June 2004

A priest at the ‘coal face’

Sean Connolly

A young priest reflects on his formation having faced the reality of taking over his first parish. Sean Connolly, of Wymondham in Norfolk, sees the future challenge for the Church in reforming and recapturing the true essence of priestly minstry among our people.

I wish I didn’t have a car park. Admittedly, access to the church would be difficult, parishioners would find travelling in from the villages harder, and it would be more of a problem than at present, but it wouldn’t be my problem. As it is, I do have a car park: one too small for my congregation (or too small for their cars at least) and one over-used and somewhat abused by the locals in the town who take the liberty of a free space especially on market day.

I wish I didn’t have a hall either. I hardly ever get to use it (it’s always booked up by a slimming club, or the local Taekwondo group, or the eight or nine members of the Legion of Mary who could just as easily meet round at one of their houses) and yet it forever seems to be running out of loo-paper, or isn’t clean enough, or is too cold (or, for the Taekwondo group, too hot), or has a leaking toilet, or a broken back door. And, unsurprisingly, it’s always my fault or at least my responsibility.

I’ve a mound of meadow nearby too, which I’d rather not have. It’s more of a muddy lump at the moment than the grassy knoll I know it should be and this has been causing concern to my team of dedicated (and voluntary) gardeners. That’s why I decided to allow a ‘Keep off the grass’ sign to be erected, not quite realising the level of venom I would unleash from certain parents who find it an outrage that their children shouldn’t be allowed to run riot and wreck the church grounds. Interestingly enough, it was some of the same parents who had complained only earlier that the grass was looking a bit the worse for wear. I’m beginning to wonder what they want of me. Moses had it about right: they are a stiff-necked people indeed! I could, of course, go on and on with my list of woes and wants (or don’t wants, to be more precise), but the point is that the biggest shock to my system since my becoming a parish priest just under a year ago has been the amount of time and energy consumed by concerns about the plant. Richer parishes, perhaps, pay for caretakers and site managers. But, for me and for my parish (which, incidentally, is reasonably rich despite having to manage a small debt due to some recent property expansion), I’m the only one we can afford to pay to look after it all. I must be one of Britain’s most highly and expensively trained caretakers, alongside most other parish priests.

Caretaking or idealism?
Except of course that I’m not trained in anything remotely useful in regard to being a successful caretaker. And whilst I’m aware that some priests seem to love all this stuff – love getting their fingers dirty in projects and extensions and building up the Church in a rather literal way – I really couldn’t care less about keys and car parks and drainage and damp proofing and all the rest. I’m just an idealist you see.

So is it all the fault of the seminary? Should Oscott College, ten years ago, have trained me in basic plumbing, DIY, site maintenance, and the ins and outs of contractual employment instead of all that theology? Or should it, at least, have done a job lot? Three years of theology and three years as foreman: that would seem fair. After all, the tutors tried to inculcate in me an awareness beyond the academic: they tried to give me a taster of schools and hospitals and the mentally ill (which has been invaluable, by the way) and other sorts of general pastoral placement that would open up my eyes to the reality of day-to-day parochial ministry. So why not courses on cooking for one and locating low-cost locksmiths at a weekend emergency? (The latter of these is impossible. I know because on my second weekend as a parish priest the lock on the main door broke and the church became inaccessible from the outside. I had to wait until Monday morning to get hold of someone who could fix it.) At least it would be much more practical.

I think if we go down that route, though, we would be forever adding additional courses to priestly training and students would never come out the other end. And the brutal reality is that seminary simply cannot prepare a man for every eventuality he will come to face during his time in ordained service of the Church. It makes much more sense to harness the lay expertise in these areas that we already have in our parishes. And certainly this is what the clergy are increasingly being encouraged to do. As a recent document from my own bishop points out, ‘There is an enthusiasm and a generous readiness among lay people in almost all parishes to take on many tasks of administration and other forms of leadership so that the priest can focus even more fruitfully on his role as pastor and spiritual leader.’

And indeed this is so. In my own parish I have inherited a hall committee, a finance committee, a parish council, a parish secretary, parishioners who look after the grounds, and so on. The real necessity for a seminarian’s training is for it to be uncompromising in its emphasis on the essential role collaboration will play back in the parish. And on the potential priest’s part, good communication skills, flexibility, and some basic ideas on people management would probably be helpful. But even with all this in place, I would want to warn the would-be presbyter to be prepared to be running for a loo-roll minutes before Mass: it’s the inevitable consequence of living over the shop and out of the till.

Another shock to my system has been the burgeoning bureaucracy. I haven’t decided yet whether this is the consequence of having had three years out of pastoral ministry while I completed my doctorate (and thus having forgotten what parish life can be like), or whether it is the result of making the jump to being a parish priest. Certainly (he admits it himself) it is due, in part, to having a new bishop implementing a review of the whole of diocesan life at rather a break-neck speed. But then, these days, most dioceses seem to be reviewing something or other, and that inevitably leads to mountains of paperwork for parish priests and the deterioration of yet more rainforests.

The worrying trend here (and it is a trend I am criticising and not a bishop) is the general need to appear to be busy: to appear to have a ‘successful’ diocese or ‘successful’ parishes, to be the bishop, or indeed the parish priest, of the big idea. The consequence of this trend, it seems to me, is that we are moving steadily towards a rather macho, managerial Church. Where is the room for vulnerability in all of this? Where is the room for people? (And by this I don’t mean yet more structures and meetings and discussion, I mean simply having the time to get out and about and spend time with the parishioners, getting to know them and more importantly learning to love them.)

I have no doubt that structures do need to be in place and that best practices should undoubtedly be shared, but I have severe reservations about such structures and best practices ‘cascading down’ (as the new buzz words seem to be). Let’s face it, if you’re at the bottom of the ‘cascade’ life can be pretty daunting. My main gripe, though, is where is the room for the priest’s humanity in all of this? We are not just branch managers there to implement HQ’s directives. Or, if we are, then I’m in the wrong job. If I’d wanted to be a manager I’d have chosen to manage a supermarket: the hours and pay would be better and I’d get a staff discount on my weekly groceries. Can we really judge the effectiveness of our ministry, or even the Spirit-filled quality of our communities, by how many baptism preparation courses we run in a year, or how glitzy our newsletters are, or how vibrant our liturgy is? So much of that depends upon local resources. My parish has fantastic music – because we’re lucky enough to have fantastic musicians. That doesn’t necessarily mean we are any better, or worse, in our Christian witness than a working- class parish with a creaking, old, out-of-tune organ played by a half-blind grade-four pianist.

It is a real mistake to allow ourselves to get locked into a model of ministry that is more concerned about systems and structures than about the Spirit. I told you I was an idealist. But then it was my idealism that led me into thinking seriously that God might be calling me to priestly ministry. And it’s my idealism that helps me survive the inordinate number of days I seem to spend ploughing through yet more paperwork or worrying about whether to bring in a wheel-clamping firm to sort out that car park once and for all.

Ministry, not management
Just today I celebrated a wonderfully creative Mass with a group of about fifteen young adults in my parish and a number of dedicated helpers, after a day of rushing around making sure everything went smoothly while the young people planned their ‘bits’ of the Mass in their small groups. And it was today, during that Mass, that I remembered why I had become a priest in the first place – to let this sort of thing happen; to encourage and build up; to guide and watch grow. Not to manage an enormous property or to sit at a desk all day filling in forms. Should the seminary have prepared me for all this managerial and bureaucratic bilge that drives me mad? No, because the idealist in me says I shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. Furthermore, I’m not convinced that young people will ever be attracted to ordained priesthood if all they see of our ministry is yet another type of management. They want something different, something radical.

So what sort of priests do people want? Do they want just an efficient manager? Well, I admit that they don’t want the place to fall down around them. And I accept that with today’s current structures and strictures that implies I’m the one who has to manage. But I really can’t believe they want managers. They want people they can relate to, surely? Or at least I would. They want people of prayer. Or at least I hope they do. They want teachers – people who can hand on to them, and help them hand on to others, a vital, vibrant Tradition. They want people who can preach well and who will care for them. And, above all else I think, they want people who are prepared to admit that they are human and that they are vulnerable. Letting God’s light shine through our weaknesses and idiosyncrasies and vulnerability is going to be much more effective than any number of plans and procedures we put in place. But how on earth do we prepare young men (and not-so-young men) for all that?

My experience of seminary (and I went through two and lived to tell the tale) is that what they principally aim to do they do well: provide a good, solid, theological formation. Different colleges, it would appear, take different approaches to some of the more practical needs of the students for priesthood but the main problem at the moment, it seems to me, is that we are caught between a rapidly changing society and a rather lumbering institutional Church. No seminary can ever effectively pre-empt the manner of ministry which its students will one day come to exercise. The model of our parishes probably needs to change substantially before we think about any major overhaul of the seminary system. But certainly there could be subtle changes now.

For a start, why have six seminaries (four in England and two abroad) catering for about a hundred or so students? Why have such a sausage-machine approach to the issue of formation anyway? Surely a much more flexible, person-centred approach to an individual’s training makes sense rather than sending them to one institution for the next six or seven years and hoping for the best? I would like to see more time and involvement spent in the sponsoring dioceses: students who live together in community and work in parishes for some of their training, and then go to a particular college for a particular part of their academic formation.

The seminary’s claim to provide formation at a wider, personal and psychological level is something I have always thought rather wrapped up in institutional hubris. It is odd to think that a collection of dysfunctional Fr Teds (and I say that somewhat tongue in cheek, since some of my best friends now teach in seminary) can really ‘form’ young adults in this way.

First, the adults are not so young. We are a long way away from the 1950s model of naïve 18-year-olds entering college straight from Catholic secondary school or junior seminary. And secondly, just to take a very personal example, expecting a man to be fully formed and able to embrace a life of celibacy upon ordination at the age of 26 bears no resemblance to the truth of the matter that he will lack the emotional maturity to appreciate such a decision until he is in his mid-30s. And anyway, the seminary staff have their own problems.

Today’s young priests will face all sorts of difficulties and dilemmas. Often overlooked is the ever-growing age gap between the newly ordained and the existing diocesan clergy. I have been ordained ten years and, at 36, I am still the youngest priest in active ministry in my diocese. But the average age of our parish clergy must be much more toward the late 50s and 60s.

Celibacy and materialism
Celibacy, of course, is a perennial problem and is possibly a factor putting off potential students anyway. I have already outlined the strain of an increasingly bureaucratic Church, but its concomitant middle-class nature, with the demanding, consumerist approach to the life of faith that that produces, brings its own challenge. We live in a time of media hostility (or at best indifference) and that can be hard to endure. The strain of being a public person in the local community and finding it difficult to have time off and time away can also add to our stress.

The prevailing atmosphere of ‘must have’ and ‘must be’ takes its toll too. Dr Nick Baylis, a lecturer in positive psychology at Cambridge University, has recently observed that contemporary society consistently falls for its own materialist hype and believes that personal fulfilment and happiness can be attained through dramatic increases in income or job status. They can’t. Nor can they be found in throwing ourselves frantically into ministerial and managerial activity. ‘Like so many people before us,’ Baylis notes, ‘we have not received sufficient love and support for vital aspects of our lives, and we’re attempting to assuage our existential hunger through extra work or whatever else we can overdose on.’

The danger is to think that as priests we’re immune to this sort of existential hunger. But actually we sit on its frontline. The temptation to activism, to work every waking hour, to lose ourselves in our ministry: this is insidious and runs counter to our personal development (and, dare I say it, to our salvation). It is to be avoided at all costs. Yet how can seminary protect us against all of this? It can’t: it simply can’t. What is much more crucial, and much underplayed, is the need for ongoing support.

John Paul II once wrote that we need heralds of the gospel who are not only experts in humanity, sharing to the full the joys and hopes of our people today, but also contemplatives who have fallen in love with God. At the moment – and this might just be my situation and my assessment – the Church in this country seems more interested in assuaging its existential hunger (as an institution) through activism and managerialism than in prayer and contemplation.

The key question facing today’s Christian communities (and, in particular, today’s hierarchy) is not so much how to tinker with the seminary system and train better, more resilient priests, but how to reform and recapture the true essence of priestly ministry amongst our people. We need to move beyond the parish-manager model that has served us well for a long time but has now most definitely had its day. We need to take those words of the Holy Father more seriously and begin to reflect upon just what it might mean to become a herald of God’s gospel and a contemplative who has fallen in love.

Then, and only then, will we be really ready to sit down and talk about priestly formation in anything approaching a meaningful manner.

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