Within England and Wales, the actual or prospective closure of parishes, the relegation of churches and the diminishing number of priests in ministry now form the subject of regular discussion. Not infrequently, the reason cited is the desire (or need) to "release priests to be priests". This has, in turn, prompted speculation regarding the roles which may be delegated to the laity. Parish administration, pastoral guidance, marriage formation, and lay-led funeral services are, it appears, contenders. Doubtless, this discussion has emboldened some diocesan priests to advocate more progressive ideas; including a "revisioning" of the formation for, and nature of, priesthood. Of the diminution in candidates for priestly formation, there can be no doubt. Similarly, the reduction in the numbers of active clergy cannot be gainsaid.
To listen to some commentators, however, one might be forgiven for believing that the Church is reaching breaking point, under the weight of the demands of the laity (i.e. the catholic faithful). This impression bears no relationship to the rapid and sustained reduction in those who identify as Catholic, consider themselves as active participants in the faith, or are regular attendees of parish liturgies.
In many (though not all) situations, the closure of parishes is not in direct response to the reduction in priests alone. Rather, such closures (including parish amalgamations) have arisen because the maintenance of these parish structures are quite simply no longer viable. The non-viability of these arrangements is principally caused by a lack of demand for them. As Smith or Keynes may have observed: supply and demand! But submission to the principles of supply and demand can bring its own perils.
The famed children's author Beatrix Potter provided a number of cautionary fictional tales; each intended to alert her readers to certain follies in the hope that the counsel of her characters would induce prudence and wisdom in their own lives. In one such tale, the hapless partners Ginger & Pickles demonstrate the dangers of allowing demand for their retail wares to eclipse the need for their consumers to purchase them other than by means of limitless credit. The result: penury. A more life-threatening saga is to be found in the story of Jemima Puddle-Duck; the dim witted fowl who accepted an invitation to dine with a fox. What has this to do with parish structures, church closures and the like?
At the risk of stating the obvious: the answer is to be found in scripture. When Christ instituted the Eucharist, he created the sacerdotal priesthood. It may be thought that this was, in of itself, sufficient reason to underscore the importance of both. None of the gospel narratives provide evidence for the suggestion that He considered one or other, or both, dispensable. In the centuries which have ensued, the Church has not wavered in its commitment to the discharge of this solemn mandate. This commitment is not founded upon theories of supply and demand. To the contrary, it is the mission and obligation of the Church to play its role in the salvific economy. Such a mission is not reducible to economic stratagems or the corporate culture of the boardroom. Instead, it demands authenticity and prudence. Authenticity requires a level of self-awareness. In this respect, it was not for nothing that Antonio Rosmini considered the insufficient education of the clergy to be one of the 'wounds of the Church'. He observed:
"Only great men can form great men. This is another merit of education offered to priests in earlier ages..."
Whilst critical of the formators of his day, Rosmini had his eye not merely upon the seminary but the parishes and church communities from which priests are drawn.
For most priests and religious, their faith journey will have been fuelled or supported by the example of others. Of course, one would hope there has been an inner voice to which the candidate has responded. The call of each is as intimate as it is unique. However, the cultivation of the response, and the discernment of the vocation, is borne of authentic witness. In this respect, the most effective witness is one who is not only consistent, but credible. Credible witness itself calls for a clarity of understanding. Understanding may be considered the foundation of prudence. Unless clergy (including those who have been consecrated with the fullness of priesthood) are prepared to cultivate both, the salvific purpose of the Church cannot be fulfilled. As the saying goes: 'grace builds upon nature'. It is in the nature of the Church and its clergy to serve a countercultural purpose. They lay before the World the culture of life. They does so in the knowledge that in our present times, both the message and the goods in which they deal are - whilst vital and irreplaceable- grossly out of fashion. The response of the Church cannot be to assume a mentality familiar to corporate enterprise or, to alter its character in the hope of securing a greater footfall or, perhaps more accurately, a 5 star rating on Tripadvisor.
Those formulating decisions on these issues might benefit from a re-reading of both Jemima Puddle-Duck and Ginger & Pickles. The former attests to the need for caution and prudence in the invitations we accept and the company we keep. The latter serves as a vivid reminder that those who succumb to demand alone, too easily forget the value of their own assets and the very purpose of their enterprise. Beatrix Potter drew upon the animal kingdom to communicate the irreplaceable quality of wisdom in the fight for survival. She was not the first to do so. Scripture too has made use of such literary devices (e.g. "cunning as serpents and as gentle as doves"). Both convey an important lesson: folly endangers life.
Our Lady, seat of wisdom: pray for us.