June is Jubilee month for many priests. In communities all over Ireland, people in sacred ministry are being honoured this month, especially for Silver, Ruby, Golden and Diamond jubilees (25, 40, 50 and 60 years of priesthood).
I went to one such celebration earlier in June. A special once-off Mass had been organised on a Sunday evening, with a meal to follow for everyone in the local GAA hall. Half an hour before Mass time, the parish church was full with parishioners of all ages, from the very elderly to young parents who brought their children along. There was a great sense of excitement and anticipation in the church — no sign of any general malaise or post-referendum blues here.
There followed a beautiful liturgy, thoughtful and un-rushed, with the priest capitalising on the occasion with a fine homily. (Priests who feel shy about marking their anniversaries should note the opportunity these provide for an inspiring homily to lift people’s spirits.)
The best wine was kept for the end of Mass, however, when the pastoral council person addressed the congregation. His words were honest and truthful; nothing was dodged. Scandals were mentioned and the ways in which the shadow of the cross had fallen locally were also alluded to. The speaker noted not only the parish priest’s religious leadership in the parish, but also commended the cultural and social role he played in guiding the community and holding it together.
The future came into view also, those days when fewer priests might be available, with a prospect of parish closure or amalgamation, neither of which seemed an attractive prospect for this vibrant rural parish.
And it struck me as sad that the Church which has done so much to give Ireland its local parish structure seems to be talking as if that was no longer so important, as if communities had to be priest-centred to deserve to be maintained.
That jubilee Mass demonstrated the parish community at its finest, as do parish funerals, Communions and Confirmations, gatherings to mark historical occasions, even the weekly Sunday Mass.
In communities such as that one, people know each other’s names, they care, they pull together at a time of crisis. Priests’ roles have traditionally been significant, but I wonder if other church people might not provide local leadership in the future, thus avoiding the drastic solution of joining parishes together. (I note Cardinal Marx of Munich has now decided against amalgamating parishes; a sign perhaps of a different way?)
The lack of a local priest would of course mean that the Mass would not be available as often, which would be a great pity, but Christians have other ways of worshipping God which might also hold a community together, such as listening to God’s word, praying for each other and adoring God together.
With a little creativity, perhaps the Church might continue to hold small parishes together, helped by men and women in different forms of local ministry.
“Ní neart go cur le chéile.”
I read an interesting interview recently with the English Catholic politician, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Taking a Faith-based position, his abhorrence of abortion allows no exceptions. Asked if he would work to change the law in the UK, he said he would not. He thought it better to change people’s minds, as, he believes, societal changes precede legal change. Maybe there is guidance here for Irish Catholics: instead of relying on constitutions and laws to uphold our pro-life instinct, maybe we should help people to make better choices – preaching and writing about this good news whenever we get the chance. Laws change when people change.
Support your local priest
Might I make a suggestion to readers who are also members of a parish? A challenge: find out the year of ordination of your priest (Google will help you). If the number of years ends in a five or a zero, then your priest is celebrating an anniversary worth marking.
There is no need for anything fancy, no special collection is needed. Even a cup of tea after Mass in the local hall or a bit of a party would probably be appreciated.
In these post-referendum days, we can all do with a bit of encouragement.