem essential to me in this regard.
A diversity in charisms and gifts among clergy is to be expected; but that does not militate against an underlying unity in the celebration of the Liturgy and in the catechetical life of a diocese. Indeed, the articulation of that diversity might well be linked to the charisms of religious serving in a parish or to the charisms of ecclesial movements with a presence in a parish, all of which can be lived within an underlying unity of diocesan life.
It does also have to be recognised that, at a human level, a new parish priest who wishes to make changes will be able to establish those changes more easily if he moves to implement them as soon as possible after his arrival.
All of which is leading me to suggest that the shock being experienced by some in Blackfen may have arisen most fundamentally from a situation of a lack of unity in the Liturgical and catechetical life of dioceses in general, and rather less from questions relating directly to the celebration of the Extraordinary Form. [The celebration of the principle Mass on Sundays and Days of Obligation in the Extraordinary Form could arguably itself have been out of sympathy with Pope Benedict's observation in his letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum that it would remain the Missal of Pope Paul VI, celebrated with a reverence and obedience to rubrics, that would unite parish communities.] As such, it is a shock alike to that which may be experienced in other parishes. It's only unusual dimension is that it has attracted national and international attention.
And now for the awe. Mgr Marcus Stock has been appointed as the new bishop of Leeds. A blog post at the Tablet describes him as being "among the most able clergy of his generation" and "quietly orthodox". I think he is unlikely to do something one of his predecessors, the then Bishop Heenan did. After an early round of clergy moves, the clergy of Leeds in Bishop Heenan's time reportedly greeted each other with the words "where are you?" rather than "how are you?" The attention that Mgr Stock is indicating towards the priests of the diocese matches both Pope Francis' thoughts and, indirectly, my wishes for my own new bishop referred to above. I have wondered what I would feel is an appropriate state of mind of a newly appointed bishop. I would suggest "awe", not just at the human level in reacting to the scale of the task to be undertaken, but at the nature of the office (in the Balthasarian sense) that is about to be assumed. There is a rightful awe in the power of the priest to celebrate Mass and to forgive sins in the person of Christ. But the bishop is a successor of the Apostles, the person whose presence in the particular geographical location represents the corner stone on which all other ecclesial stones in that geographical location are aligned in order to have "communion" with the universal Church and the Successor of Peter (and, indeed, since the announcement of his appointment, Mgr Stock has expressed his fidelity to the Successor of Peter).
Many years ago now, Mgr Mario Oliveri expressed this in a talk that I heard in Oxford, giving an account of the teaching of Vatican II's decree on the Pastoral office of Bishops in this regard:
The essential characteristics of a Diocese or of a particular Church are ...:
(a) a community of the faithful;
(b) The presence in them of a Bishop as Shepherd to whom the pastoral care is entrusted and who is assisted by a Presbyterate (Sacred Ministries);
(c) the adherence of the faithful to the Bishop;
(d) the unity of the faithful in the Holy Spirit realised by the Bishop through the Gospel and the Eucharist (faith and sacraments).
Mgr Oliveri identified a further characteristic as being essential so that in the local Church the universal Church of Christ might be present and active, a characteristic which impinges particularly on the office of the Bishop:
It is necessary that the individual Church should be in communion with all the other (local) Churches and their respective Pastors and particularly with that Church which has the Successor of Peter as its Pastor and which alone can definitively guarantee the authenticity of Faith and fidelity to Christ.
This office of the Bishop is something that rightly fills with awe.

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