- Catholic Common Ground Initiative - https://catholiccommonground.org -

2007 Msgr. Philip J. Murnion Lecture: Where to Look for Common Ground

Keynote Speaker:  Jill Ker Conway
RespondentsRev. James Bacik, collaborator in the early days of the formation of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative and participant in the annual Cardinal Bernardin conferences.

June 29, 2007


It’s a wonderful but also bracing honor to be invited to speak on this occasion. I revere Cardinal Bernardin and am committed to the goals he established for this organization. Having said that I must say that since I have no training in theology I have found this evening’s talk a challenging assignment.

I have studied the previous lectures in this series, some very learned, some very passionate, and many both learned and passionate. As I read them I thought about the impassioned and highly intellectual doctrinal debate which has characterized the Catholic Church for two thousand years. That debate has led to the development of dogma and has given us an intellectual heritage which is one of the glories of the Church, combined as it is with a strong central authority charged with interpreting the Christian revelation. So as I have thought about where we should be seeking common ground between liberal and conservative Catholics it has seemed to me that we might best search in the area of ecclesiology rather than seeking greater intellectual agreement. This point was made forcefully recently by Daniel Finn, speaking to the Catholic Theological Society. [ Daniel Finn, Power and Public Presence, In Catholic Social Thought, The Church, and the CTSA] We know that the early church fathers disagreed so passionately at the Council of Nicea that they fell to tugging one another’s beards. So passion is certainly appropriate to theological debate. But I believe the search for common ground may take us to more practical problem solving in ecclesiological matters. For the nature of the crisis faced by the Church in North America and many parts of the developed world is as an organization, so it is in the area of ecclesiology that fresh insight and energy is most important.

The challenge of academic administration, at which I have worked most of my life is learning how to work with gifted individuals who hold passionate opinions drawn from every point on the social and political spectrum about how the university should be run. Moreover, to finance academic institutions, one must rely on non-academic volunteers who hold equally firm opinions on the role and mission of universities. Today, it seems to me the Church faces similar problems because the shortage of secular clergy requires learning how to create an ecclesiastical organization which must of necessity rely upon volunteers, not just as fundraisers, but as participants in the spiritual mission of the Church.

So tonight I want to tell you a story of just such a collaboration in the parish where I live in the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts. It’s a story from which I think it is possible to extract some useful ecclesiological questions. The story illustrates in miniature, many of the problems affecting the Church today — the terrible pressure brought to bear upon an aging secular clergy by the lack of vocations. There are currently 97 active diocesan priests in the Springfield Diocese, a number which will fall to 65 in 2010. A few years ago the Diocese contained over two hundred churches. These figures indicate critical problems facing both clergy and laity no matter whether they are liberal or conservative Catholics. We all face the problem which goes deepest into the heart of the institution, how to make available for the laity the eucharist which is the very core of our Catholic life. An accompanying concern is how to bring the laity into the management and delivery of much pastoral care, while sustaining the role of the canonical pastor, and, most critically, how to ensure the integrity of an institution, which is not a voluntary association of believers, but a two thousand year old institution which has been the bearer and interpreter of the Christian revelation for the faithful, an institution described in Vatican II’s lumen gentium, as itself “a kind of sacrament” a physical manifestation of a mystery.

My story concerns the small mission church of St.Mark’s in the town of Conway, in Western Massachusetts. Since its foundation in 1874 St.Mark’s has always been a mission church because it serves the smallish population of Catholics who live in what are called the hill towns, rocky craggy settlements in the hills above the Connecticut Valley in a rugged terrain carved out by the last ice age. St. Mark’s has remained a mission for 133 years because the roads are icy and dangerous in winter, and it is difficult for people to travel far to attend mass. In my thirty years living there we had one beloved pastor whose parish was in the town of South Deerfield in the valley below. He was in his late seventies, and in indifferent health, living alone in an echoingly empty rectory, when in early in 2003 he fell downstairs some time during the weekend, and was not found until he failed to appear for the 7.00 a.m. Monday mass. He died of the injuries sustained in the fall, and his death set me thinking about the isolation of overworked, aging, and often unwell priests in empty rectories across this country. And, of course, his death set off a now familiar train of circumstances for our little congregation.

There being no possibility of a replacement his parish was merged with the other parish in the town, and it was planned to close St. Mark’s mission. Everyone concerned: our bishop, Father Phillipe Roux, pastor of the newly merged churches, and the congregation of St Mark’s understood the problem; the shortage of manpower was incontrovertible. But so was the winter weather and attendants’ limits on travel. This made our small congregation seek another solution.

Eventually our Bishop agreed that provided we could cover the cost of heating, lighting and maintaining the church, and find priests in good standing to celebrate Sunday mass for us, we could keep the church open, and our pastor, down in the valley, agreed to continue his role as canonical pastor. So, on July 1, 2003 we began our new worship life, aided by Jesuit students at Weston Jesuit Theological Seminary in Boston, and also by a retired priest from the Diocese. We are now at the end of our fourth year of assuming responsibility for arranging our worship life. Our congregation has grown as many who had not been regular attenders have returned. Assuming the costs of the building, providing reserves for rising fuel costs, and undertaking needed maintenance has required that our congregation double their weekly offering, something done without a murmur once the actual budget was laid out.

None of us anticipated the rest of the story. Gradually, our spiritual life, individually and as a community has developed an entirely new level of intensity, because we have taken on, not just a building and a mass schedule, but many of the pastoral responsibilities we would not otherwise have assumed. Priests who visit from Boston, 125 miles away, come on Saturday night and stay with families in the parish, so they know the congregation well. They are our honored guests, and having no administrative duties, their entire concern is with the spiritual life of the congregation. On Sundays they breakfast after mass with a second family, and once a month we borrow the meeting room of the local firehouse, for a coffee hour at which our visitor talks about some matter of concern to the group. These are not your usual coffee hour chat. The subjects people ask to discuss are deep matters of faith. The conversations which stand out in my mind have been on prayer, and how to pray; on how to think about the formation of a conscience in children and in adults; how to pass on one’s faith to one’s children; and on the theology of death and dying. I have never before heard these subjects discussed so openly and so intensely by a mixed group with ages ranging from the late teens to people in their 70’s and 80’s. I believe people are hungry for such conversations, but most pastors must hurry away after mass to fulfill a demanding mass schedule, so they cannot occur.

Our prayer life is also different, because, not having to ask permission to open the church, it is regularly used in times of crisis for families, in times of illness, in Lenten observance. We are also different from many urban parishes in the presence of young people, children and teenagers. They are impressed, like all of us, by the missionary life of many of our celebrants, young Jesuit missionaries studying temporarily in Boston. Their mission life in Siberia, or Behar or Coted’Ivoire seems heroic and adventurous to all of us but especially the young. Each week we see visible evidence of the Church universal in the persons of the celebrants. Most importantly they present an alternative model of spirituality striking in its risk and challenge and so able to compete for attention with American Idol, or perhaps even the Sunday Sports page.

Our visiting priests tell us that celebrating Mass with us is also different for them because of the relationship with the community and the sense of being an honored guest. Also, the joy the group has in worshipping together and their close involvement in the liturgy is palpable. There is no one there just out of habit. We are a diverse congregation ranging from farmers and farm workers, carpenters and stone masons through professionals and summer and weekend visitors like me, and absent our commitment to St. Mark’s we would not know one another well. But we have learned all about one another during our collective efforts to clean, polish, paint, decorate and repair a beloved building. There was collective rejoicing after Mass recently when some intrepid and surefooted carpenters finally evicted the last pigeon from the steeple to the applause of appreciative parishioners below.

We remain connected to the Diocese through our canonical pastor to whom we deliver our weekly offerings every Monday, and who deals with the Diocese when we want to undertake major expenditures on the building. Because our visiting priests can only be available on Sunday mornings our pastor officiates at weddings and funerals and oversees preparation for confirmation. From time to time one of our worship committee members calls on him to report our numbers in attendance at Mass and informs him of who our recent celebrants have been. On occasions, as recommended by our pastor we are invited to send a representative to meetings called by the Deanery so that we are connected with major initiatives of the Diocese. These arrangements seem to work smoothly, and all are naturally evolving with experience.

However, we are still a call on the time of an overcommitted pastor at times of celebration or sadness during the week because we have no one to preside over baptisms, or to conduct weddings and funerals. The natural solution to this problem would be to seek the ordination of a permanent deacon or deacons from among our number. There are in fact several married men in our congregation who feel a call to such a vocation. But here again distance presents a barrier because the possible candidates have young families and have family duties just at the times when the programs for the formation of deacons are available in Springfield a lengthy drive away. These programs require attendance two nights a week over a four year period. If some modification of that schedule more compatible with family life could be developed, we would in a few years be able to sustain our worship life without making further claims on a diocese whose priestly resources are already stretched so very thin. As an academic who is used to relying heavily on class email networks and chat hours to interact with students daily and sometimes hourly it seems worth exploring whether more could be achieved in the process of formation by using new electronic technologies.

Of course, as a rural community with face to face relationships, our experience is not entirely applicable to today’s urban or suburban parish. Certainly our problem with travel under adverse circumstances which set us out on this path is not one widely shared. But there are elements of our experience that have broader ecclesiological implications about the ways in which the spiritual life of the laity can be built in a period when clergy time will be consumed by the delivery of the sacraments. I am not sure when there has been an equivalent scarcity of priests since the earliest days of the Church in North America, or in the crises of outbreaks of the plague in mediaeval Europe. So it is clear that we must think about the faith life of Catholics of which the sacramental system is the foundation, but one on which a collective spiritual experience must take place. It is in the search for new forms and understandings of devotional life that I think we should be directing our energies.

As I have outlined, we are not a particularly homogenous group, not a set of likeminded people who might be expected to enjoy working together. Every point on the spectrum of liberal and conservative views of the church is represented among us. Nonetheless, we have managed through careful consultation of our number on finances, on patterns of worship, on scheduling building maintenance, and on organizing discussion sessions with our visiting priests, to enjoy and value one another’s points of view, though it must be confessed that deliberations on improving the plumbing in the church, did, as most building projects do, consume a lot of time and energy in our building committee But the important point is that we have been able to take over the tasks of managing our worship schedule, our finances, and the development of our understanding of our faith, and have found the experience deeply rewarding.

Secondly, our experience suggests that a canonical pastor can be very effective while not being in residence. The fact that ours does not organize the worship schedule in no way alters his role as a link to the diocese, and an adviser and counselor. From our experience, rotation of mass celebrants linked with scheduled time to interact with parishioners can provide both the stimulation of new voices and very sustaining pastoral care. Group discussions on important matters of faith in some neutral and sociable setting seem to work very well. And others can be devised using the skills of parishioners, such as the reading group which has continued within our little congregation for all of our four years. Once it is recognized that the canonical pastor’s role can be separated from many pastoral duties it might be possible to consolidate residential arrangements so that some of the isolation and stress secular clergy now experience might be reduced, and tragedies like the death of our late pastor might be avoided. If, as we have found, a rotation of celebrants, combined with some opportunity to get to know them, works very well, it might be possible to use the available active priests’ time more efficiently.

Thirdly, if our small community is in any way typical, it is very important to connect the regular worship life of parishes with the Church’s missionary life. And this connection cannot be just the once a year appearance of a missionary preacher raising money. The missionary presence provides a congregation with new models of spirituality, and the missionary faith is so compellingly apparent, that it moves a comfortably settled congregation toward a much more complex sense of the Church, and therefore of their participation in it. We are in regular touch with some of our missionary visitors and involved in supporting their missions, an extension of our awareness of the universal church we did not have before.

Fourthly, it is clear that the shortage of active priests is now and will continue to require much greater reliance on the diaconate. If my small congregation is anything to go by, there are many potential candidates to become deacons, who are prevented from doing so by the current process of formation followed in our diocese and many others. A process that requires attendance at some distance for instruction in two nights a week for four years cries out for fresh thought. The four major elements of that formation, training in history and philosophy, pastoral training, spiritual formation, and human development in faith are clear. But it doesn’t seem to someone like me who teaches using the internet and email regularly, that some of its components could not be delivered electronically, that some of the collective experience which is an important component could not be developed one weekend a month, and that the human development sought in adults requires a full four years to take place. All that we know about adult development suggests the contrary.

Perhaps also people who become deacons in their early forties might, as they experience the mid-life reconfiguration of commitments and goals which is a well documented psychological phenomenon, find a new vocation to the priesthood. Under current definitions of the diaconate that is not possible. But given what we know about the stages of adult development, it might be worth reexamining the assumptions on mid-life development on which existing rules were established.

The experience of one small congregation can only provide an impressionistic sense of possibilities. But what has happened in my small one has been a transformation in the level and intensity of people’s spiritual life. That has happened because they have had to come together as a praying community, and they have been blessed in the friendship and ministry of some remarkable visiting priests, and the encouragement of our diocese. We do not fit into the model of a neat ecclesiological structure, but our experience has been productive of great grace. So perhaps we are a sign of the ways in which the spiritual life of the faithful may be creatively built during the current crisis from the lack of vocations. It requires collaboration and trust between hierarchy and laity, and a recognition that with such collaboration much management of pastoral life can be placed in the hands of lay persons. It is finding the model for collaboration along these lines for much larger communities and congregations that requires all our energies. This is a task about which we can all unite. It is a very important one, because sustaining the devotional life of the laity requires new thinking, and the exploration of new models.

Also online: Rev. James Bacik’s response to Dr. Kerr’s lecture [1]