In the Diocesan Parish a Council of the lay people to advise and assist the Parish Priest is not obligatory. I was surprised in my Catholic Deanery to find that only two of the parishes had such a Council. One parish priest spoke warmly of its work in mobilising the laity to ‘get things done’; the other priest was not enthusiastic about his group. As far as I could tell, this was not a ‘liberal/conservative’ divide, as might be expected, with the ‘liberals’ keen to share with the laity, and the ‘conservatives’ jealous of the prerogatives of the parish priest. For Roman Catholic Canon Law makes it clear, I think, that the duty of ‘governing’ the parish lies with the Parish Priest. I am reminded of the advice given to me by my local bishop when I was an Anglican. I had been very upset by what I perceived as trivial opposition on the PCC, sniping and time wasted by people gossiping behind my back, while the parish was set to founder. The bishop said to me, ‘It is your responsibility to lead; if you don’t there are others in the parish who will. The difference is this: you are accountable for your leadership to me: they are not and if things go wrong they will just up and leave.’
For the wise parish priest the advice, support and guidance of a good Council of laity is invaluable. He refers and checks his own plans and ideas. He gains insights and information which he could never have known otherwise. He is able to encourage new initiatives which he could not possibly undertake himself. He is able to exercise oversight (which is not the same as control) through listening and advising. As the parish grows is size no one priest can hope to relate personally to the many hundreds of people coming to Mass and the Sacraments. But in these difficult days people quickly lapse if they feel that they do not ‘belong’. The risk for the Ordinariate Groups is that they lose the will to grow because being small is comfortable. So the group revels in its warmth and closeness. But this can also be excluding to anyone trying to join. In my Anglican days I have certainly seen small congregations which talked endlessly about their desire to be bigger: but did everything to keep going with just the same numbers and people as they always had: with the unwritten message ‘Will the last person out after the last funeral please return the church keys to the Bishop.’
As Anglicans we used to say (admiringly) that Catholics would go to Mass anywhere: unlike Anglicans they were not so attached to their buildings that they would walk out if someone dared to move a flower vase! But the attachment to the building could, rightly channelled, give to the laity a sense of ‘ownership’, of responsibility not only for the building but for the life of the parish. My argument in the ‘Catholic Herald’ article on the Ordinariate as Church Planting still holds good. The former Anglicans of the Ordinariate need buildings and parishes into which to pour their energies. Put Ordinariate Groups on the margins of existing parishes with ‘their own’ Mass and you risk wasting a real resource to the renewal of Catholic life in this country.
A wise priest trusts his laity. And the laity respond to his challenge to them with enthusiasm and affection. When the People of God (laity and priests) get it right it is a joy to be part of.