February 13 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


We need to talk about our young people and the future of parishes

This month, I had intended to write again about Pope Francis and the way in which he is reaching out to people, from the six million who gathered to greet him in the Philippines to the little girl, a rescued street child, who, reading a welcome to him, was overcome by emotion and ran to him for comfort.

Observers, religious and non-believers alike puzzle over his unique ability to reach out to people, to touch them, to motivate them by reminding them of the things that really matter. He cannot be labelled either liberal or conservative in the religious sense, thus confounding those who would attempt to analyse his abilities. A recent biography The Great Reformer written by Austen Ivereigh gives details of his background in religious life which explain, in part at least, the impact he has made, less than two years into his Papacy. As I said, I had planned to write about this when the first indication of possible church closures arrived in St Andrews and Edinburgh Archdiocesecame to light. These two subjects are connected, in my mind at least, by the sentence ‘…For Cardinal Bergoglio, radical reform was ‘a going back in order to go forward.”’

As Cardinal Bergoglio, Pope Francis went back to the teachings of the founder of the Jesuits in the 16th Century, St Ignatius Loyola. St Ignatius sent students for the priesthood to work in hospitals, teach children catechism, to serve at tables, was clothes, embark on journeys with very little money, so that they had to rely on the kindness of others… mundane and humbling tasks. Cardinal Bergoglio set his seminarians such tasks. He also forbade smoking among the students at the Jesuit seminary in Buenos Aires on the grounds that working men in that particular area could not afford to smoke, so those who were pledged to serve others should not have that luxury.

He honoured that past and, in that, reminds us today that we must do so too in order to face our problems and go safely into the future with our Catholic legacy intact. Of course we are all aware that we have a serious and long-standing shortage of priests. A very serious problem. A long time ago, when I was a very young teacher, there was a serious shortage of teachers. At that time, in my youthful enthusiasm, I was astonished to see that while the shortage brought out the best in some, it also brought out the worst in others. The young have a very clear idea of right and wrong…


And our Catholic legacy? It is one constructed painstakingly against barriers of adversity. For example, in Penal times, we had only 12 priests in Scotland, most of them Jesuits. The early seminaries at Loch Morar and Scalan had to be founded in secrecy and concealed. Later, help came to Scotland in the form of priests from Ireland, French émigré priests in flight from the French Revolution, and in more recent years again from Ireland, when that country had 12 seminaries. An integral and very important part of our legacy are our parishes, our churches, many of them built by people who worked hard for shamefully low pay, had large families to support, who had no more than the strength of their Faith with which to meet the challenge. And even now, in this shallow, consumer-driven age, these parishes are, in a manner of speaking, our shelter from the storm.

Apart from being the focus, the centre of our spiritual lives, they are a means of honouring those who have gone before us, of keeping a fast-disappearing sense of community, a meeting place. Avoiding closure, then, is not mere sentimentality.

At present, we would seem to be on the threshold of the consultation process in St Andrews and Edinburgh, this is to take place initially with the Deans of our particular diocese. A full and thoughtful consultation process lies ahead. I hope that this will include information from local councils on imminent building programmes in certain areas. A certain small parish comes to mind, where a new Catholic school is about to be built in addition to an extensive housing estate.

In another area, extensive new housing development has been given planning permission, in the vicinity of a Catholic church. And in reflecting on possible closures and mergers of parishes, three particular parishes come to mind. One, in Perthshire, has a very small congregation, swelled in summer by visitors. It has lasted as a parish for upwards of half a century with one Mass a week, but with a church lovingly cared for. Another, nearer home, and which I have mentioned once before, has made a bid to stay open by being given one Mass a week, the parishioners offering to pay for and undertake the heating, repair and maintenance of the church by return. At present it remains closed.

I am reminded, too, of a parish I visited nearly a decade ago, which I have mentioned before. There the people lost their priest very suddenly. The people themselves kept the parish running with one weekly Mass. They were without a priest upwards of two years.


The history of Catholicism in Scotland shows that there have been shortages of priests in the past. Today, parts of Scotland have availed themselves of help from Polish priests and more recently from Indian and African clergy. Today, we have a structure of lay participation that can place much of the running of a parish in the hands of committees of parishioners. Where this is used to the full, a parish can grow strong, spiritually and in every other respect. People who ‘vote with their feet’ are attracted to such parishes. Lessons can be learned from that.

And vocations? We need role models for the young, priests who can inspire and motivate them.


A few days ago, I was clearing out a file when I came upon a copy of a paper written by a young priest in response to a consultation Working Together for the Future. It is at once scholarly and direct, and, to me, an accurate analysis of the problems facing the church, of the flaws in the then suggested initiative and it outlines the way in which we must move ahead if the Church’s immediate problems are to be effectively tackled… and here, I quote from it: ‘the deepest issue underlying our present crisis is that we as a Church, both priests and people alike, are saying and doing nothing that provokes or inspires our young people to give up their lives for Jesus Christ’ …and… ‘to arrive at integral proposals for the way ahead, we must profound and open discussion and debate. But to have open debate means that all sides of a debate must be represented…’

The paper is to me a document of value in our present circumstances, the writer a priest who proved to be a success both as a spiritual leader and as an inspiration to the young. It is dated June 2001.


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