Catholics for a Changing Church

"To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often" - Bl. John Henry Newman

Pastoral Care: the 2nd Vatican Council in the Parish

I write as a parish priest, who has spent nearly forty years in the same parish, in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.  The Council’s immediate effect on the life of every parish community was the changes in the liturgy.  Much depended on how, and if, the people had been prepared for change and how the changes were introduced to them.  Some priests implemented the decrees of the Council enthusiastically and carried their people along with them.  Others saw the changes as no more than an opportunity to demonstrate their obedience to Rome.  At the heart of the liturgical reforms lay the ambition to change the whole ethos of the Mass: instead of a rite in which the priest performed sacred actions for the people, the people themselves were called to become involved, each in their own ministry, in a great communal act of worship.

In those dioceses where the bishop was keen to implement the decrees of the Council, change was often introduced.  The key to reform in the parishes were the newly prescribed Parish Councils. Where priests were willing to give way to their parishioners, the latter could exercise real power over the affairs of the community.  Yet canon law often put a brake on these developments.  Under the new Canon 536 in 1983, it was laid down that the Parish Councils should be presided over by the Parish Priest and that the Councils themselves should be purely advisory, without any powers of decision whatsoever. All too often the clergy at parish level sabotaged even the very establishment of Councils.  Today there are still parishes bereft of Councils.

The Finance Committees were  further instruments, by which the parishes could be made more democratic.  One of the best ways of empowering the people was to give them responsibility for the way in which ’their’ money was being spent.  Instead of the priest, as in the past, having sole charge of the accounts, the Finance Committee could take responsibility for all the community’s funds, even to the point in our own parish of paying the priest a monthly salary.  Yet again this process was undermined by the new Code of Canon Law, no. 537, which accorded the Finance Committee no more than an advisory role.

With the idea restored of the Church as Sacrament and Sign of the coming reign of God, the local parish community also needed to change.  From a gathering of those who were fulfilling an obligation to attend Mass, the parish could become, largely through the sensitive and imaginative way in which the Liturgy was celebrated, an open and welcoming community of people from every walk of life and increasingly from every race.  People would not feel obliged to subscribe to every detail of Catholic or Christian belief to feel welcome: the divorced, the remarried, the straight and the gay, all would find a home in the community.  Smaller groupings would be encouraged, at which people might share their faith, their joys and their problems.  Often the Eucharist would be celebrated around the table in the course of supper if the priest were available.  If he were not able to be present, a simple ‘agape’ meal would be celebrated. Sadly, the number of such parish communities is dwindling.  The shortage of priests and the unwillingness of the authorities to allow communities to continue without a resident priest, have led to ever larger groupings and the loss of parish identity.

The crisis caused by Humanae Vitae led many of the laity and prieststo leave the Church.  Furthermore, of those who remained some lost confidence in the authority of the Church and while following their own consciences, remained racked by guilt. How should the priest act in these dire circumstances?  Compassion often prompted him to try to alleviate his parishioners’ guilt and to reassure those who were acting against the teachings of the institutional church, whether by using artificial contraception, or in so-called irregular marriages, or in same-sex unions.  A further problem was the virtual disappearance of Private Confession from the life of the ordinary Catholic, except where recourse was made to some understanding priest, often from the religious, especially the monastic, orders, for spiritual guidance in life.  The encouragement of frequent communion had already prompted people to doubt whether the regular confessions, which they had made since childhood, were of any real help to them.

With the restored Adult Catechumenate, many priests became sceptical about the practice of infant Baptism, although people still asked for this sacrament on behalf of their children.  In many places preparation for Baptism was seen as a pastoral opportunity, to school parents in the Vatican Council’s thinking: to help them to see Baptism as entry into the Christian community, rather than the washing away of the incomprehensible Original Sin and an insurance policy for heaven.

Confirmation was the Cinderella sacrament.  It was seen by many in the light of Vatican II as the completion of  Baptism, as it now figures in the Rite of Adult Initiation.  To help make the Sacrament more meaningful, some dioceses allowed it to be conferred before first Holy Communion, as Pius X had wished when he introduced early communion.  Many priests felt that to require confession from children at this early age was absurd.  Nonetheless, Rome in the spirit of Vatican I would brook no change in the regulations -  often sensibly ignored by enlightened priests.

Catholic schools have long been a problem for pastors inspired by Vatican II. The secondary Catholic school, in particular, has been described as a ’seed bed for lapsation’. More encouraging results have sometimes been obtained, where catechesis was entrusted to the parish community.

Marriages and Funerals can also be privileged moments for proclaiming the Gospel of Love to the many who come to these events and have no other contact with the Church.  The welcoming of couples for marriage and their preparation by married lay people make them feel part of the community, even if they have no other contacts.  The same is true of funerals where people may hear for the first time, something of the Gospel message when they are in particular need.

There are still those who would like to return to the pre-Vatican II days and, while there are many who would want to build on the vision of the Council, they are constantly  being blocked by the Roman authorities and the Spirit that was so evident in the immediate post-Vatican II period has lost a lot of impetus.  Many of the bishops seem to regard themselves as representatives of the Roman authorities.  Yet, if the Church is to grow as a community of communities, the pastors, both bishops and priests, need to be alive to the emotional and spiritual needs of the communities in which they live.  The clerical domination,  which triumphed at the First Vatican Council, blocks the implementation of the reforms and spiritual insights espoused by its successor. We can only hope that the Holy Spirit will lead us out of this impasse.

Derek Reeve

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