Converting the challenge of priests into new opportunities for greater lay involvement

Converting the challenge of priests into new opportunities for greater lay involvement The Walsh family and friends, part of the ‘Sanitising and Stewarding Team’ in Monasterevin church in Kildare, are pictured cleaning after a Mass to make the church safe for parishioners during the summer.
Coronavirus has given us a glimpse of the future of the Church, and there are hopeful signs writes Bishop Brendan Leahy

One of the good surprises of this Covid-19 period has been the spirit of volunteerism. From the early months of the coronavirus pandemic to today, we have seen people volunteering for activity who otherwise might not have had. Local community initiatives sprung up all over the place involving GAA groups, meals on wheels, and simple neighbourly watchfulness.

It’s been community at its best. As the Book of Ecclesiastes puts it “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow”. The spirit of ‘meitheal’ was alive and well when we really needed it. In the midst of the darkest days, it was still a light pulling us through.

We’ve seen this great spirit of unity also recently in the re-opening of the churches; people stepping forward throughout parishes who, in some cases, we would not see except perhaps for the major celebrations of the year. Yet now they are volunteering weekly for activity of all sorts, activity that is crucial right now in keeping our doors open in trying circumstances.

All of this is greatly encouraging. I see it as something of a signal of the future of ‘a Church of everyone’, a reassuring glimpse of the possibilities ahead for the Church.

There’s no denying the stunningly rapid fall-off in numbers becoming priests and religious. The increasing profile of retiring priests casts a long shadow over the Church. We need to pray, live and speak about this. But the surprising good spirit of volunteerism during this COVID-19 crisis is a sign of hope for a renewed church for us. It is a pointer that we need to provide opportunities for people to take on more responsibility in their church locally.

A lot of trends come and go in life, but faith and spirituality are constant. They are embedded in the culture of our people. Local communities matter in terms of belonging, identity and support. And for centuries these features have been hugely linked with Church community and faith. That’s deep down in us.

So, what we need to do is convert the challenge posed by a lack of priests into new opportunities for greater lay involvement. We’ve seen from the Covid-19 experience that is not, as we thought, a high wall to climb, but rather just a door we must walk through together.

We now see that the culture of community is present and lay people themselves can and need to be to the fore in this new moment for us all. There’s always a temptation to think someone else will help out. But if we want the faith community to be present as a leaven in our local area, people who have time to do so, maybe recently retired people or stay-at-home dads or mums who might have time while their children are in school, might ask themselves if they might be able to give a hand in the day-to-day life of the parish.

I recently heard a story from a man whose brother died in an accident and he was troubled about his afterlife, where he was now. His concern was that his brother hadn’t been going to Mass. But he found hope in knowing that the weekend before his brother died, there was a flash flood in his local parish and it raced through the local church building. That evening the brother was on hand, leading the clean-up. His brother’s commitment to community was a link to the Church, his declaration of belonging. He lived it. Many people have that in them.

Of course, what I’m talking about is more than just about giving a hand. Pope Francis often speaks of the need today for ‘pastoral conversion’. But we must start somewhere. When we hear the word ‘conversion’ we think of episodes like St Paul on the way to Damascus falling to the ground personally ‘converted’ to Jesus Christ. But Pope Francis wants us to recognise there’s more to being a Christian than a personalised individual faith. We are part of a community and that community itself needs constantly to be undergoing a certain conversion in their way of doing things, reaching out, creating community.

When he was in Limerick, Pope John Paul II said, “there’s no such thing as an ordinary lay person”. We remember that in the early Church, the Church writer, Tertullian said, “when two or three gather in the name of Jesus, even if they are lay people, there’s the Church”. He meant that not in the sense of a laity versus clergy, but rather in the sense that a Church has a lay profile that we often forget. We focus on the clerical structures but neglect the reason they exist – to be at the service of a church with a vibrant lay profile, expressing Jesus Christ and Mary (two lay people of their time) in the world.

One final point, as we saw in the coronavirus lockdown period, there was a great increase in families gathering to watch ceremonies streamed online and take part in other prayers. It’s something we should note. Families can be creative in stitching moments of prayer or moments of reflection into the weekly schedule. Let’s not forget that. Covid is asking us to offer resources to families for this.