Bishop says priest shortage will lead to stronger parishes

 The implications of the growing shortage of priests was discussed in a pastoral letter from the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton on Mission Sunday, and published in the December edition of the A&B News this week. In his message, Bishop Kieran said that the number of people at Mass on Sunday has fallen sharply, yet the number of parishes has actually grown in the last 30 years. He said there already were not enough priests. Two parishes were without a priest now; there would be five next year and an increasing number in future. "This is a problem facing the whole diocese." he said. "Priests are being stretched and the danger is that they become overstretched." The solution didn't lie in recruiting priests from overseas, he said. There the shortages were much greater. "The first thing to do is face facts, be realistic and honest," Bishop Kieran said. "If your parish is left without a priest what is the community going to do?" Firstly, he said: "you must decide if you wish to remain a worshipping community with your own identity and a vision and sense of purpose." Bishop Kieran said he had to be careful not to make any promises he couldn't keep, but assured parishioners they would not be abandoned and the diocese would do all it could to serve them. This is a challenge that will make stronger parishes, he said. It would give people a great sense of ownership of their own communities and involve more people in the decision-making process. "If we are willing to work together then we can make those changes for the better and ensure that the gospel is preached in our parishes with renewed vigour and optimism." The full text of the letter is published below: This weekend we remember the missions. But it is not only missions abroad that we remember. The most important mission is the one which we share directly, that of our own community. On September 11 I had a series of meetings with people through the afternoon. The first person spoke of news reports of a plane crashing into a building in New York. That sounded bad enough, but then the second person said he'd heard it was a crowded passenger plane. The third report was then of two planes being flown deliberately into buildings, and by then it was becoming a very disturbing image. Nothing could have been as disturbing as the images on the TV that I saw soon after. Many newspaper reports the next day spoke of 'the day that changed the world'. The horrors of that day have left people bewildered and frightened. The world is a different place now, but we don't know what sort of place it is or what will happen in this new world that has been created. Many people in the diocese were directly or indirectly affected by the terrorism in the USA; like the dead, they should not be forgotten. The world is not the world it was on 10 September. But even that world was not the world of ten years previously, or of ten years before that. The world has been changing constantly, but some of the change has not been noticeable, and the change that has been gradual has been easier to absorb. In that same period the Church, too, has changed. Change in the Church tends to take place more slowly, but over the past 30 years in this country fairly massive changes have been taking place. The numbers of people at Mass on Sunday has fallen sharply, and yet, curiously, the numbers of people being baptised has remained fairly constant. The number of parishes has actually increased, and yet the number of priests serving in them has suffered the most obvious and - for some people - the most disturbing decline. There comes a point in life when the process of change suddenly becomes apparent. You notice one day that your hair is disappearing or that you can't read small print. You find out all of a sudden that there isn't a priest for your parish. This has happened now. There are parishes in this diocese that do not have a priest. It is happening in other dioceses also. And what is certain is the number of priests is declining further: there are two parishes in this diocese without a priest now and there will be five parishes without priests next year. This is not a wild guess. It is a careful calculation. So what do we do? What we cannot do is create more priests out of fresh air. We do have students preparing for the priesthood. We should pray far more about it, certainly, but that is simply throwing the problem at God, and I suspect that God wants us to take responsibility ourselves. Some people suggest that Europe is now about to be re-Christianised by priests from developing countries, but this is not realistic. The proportion of priests to people is far lower in Africa and Latin America than it is here. We are still one of the best supplied countries in the world in terms of the proportion of priests to people. The problem is fairly simple. We just don't have enough priests to fill the parishes we have built. The first thing to do is face the fact, be realistic and honest. This sort of thing is like a bereavement, a real sense of loss. A sudden death is often met with simple denial - "It can't be true. I don't believe it." Only when we face the fact can we begin to mourn properly and let go. And as with any loss, we must be confident that the Lord is with us. Letting go in this case means deciding how we are going to deal with the change. It is easy enough to understand and sympathise with people's anxiety and anger, but then there needs to be a moving on to the next stage. If the parish is left without a priest or being served from a neighbouring parish, w hat is the community itself going to do? What steps are you going to take? It would seem that the first step is to decide if you want to remain a worshipping community with your own identity and the responsibility for the management of your own resources. This is your choice, first of all. If you want your community to survive, then the responsibility will be yours but you will not be simply abandoned to get on with it. If you make this decision then the diocese will offer any assistance it can to ensure that this happens. As bishop I will do all I can to ensure that any such community does have Sunday Mass, but I must be careful to ensure that I don't make you promises that are unrealistic and that I can't keep. The important thing is that the parish retains not just its identity, but a vision of its purpose and objective: the parish is a worshipping community, a place where Christ is truly present and where Christ's saving power is proclaimed and witnessed. By remaining as a community you will show people your confidence in the power of Christ's love to heal and bind people together as one family. This shortage is not a problem facing a few parishes. This is a problem facing all parishes, the whole diocese, because its effects will be felt throughout the diocese before long. You will find that your priests are being stretched, that they cannot any longer provide the level of service or the number of Masses that you are used to, because they are also needed elsewhere. And the danger then is that the priests become over-stretched, that they become exhausted and ill, or worse, and so the problem is further aggravated. This is not a problem that will affect the people only. It will have a profound effect on priests, too. I ask you to try and understand the situation, first of all. If I could resolve it easily, I would be the happiest of all. While I cannot, I share your real anxieties and distress. But I believe that this is a challenge that will make stronger parishes, that will give people a greater sense of ownership of their own communities and will involve more people in the decisions about those communities. One of the most shocking aspects of the events of September 11 was that the people of America - including their intelligence and armed forces - were not prepared. We have a little time to prepare for profound changes in the diocese. If we are willing to work together - and I recognise my own responsibility in all of this - then we can make those changes for the better and ensure that the gospel is preached in our parishes with renewed vigour and optimism. What we need to be thinking and talking about now is what those parishes will look like in ten years and twenty years time. With Assurance of my prayers and good wishes Bishop Kieran