Few things attract more controversy in a parish that a decision to cancel a Sunday Mass or reconfigure the weekend liturgical timetable. There’s often an undercurrent from some parishioners that if a priest cancels a particular Mass or tries to consolidate, it’s a sign that he just wants less work.
I had correspondence from a parishioner recently who explained that for the last few years in their parish there have been seven weekend Masses across three churches. These Masses were celebrated by the parish priest, a curate and the retired parish priest. Unfortunately, the retired parish priest has recently had to give up celebrating public Masses (he’s in his mid-80s). As a result, the parish priest has cut the number of weekend Masses from seven to five. Some parishioners are understandably disappointed that the Mass they traditionally attended is no longer available and they must attend a different Mass.
My correspondent adds “I can’t understand that between two priests they can’t celebrate seven Masses over a Saturday night and a Sunday morning”.
The parishioner, undoubtedly in a bid to be helpful, reckoned that if each Mass took approximately 45 minutes, that was a total of five hours and 15 minutes, “that’s less than three hours each [for the PP and curate], which doesn’t seem unreasonable”.
There was no thought expressed in the letter as to the quality of the liturgy. The focus seemed entirely on quantity. I wonder too if the parishioner had given any thought to the fact that if priests are entitled to four weeks’ leave a year (a fairly minimal amount of annual leave nowadays), then in a parish of two priests, there are at least eight weeks per year when there is only one priest available due to the other’s leave.
One wonders, at a certain level, why the parish priest – no doubt aware of this fact – didn’t go for a more radical approach given that there will now be eight weeks a year when one of the priests has to celebrate five Sunday Masses.
It’s a reality in the Church in Ireland that in many parishes we are still in a ‘keeping the show on the road’ mentality. It can’t continue for much longer. Each summer brings more clerical retirements with fewer and fewer younger priests to fill the vacancies.
Some priests have spoken to me of feeling bullied by parishioners. Often not in a direct way, but in frowns of disappointment when the hugely-stretched priest is unable to meet unrealistic expectations. Or the whispering that goes on about ‘Father’ cancelling Masses while continuing to go on holidays. As if rest for body, mind and soul is not a prerequisite for healthy, integrated ministry.
There’s also pressure from those who no longer go to Mass regularly but want the consolation of the Church when it comes to a death or to celebrate marriages and baptisms. If many parishioners in the pews seem largely unaware of the pressure placed upon priests by the vocations crisis, those who are rarely at Mass have no cognisance of it.
There’s no quick or easy solution – despite what some may think. But, people can start by taking an honest look at expectations, and asking themselves whether or not there’s more they can do to build up the community of faith in their parish. It’s easy to grumble, not so easy to take on a challenge.