Possibilities of Leadership in Rural Catholic Parishes

With the declining number of priests available, many Catholic dioceses are investigating various ways of organising their parishes. The issue is similar to that faced by many denominations. Catholic parishes, however, have some issues not faced by some Protestant denominations in that priests have an irreplaceable role in celebrating the sacraments. Priests are central to parish life in the Catholic Church and there has not been a tradition of lay people as leaders of worship services. However, two case studies suggest that the patterns of leadership can change and may even strengthen parish life as they do so.

In February 2010, the Christian Research Association undertook a case study in the far west of Victoria. In 2006, Fr Andrew Hayes had been appointed to serve as the sole priest across what had once been four parishes: Coleraine, Casterton, Edenhope and Balmoral-Harrow-Tarryoukyan. The area for which Fr Andrew was responsible is more than 250 kms from one end to the other. It involved ten centres where Mass is said.

Fr Andrew’s method of dealing with the task had been to focus on the roles that he alone could fulfil. He had worked out a timetable of Masses throughout the ten centres so that, in the major Mass centres, there was one Sunday and one week-day Mass each week. In this, Fr Andrew had the assistance of one retired priest. The Masses were supplemented by ten lay-led assemblies with six of the Mass centres holding one or two such services each month.

One of these areas was administration. Fr Andrew made it clear to the various parish committees that he could not attend all of their meetings and they would need to make decisions without him. There was a long tradition that the priest’s approval was needed for any administrative decision, such as the repair of property or a special social evening for the church. Hence, some parish members were reluctant to take that responsibility.

Another area in which lay responsibility could be developed was in pastoral care. While the priest might be available for emergencies, his work needed to be supplemented by the pastoral care offered by others. Certainly much pastoral care occurs throughout rural areas through the natural bonds in small communities. However, between the emergency care provided by the priest and the natural care offered in rural communities, there was a need for something more structured, with people taking time of the lay people to lead them.

Not surprisingly, given the long tradition of emphasis on the centrality of the Mass in Catholic life, a number of people in the region had misgivings about lay-led Assemblies. Some would travel many kilometres every week in order to attend Mass, often far outside their local communities.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 1, Pages 1-5

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