Do we dream of closing parishes?

Jamie McGowan suggests the key to a Scottish Catholic revival lies in a rediscovery of clerical community.

Here is a trivia question for you: how many Catholic parishes are there in Scotland? You will find the answer at the end of this article, but the number is not insignificant. We retain a remarkable reach across this country, but with the threat of parish closures constantly looming, we must ask ourselves: what must we do differently?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI prophetically wrote in the 1970s that ‘the Church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning’.

Some 50 years on his words remain true: the Church’s role in society has been almost entirely dismantled, with Her often being treated like just some other charitable organisation, lacking moral or political authority.

One of our biggest challenges today is avoiding the self-fulfilment of this prophecy. The Gospel imperative is not that we recede to the catacombs to take stock.

Rather, it is that we preach the name of Jesus Christ to all nations, at all times, with the courage of the apostles, martyrs, and saints, in the face of any tribulations that meet us. We cannot lay down the Faith even if Rome is burning all around us.

Evangelical failures

Of course, that is much easier said than done. One problem is that, here in the Scottish Church, we have not really known how to evangelise for a very long time.

When the Catholic hierarchy was re-established in the 19th century, the clergy understandably had to abandon evangelical efforts due to the migration influx at the time.

Previous attempts at the ‘Scottish Mission’ in the preceding centuries had a distinct focus on visiting remote towns and islands which had previously cherished the Catholic Faith, preaching the Truth and reconciling many souls to full communion with the Church.

They often did so in community, because it was practically ineffective to undertake such a task on one’s own. The Scots Jesuits focused on the conversion of the aristocracy and clansmen; the Irish Franciscans worked on smaller island communities.

Questions of emphasis aside, there was an organised effort to make Scotland a Catholic nation again, involving labour, sacrifice and strategy on the part of both the clergy and the laity. However, increased emigration from Ireland meant that there was a shift in emphasis in the structural operations of the Scottish Mission.

Instead of focusing on reconciling the nation back to the Church, the Mission began catering for those Catholics who were arriving in the country; where once the question was ‘how will we bring the Catholic Faith to a village like Comrie’, the question had become ‘how can we cater for these migrant communities?’

Consequently, rather than sending out missionaries out across Scotland, clergy instead tended to establish missions where Catholics were already settling, in central belt towns and mining villages.

In context, that was an entirely understandable decision – those migrant communities were adrift in a hostile land and were desperately in need of pastoral support and spiritual leadership.

Yet it set a long pattern where we quietly tend to our own, rather than stride out into the world.

Now, that pattern has rendered us totally unprepared for the mammoth evangelical task that will face the Scottish Church throughout the next century. We must therefore rediscover what sustained those early missions in the first place: community.

We often say that the solution to the current crisis is to close parishes to decrease the workload of the priests we have. Fiscally-speaking, that makes sense but offers no solution as to how we open new churches with new faces.

Christian history tells us that one of keys to evangelisation is clerical community. This is as true for the modern Church as it was for the College of the Apostles, or for St Benedict and his many great monastic houses which brought about the conversion of Europe.

As for Scotland, the same is blatantly clear: neither St Columba, nor St Kentigern, nor St Ninian converted this nation on their own; they were accompanied by likeminded brethren who assisted them in their evangelical efforts, applying their various talents in service of the various needs of each community.

Priests alone

Indeed, compared to the whole history of the Church, the phenomenon of priests living alone is very much a recent one – and it is not working.

But while today’s priests may be low in confidence and few in number, ultimately they are the only ones who can take us where we need to be, and they cannot accomplish that alone.

If we proceed with the one-priest-three-parishes model, there will be no Catholics left in Scotland. Scottish clergy must rediscover a communitarian Church again if they are to lead a strategic mission that is as effective as those of the great apostles of our nation. How can we achieve this in the modern Church?

A good contemporary model to look at is that of the Companions of Christ in the United States. Companionships exist in various dioceses in the USA. They are not religious orders, but simply groups of diocesan priests who have chosen to live together in units.

Together they can live by a charism and rhythm that they choose together, and they can strategically – but effectively – run a few parishes together, all under obedience to the bishop, using their various talents for the mission and sharing the burdens and joys of the priesthood together.

This allows their different strengths to flourish, be it in the parish, school or hospital. It also allows those priests who are enthusiastic about strategic and dedicated evangelisation to choose to undertake dedicated missions with others who are just as enthusiastic.

And of course, that enthusiasm has an overspill into other areas of the Church; it can even revolutionise our outlook on vocations, since seminarians are able to join this or that group of companions instead of joining a diocese generally.

This is just one of many solutions to the problem and we should not be afraid to try different approaches. The appeal of this approach is in how it operates within the current parish structure, changing only emphasis and strategy.

In any case, the Scottish Church must soon abandon the current one-priest-three-parishes solution for something more radical. The flexibility of our current parish structures does allow us to experiment, and find a solution that suits the needs of the Church.

And Holy Mother Church already presents us with many models for those who do choose to live in community; whether it is similar to the life of a Jesuit, where prayer is not even communal, or the life of an Oratorian where meditation and devotional prayer is communal, or the life of a Canon where the entire daily office is communal, it is possible for clergy to agree to live together with some common rules without having to join some global mendicant religious order with a distinct spirituality.

It is worth noting that the laity are not off-the-hook here either. Wherever any mission communities form, the laity need to flock there too.

Are we willing to make sacrifices for the mission, moving wherever the Lord calls us, and giving our time, our money, and our spiritual labours for the sake of the Gospel? And if not now, when?

The Church is at a turning point and the Lord is calling all of us to con- sider how we can better convince our friends of the truth of the Catholic Faith. But there is no use in thinking up ways to strategically close churches if we are not also thinking of strategic ways to re-open them.

And to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article: There are approximately 390 Catholic parishes in Scotland.

Jamie McGowan is a Doctoral Researcher in Constitutional Law at the University of Glasgow.

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