Decline in priests 'an opportunity for growth!' says Townsville's Bishop

Decline in priests 'an opportunity for growth!' says Townsville's Bishop

Michael Gilchrist

Several years after adopting a new diocesan blueprint - Never Ending Story - the north Queensland diocese of Townsville has achieved the distinction of having possibly the lowest level of Mass attendance of any Catholic diocese in Australia.

According to its own statistics, the Townsville Diocese’s level of average weekly Mass attendance has fallen from 17.6 percent in 1986 to 9.6 percent in 1997, giving talk of parish restructurings an unreal flavour of "re-arranging the Titanic’s deck chairs." At this rate of decline, there may be no-one left in a decade’s time to enjoy the fruits of renewal, except perhaps those implementing it.

A circular dated 20 March 1998 from Townsville’s Bishop Raymond Benjamin to "Parish Priests, Parish Leadership Teams and Parish Councils" indicates the need to develop "a set of diocesan principles, policies and procedures for leadership in parishes."

Leadership structures

The "catalyst" for this, the Bishop explains, has been the "decline in priest numbers." But this was only part of the reason for change: "Our leadership structures are changing so that they can effectively serve the church’s mission. For our diocese the decline in the number of priests is an opportunity for growth!"

An earlier summary of Never Ending Story, circulated by its proponents, and published in full in the September 1992 AD2000, revealed that the document was the result of "hard work by a small Task Force of eight people: five lay, one priest and two religious." The Task Force was led by Sr Mary Lowcock RSM with her "capable facilitator" Sr Cath Fitzgerald RSM from Brisbane.

This "Townsville initiative" was described in the above summary as "a break-through for the whole Australian Church" in moving away from "the geographical parish system" in favour of "Small Christian Communities." This would be a "colossal task" since it involved changing "the thinking and understanding of Church by ordinary Christians today as regards the parish system" and would require "a determined course of implementation." It was predicted: "All eyes in Australia will be looking in that direction with expectation in the next years."

The proposed restructuring would entail leadership by "sometimes a lay person, sometimes a priest; and later, a person emerging from the Community concerned." In order for each Small Christian Community "to have its own celebration of Eucharist, it is observed that we are being forced to explore alternatives to the present stalemate in the theology of priestly ministry."

This "stalemate" presumably refers to Church teaching on the ordained priesthood.

Meanwhile, the document cites such progressive theologians as Sandra Schneiders, Edward Schillebeeckx and Bernard Cooke to justify the restructuring, e.g., "by accepting Early Church practice that the leader of the Community is also the person who will naturally preside over the celebration of the Communal Eucharist."

The Bishop and the Task Force have set their faces against any suggestion of importing priests from outside Townsville or Australia to make up the shortfall. Never Ending Story states (p. 111): "There is no guarantee that a priest from another country or diocese will be able to identify with the Church of Townsville."

This could be a tall order, since any outside priest gaining entry to Townsville would have to be "willing to accept and to work within our model of church", be "open to change", have "received adequate formation that would equip him to adapt to a different culture" and would have "undertaken study in ‘Australian’ theology [sic]."

All this ‘re-education’ could be more trouble than it was worth given "more urgent issues to be addressed." As the report explains, "maintenance, by filling gaps in clergy numbers, does not allow our diocese to consider an alternative, especially an alternative that enables us to address the ‘Signs of the Times"." (p. 112).

More recently, in his 20 March 1998 letter, the Bishop continued to rule out any possibility of increasing priestly numbers since, he points out, there are no young men (as of 1998) currently studying in any seminaries for the Townsville Diocese, nor were there "suitable priests [as per earlier criteria] available from outside the Diocese to fill the gaps."

Earlier this year the Bishop announced - via the Townsville Diocesan News (February 1998) - the formation of a joint committee to foster "a closer working relationship between the Pastoral Planning Commission and the Council of Priests". The joint committee, said the Bishop, would be responsible for the "development of processes that enable each parish to determine its leadership structure as well as being responsible for the development of an admission policy for prospective candidates to the priesthood and identifying future parish staffing needs." A survey of present parish leadership structures was to be completed by April.

Pecking order

Indicative of the evolving situation in the Townsville Diocese was the pecking order for the parish of St Mary's, Bowen, as printed on the front of its 14 June 1998 Mass bulletin. At the head is Sr Patsy Grundy, with the rank of "Pastoral Leader", while below her comes "Priest" - Fr Peter O'Reilly SVD. This appears to be the case in several other Townsville parishes, to judge from names in the 1998 Directory of Australian Catholic Clergy.

The St Mary’s bulletin informs parishioners that "the present design of churches needs to be adapted in order to fully express the RITE that the community celebrates. Liturgy is the expression of who we are as the People of God ... It is the ‘work of the people’ ... That is why we say that the primary symbol of worship is the ASSEMBLY! ... so the environment and worship space need to support and encourage the full, conscious and active participation of all gathered."

However, given Townsville’s downward Mass attendance spiral, there may not be many of the People of God left who wish to assemble in their "worship spaces" by the time Never Ending Story is fully implemented.

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