Priests, be risk-takers!
Looking back at the recent Convocation of Clergy
20th June 2017
Bishop Philip writes...
PRIESTS, BE RISK-TAKERS!
Message of Fr. James Mallon to Convocation of Clergy
“What sort of priest or deacon are you? Are you a risk-taker, a care-taker or an undertaker?” This was the question Fr. James Mallon asked our clergy last week at the Convocation of Clergy. The Convocation, which was held at the De Vere Hotel, Windsor from 13th to 15th June, was for all the clergy of the Diocese of Portsmouth in active ministry in parishes, schools and communities. With 120 present, including 15 deacons, it was very close to a 100% turnout. The event lasted only 48 hours, although it was such an intense period of work that it seemed to last much longer. The retired clergy were invited to join us for the final Mass and lunch, and also to the Thursday afternoon workshops. These latter were also open to the laity and anyone interested. It was a full house. The whole Convocation was a remarkable and grace-filled experience, not unlike what Vatican II was, they say, for its participants, an ‘event’ that transcended its actual contents.
The last time a similar Convocation of Clergy gathered in this Diocese was over 20 years ago. I very much wanted it to be a moment of joy and God’s favour, a time of renewal to help our clergy look forward to the next decade of ministry in the Diocese. I hoped it would renew communion and friendship, heal wounds and hurts, and strengthen loyalty and mutual collaboration for the tasks ahead. This was a primary goal. I also wanted the Convocation to help us commit afresh to the new evangelisation, whilst reflecting on such challenges as maintenance and mission, the Sacraments of Initiation and models of pastoral leadership. Fr. James Mallon, author of Divine Renovation, was the invited speaker. He was an excellent choice and an inspiring speaker.
In the end, the Convocation far exceeded my expectations. The spirit among the clergy, despite initial suspicions, evinced a remarkably positive engagement with ideas that frequently challenged traditional pastoral practice. I felt proud of our clergy for their generous engagement. Indeed, Fr. Mallon himself remarked how much he felt at home in our diocese with our clergy, how youthful they seemed and how open and positive. He sensed there was enormous potential for the future.
The Convocation was busy with numerous inputs, workshops, the celebration of the Liturgy, and time for the meals together. There was little free time and it seemed much longer than 48 hours. There now needs to be a structured process to take things forward from the many topics and issues were raised. Fr. Mallon put forward a rich stall of discussion-matters from his book such as clericalism, maintenance/mission, the Sacraments, styles of pastoral leadership. Dr. Caroline Farey from School of the Annunciation Buckfast was the facilitator and she led an afternoon one-off session on the use of art in new evangelisation. This would merit a dedicated study day at some point. Over dinner, Fr. Frankie Mulgrew was an entertaining after-dinner speaker.
Some personal highlights from the discussions. When Fr. Mallon differentiated priests into three types - risk-takers, care-takers and undertakers - I assured the priests that if they wished to be a risk-taker, I would support them. He also told us to do less, not more, to concentrate on the triple munera and to drop everything else. He gave us permission to say NO: to stop doing things that do not work and to try out new ways. He gave examples from his parish of new ways for people to belong to the Church and to be involved in its mission, even if at this point, they were not yet receiving the sacraments.
One of our priests asked the question: Is the Church a church for the masses or a church for the few, the pure and committed? It is crucial that the great Catholic Church must ever be a ‘big-tent’ church for everyone. Mallon stressed the need to love the Catholic Tradition but at the same time to espouse genuine creativity and newness. This surely gives everyone a place, each priest having a role to play, taking part in their own way. So often commentators portray the Church as a football match between 2 competing teams. A better image in my view is orienteering in which each person must pool their gifts and talents for the sake of the whole.
Fr. Mallon went on to suggest new leadership styles for the priest. Priests are often trained in two of the munera (priesthood and teaching) but not in the munus of shepherding. Many of us need ongoing support in developing leadership skills. He proposed that every parish has a leadership team: the priest plus two or three laity assisting him. I did wonder though how this might work in smaller communities?
I then shared something of my own vision. It’s almost 5 years since the holyfather appointed me Bishop of Portsmouth, Chief Shepherd and Successor to the Apostles, and I now have a better overview of things. If God spares me, there’s still many more years to go. Recently I have been thinking much about vision, and where I believe God wants to take the Diocese over the next decade, building on what has gone before, notably the 2003 Diocesan Assembly and Go Out and Bear Fruit.
More on this for another occasion. But for now, I thank God for a wonderful time together, with much joy and mutual encouragement for our clergy. I pray that their hard work this last week will inspire us all afresh and help bring the message to the laity too so that together we can become an ever more missionary and evangelistic Church. There is work to be done together over the years ahead. The Convocation gave a huge impetus to this. We departed full of gratitude to Fr. Mallon and to all those who helped it to take place.