It seems that no matter where one looks in the UK and Ireland, the talk is of decline in numbers: mass attendances etc, etc. This has prompted much needed reconsideration of existing structures and the more efficient use of ecclesial resources. Proposals around parish restructuring, amalgamation of parishes, cluster arrangements (with parishes run by a number of priests in solidum) are naturally on the agenda. The response to the idea of change has, almost without exception, been one of hostility. Instances of parish priests, who for too long have been allowed to remain in office treating parishes as a kingdom of their own, are by no means isolated. Similarly, the response of the laity to the mere mention of "change" arouses the most extreme of responses; verging on the sectarian. Lobby groups, petitions, white-hot correspondence with the Diocesan Bishop, form the arsenal of choice for those who are determined to have their own way. Not infrequently, the protagonists are not regular attendees of the parish church, or, insofar as they attend are what are some-times referred to as 'four-wheel Christians' (i.e. attending church for baptisms, marriages and funerals only). Additionally, there have been instances in which the majority of signatories to protest petitions in fact have no connection with the Church or the local parish community. Even allowing for the fact that we live in an age in which- seemingly -many consider themselves to possess the information and expertise to pronounce judgment on any and all matters- this is a disturbing trend.
As an ecclesial community, the Church is invested with a hierarchy. Unlike that of other denominations, the structure of the Roman Catholic Church rests upon Divine mandate and institution. Christ did not say to Peter: "On this rock I will build my Church, provided you get sufficient support by way of majority vote." In contrast to other faith communities, the hierarchy of the Church is not man-made. Nor can it be displaced on account of being considered passé, contrary to contemporary culture, or, simply inconvenient. On the contrary, without the existing hierarchy of the Church, the Church would, quite simply cease to be ‘Church’. Lest this be considered a plea of convenience to counter so called social inclusion, gender inclusivity, or, similar perceptions, it is important to recall a number of fundamental propositions. First, it is the doctrinal statements of the Church which affirm its character and mission. Second, the principal of apostolic succession not only corroborates the authenticity of the Church’s teaching authority, but, also affirms the identity of its founder. Third, the exercise of authority within the Church is intended to be one of service; not dominion. It is for this reason that the conciliar documents, which find expression by way of legal norm in the Code of Canon Law, speak of "office". The term office, of course, derives from officium (i.e. duty and responsibility not entitlement). Fourth, the appointment to office involves the Church entrusting the people of God to the office-holder (e.g. the Diocesan Bishop). The notion of trust is familiar enough. However, to be entrusted with something presupposes a predetermined and identified objective or purpose. Ultimately, the purpose of those to whom the care of the people of God is entrusted, is to prompt within them a desire for a personal relationship with Christ the Redeemer. Contrary, to certain prevailing opinions, it is not to relieve poverty per se, or simply the pursuit of "worthy causes" in the manner of a social worker. Nor is it simply to participate in the provision of heir earthly needs. These forms of apostolate are worthy and indeed, in some parts of the world, constitute pressing social needs. Yet, no matter how urgent these needs may be, the task of every Christian is to bear witness to Christ in order that others might come to know and love Him. For all priests (including those raised to the episcopate) this task requires – first and last- a focus upon the spiritual well-being of those entrusted to them. St John Eudes, observed:
“The end and purpose of this heavenly office is to form Christ in the hearts of the faithful that He may reign there; to dispel the darkness of hell and illumine the light of heaven in men's souls; to destroy sin and open the floodgates of grace; to destroy the tyranny of Satan on earth and re-establish the Kingdom of God”
As St John Paul II was wont to observe, the obligation of the priest is to preach the Gospel "in and out of season". The Gospel is intended to arouse us from our stupor, and awaken within us our true vocation as members of the people of God. With the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of our mortality. Whether expressed in the formula of “Remember man you are dust etc” or “Repent and believe the Gospel” we are reminded of not only our mortal destiny, but the great gift which has been bestowed upon, and entrusted to, us: the promises of Christ himself.
The Book of Numbers encapsulates the way of holiness (halakhah). The migration of a people entrusted with receipt of the law as gift from God (berit), liberated from oppression and, journeying to possession of the promised land. In this Lenten season we must not lose sight of the fact that we are similarly entrusted. If within our parishes, dioceses and elsewhere, our claim to be the populo Dei is to be authentic, we are obliged to acknowledge the authority of those who act in persona Christi. This requirement, like the conferral of the gift of redemption to each one of us, is not dependent upon the qualities, attributes, power, charism, or, eloquence of the individual.