The challenge of changing times (and priests)

The challenge of changing times (and priests)

Disappointment is a fact of life for nearly everyone who lives on this planet. It’s simply part of the human condition. We are occasionally disappointed in friends and family, and by people in the other circles in which we move — including our parish.

Priests can be disappointed when the parish they are moved to doesn’t measure up to expectations, and parishioners can experience the same feeling each time a new priest presents himself — or when the familiar one is moved.

Take the fictional parish of Ballyblaa, a small rural community in the west of Ireland. Priest A is appointed to the parish by the bishop. Fr A is a relaxed cleric, who takes things in his stride. He might appear a bit untidy, maybe even seem a bit lazy, but he encourages parishioners to take on some of the roles traditionally filled by priests and the parish steams along at a gentle pace. Delegration is his modus operandi. Committees flourish and responsibility is diffuse: at least some of the people feel the parish is theirs to lead and take care of.

Already, in his being there, Fr A has sparked disappointment. Some people miss the ‘great priests of the past’ who were indeed all things to all men and never needed lay people to help them carry out their mission. Others resent the ones who have become involved: “Busy-bodies who should mind their own business” is one verdict on Fr A’s version of lay participation. Too much delegation, or delegation to the ‘wrong’ people arouses resentment.

The disappointed parishioners stir up controversy and opposition to Fr A. The bishop hears and wonders if Ballyblaa might be due a change of priest. And indeed Fr A is moved and Fr B takes his place, who turns out to be an entirely different kettle of (clerical) fish.


Fr B is a well-turned-out and committed priest, who works night and day to improve his church. He presents himself as a professional, smartly dressed and keen on improving every aspect of the parish plant. The formerly disappointed parishioners rejoice in his appointment, but those who were happy with Fr A are now the disappointed ones. Lay parishioners to whom Fr A had given leadership positions now have their services dispensed with and Fr B takes over more and more.

Now the parish has experienced two sets of disappointed people. Inevitably, Fr C will replace Fr B, with more disappointment resulting.

The general question concerns what parishioners do with disappointment. Do they drift elsewhere, stay and fight — or opt out entirely? Truly loyal parishioners have to be really hard-wearing people, able to put up with a lot of change, some of it not to their liking.

The sad truth is that Ballyblaa will one day have no priest. How will its parishioners cope with that ultimate change? And which parishioners will loyally cling to their community, gritting their teeth in the face of this ultimate disappointment, yet striving to keep it alive for a very uncertain future?


This was inspired by a letter received from a lay woman who lived in a parish I served in, long years ago. She wrote: “I don’t miss parish involvement at all at this stage. I was disappointed and disillusioned for a while, but that’s in the past. For a brief period, we shared your vision of parish/church and it was good, but I doubt if I’ll ever see it again. That’s sad but realistic. Lay people aren’t really wanted and women are another step behind in the Church, so it’s better to face facts and move on gracefully…”

 for tomorrow
 years hence?

Is it better to involve lay people in the life of the Church and parish – or not? Successors can very easily dispense with lay ministers previously recruited and formed, so are people better off if they are never involved? Or does the experience of involvement in parish life benefit people, for the years ahead when priests will be much scarcer?

Is it worthwhile to sow seeds that will bear fruit in 20 years time, or should one acknowledge that many may be hurt bitterly in the meantime? I don’t know the answer but I often ask the question.