By Cian Molloy - 29 June, 2019
“The uncomfortable things we say need not be judgemental or harsh, but simply counter-cultural.”
A national celebration of thanksgiving and renewal for the ministry of diocesan priests was held yesterday by the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
The celebration was held at Westminster Cathedral on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, and was led by Cardinal Vincent Nichols.
All priests present at the Mass yesterday were presented with two gifts. The first was a book published to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the English College in Douai in northern France. Run by the Benedictine Order, this college helped to re-launch the life of the Church in England and Wales. The publication included scholarly contributions, prayerful reflections and a collection of life stories from more than 50 priests.
The second gift was a copy of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Meditations and Devotions. Describing it as “a lovely edition”, Cardinal Nichols said: “I thank our generous benefactor who has covered the cost of the publication of this handsome book. We shall treasure it.”
The Catholic Church in the UK is suffering a similar vocations crises to the one being experienced in Ireland. In 1986 there were more than 120 seminarians studying to be priests in England and Wales, but last year there were fewer than 30.
Reflecting on how the ministry of diocesan, or secular, priests has changed over the years, the Archbishop of Westminster said that in the past secular priests have had to achieve a practical self-sufficiency. In England, following Catholic emancipation, some saw the re-introduction of diocesan structures as an impeding of that independence and the initiatives that can spring from it, he said.
“In today’s world, the ministry of priests is much more interdependent on the work of others. The pathway we now strive to take is not the opposite of independence, a kind of reluctant dependence on others, but a spirited interdependence, whether in the parish with the people, or between parishes in closer cooperation, and within diocesan oversight, so emphasised in this age of outside regulation and inspection.
“Today our priesthood is lived within this network of relationships.”
And while priests still had to give an “uncomfortable witness” to the world, Cardinal Nichols said: “The uncomfortable things we say need not be judgemental or harsh, but simply counter-cultural. Indeed, at the time of Douai College itself, Cardinal Allen urged priests to be gentle and balanced, subtle and supple in their approach to diffident or fearful Catholics, adding that in most cases the way of mercy is safer than the rigour of justice.”
The celebration was somewhat overshadowed by the recently published report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse that found the Church in England and Wales had failed to safeguard children. In particular, the IICSA found that Cardinal Nichols had put protecting the Church’s reputation ahead of the need to protect children from continuing abuse.
Yesterday’s event was not the time nor the place for those matters, the Cardinal told the assembled priests. “Rather today is about you, my brother priests, about your faithfulness, your steadfast generosity, your ministry of healing, your endurance, not least under the burden of the grievous damage done to innocent victims by just a very few of our brother priests. I thank you for your faithfulness, your generosity, your perseverance. I thank you, as do each of us bishops, and the people of your parishes. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you!”