Who needs priests?

Who needs priests?

Which is the better way to deal with fewer priests in a diocese? Have fewer Masses available, including weekday Masses and even rotating the location of Sunday Mass among parishes? Or allow laypeople to regularly preside at Communion services, even during the week?

It looks like the Archdiocese of Westminster, which serves the London area, has decided on the latter.

In the future, full-time lay ministers could live in clergy houses in parishes where the priest is no longer resident and routinely preside at weekday services using pre-consecrated communion hosts. Lay people have often been regarded as secondary to the clergy and the re-organisation of the country’s “mother” diocese, initiated by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, could result in a sea change.

Traditional Catholics are likely to resist the changes. But Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, who is the Archbishop of Westminster as well as head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said the Church should encourage “the gifts of all the baptised”.

This is the problem with the idea. It can and will create a confusion of the roles of the priesthood and the laity, making them seem interchangeable. A priest is not merely a sacramental minister. The ministry of the priest and his gifts extends beyond merely making the sacraments present. By being a spiritual father to his parish, he represents the fatherhood of God to them in a way that no parish administrator or lay minister can do.

In Latin America, there are many places where one priest serves a parish the size of some US states and can only get to some of them once per month to celebrate Mass, not always on a Sunday. It’s also true in Asia and Africa. They seem to be able to deal with a shortage of priests effectively without confusing vocational roles, so why can’t First World countries do so? I’m not saying the Third World model is ideal, but it’s better than debasing the priesthood to irrelevance.

In 1997, the Vatican issued the document Ecclesiae de mysterio, subtitled: “On certain questions regarding the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the Sacred ministry of the priest.” It details the common priesthood of the faithful and how that differs from the ministerial priesthood, the indispensable role of the priesthood, and how laypeople can work with priests without substituting for them.

There is no denying that there was a certain excess of clericalism in the past such that all matters of faith and evangelization were left too much to clergy, but now we are seeing a swing of the pendulum too far, so that the uniqueness of the priesthood is being trampled by an excess of emphasis on the “gifts of all the baptized.”

Some conspiracy theorists may be tempted to ask if the decline in the number of priests was planned by someone’s agenda all along in order to set up the situation where we’d need laypeople, most likely women, to take over their “jobs.” I don’t know about that, but even if it wasn’t a conspiracy, it has the same effect.

Meanwhile, will parishes in London become like so many donut franchises with priests in some central Eucharist factory churning out the Blessed Sacrament in manufacturing Masses for distribution to all the little sacrament shops? Don’t laugh, it could happen.

Written by
Domenico Bettinelli