Priesthood in England and Wales

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Given at Day Conference for the Priests of the Archdiocese of Birmingham on 13 September 2016.  

I started serious preparation for this talk at the time of the Feast of the Assumption and l begin with a quotation from that Office of Readings, from the Letter to the Ephesians: 

'I have never stopped thanking God for you. I remember you in my prayers ... I ask that your minds may be opened to see his light, so that you will know what is the hope to which he has called you, how rich are the wonderful blessings he promises his people, and how very great is his power at work within us who believe.' (Eph 1.16-18). 

St Paul's emphasis on hope and on 'the power at work within us' caught my eye. Our priesthood is, I believe, an expression of that hope and an experience of the power of God's blessings and grace among so many people. 

During the summer I attended the World Youth Day in Kraków. One of the themes explored by Pope Francis was that of hope. As you might expect, he took a rather original line. 

Speaking to the World Youth Day volunteers just before leaving Poland he said: 'Do you want to be the hope for the future or not? There are two conditions. 

‘The first condition is to remember. Trying to understand where you come from: the memory of your people, your family, your whole history. Memory of the path you have taken, memory of everything you have received from those who have gone before you. A young person who cannot remember is no hope for the future. Is that clear? 

‘So how do you go about remembering? First, talk to your grandparents. Because if you want to be hope for the future, you have to receive the torch from your grandfather and your grandmother, or if they are already in heaven, talk with the elderly.  Ask them. They are the wisdom of a people. 

‘Second condition. If you are to be hope for the future and have memory of the past, then what about the present? What must you do in the present? Have courage, be strong, don’t be afraid.                                                          

‘Is all this clear? Good.’  (To volunteers 31 July) 

So I thank Judith Champ for her work and her latest book (The Secular Priesthood in England and Wales: History, Mission and Identity, Oscott Publications, 2016) which is at the heart of this day. She is enabling us to remember, to talk to our grandparents in the priesthood, to our great-grandparents, indeed to our great-great-grandparents, back through many generations. It is from them that we learn the great virtues of priestly hope and of courage. 

In her book Champ suggests that there are three key questions that can frame our reflections as we try to allow our history to strengthen our present. They are: 

i)     How the individual priest lives his life

ii)    How he relates to his brother priests and bishops

iii)   How he leads the community placed in his care 

For each of these we can call on a rich historical content and a wealth of personal experience. 

i) How do we lead our individual lives? 

Let me begin with two quotations. Both describe aspects of our daily lives as priests. The first, from the early 1630s, emphasises ‘simplicity of life, obedience, chastity and sharing of spiritual resources' (Henry Gilmet, p 47) adding that work among the poor is the apostolic mission of the secular clergy. 

A century later, Bishop Challoner issues his manifesto for the daily living of the priest: daily mental prayer, annual retreat, the work of catechesis with the young, well-prepared preaching, being available to receive people in the evening, care for the poor, and keeping out of the many London pubs. 

Two centuries later (1998) and into our own day, this description of the priests is offered: 'The diocesan priest is a private man, genuinely classless, magisterial in the sense of speaking on behalf of the authority of the Church, ... dealing with failure, including his own and at the same time witnessing to the great and miraculous joy among ordinary people ... a diocesan priest has an innate wisdom, learnt of experience ... He needs a mixture of maturity, generosity and awareness' (p 106), words of Mgr Tony Philpot, whose work was so much appreciated by many and who died in July. May he indeed rest in the peace of the Lord. 

Over the centuries of our history, huge differences are to be seen in the lives of priests in England and Wales, from their being at the centre of the social networks in Pre-Reformation England to being hunted criminals, a man alone in fear of his life not for what he did but for who he was (p 34), then being the gatherers of a scattered flock, to the role that first emerged in the late 19th century as builder, fundraiser and entrepreneur, a role that still is to be seen today. 

But beneath, or within, these differences, there is without doubt a strong bond of continuity which we can recognise. We share the same dedication, daily discipline, basic loyalty which enable us to recognise all who have gone before us as our brothers, holding them in affection and love, and draw from them, despite profoundly different circumstances and challenges, vital inspiration for our own hope and courage. 

Many identities have been given to the Catholic priest in England and Wales. We can cherish Challoner's insistence on the priest as martyr, on the heritage of the martyr priests. From his day, this became part of the identity of English Catholics and differentiated them from the other varieties of religious life in England that were emerging in the 18th century, the first real age of English religious pluralism (p 57). Then, a century later, there is Ullathorne's insistence on the identity of the diocesan priest as missioner, a title which he truly esteemed and believed had to be earned. 

Both of these are surely true for us today: missioners and successors of the martyrs, men who lived by an unshakeable hope in the promises of the Lord and in the work of the Holy Spirit in their daily lives. These are the dimensions of our priesthood that I treasure most, even in this age, when we have such strong rights of settlement, such a thorough academic training and accepted place in society, though not without being the focus of a new and, for the most part, healthy and open criticism. 

Just a few weeks ago, on a drive down France, I went to visit the church where Fr Jacques Hamel was brutally killed. The town, or suburb, of Saint Etienne-du-Rouvray, is a small, quiet place beside the railway tracks, south of Rouen. The church was still closed, surrounded by barricades. There was a small, moving and tired-looking array of flowers, cards, mementos and tributes. 

We are told that Fr Hamel died with these words on his lips: 'Go away Satan.' It is not clear what he meant. Journalists said it was directed at those who came at this throat with their knives. Or did those words point to a deeper struggle? I have pondered on these words as the utterance of a man of peace and a priest.  His 'Satan' could have been the fear gripping his heart, or a despair that all was about to be lost. His 'Satan' may well have been anything that could have made him lose trust in Jesus at this hour of his death, the radical temptations urging him to abandon the very foundation on which he had built his whole life. He was, evidently, a man of peace, refusing a commission in the French Foreign Legion during his years of service because it would have meant giving orders to kill. He had built a life of daily peacefulness and his struggle may well have been in maintaining that stance, his radical decision of heart, of spirit, until the last moment of consciousness. The witness of his daily life as a priest, I suggest, is summed up in the manner of his death: on his knees, before the altar, the very position he had taken when he was ordained. 

Our struggles are different but we too have to fight, each day, to keep fresh the original call and inspiration which brought us to our knees at the moment of our ordination. We too want to bring that dedication to the moment of our death. 

There is so much more we can draw from our history, from many other shining examples of priesthood who emerge in the darkness of cruelty and human sinfulness. They are our brothers and they enrich us in our own striving and service. 

So what is it that binds us together, across the centuries and the great diversity of experience? For me, the most appropriate word, the only word that takes us to the heart of priesthood is that it is a gift. Priesthood is a gift given by the Lord to us in our daily unworthiness, entrusted to these vessels of clay, unfolding in responsibility, in opportunity, in a flow of trust, respect, affection that we do not deserve but which is given solely in the light of the office, the gift, we have received. Sometimes we have mistakenly thought that this gift bestows a personal superiority over others, or that it is a source of personal privilege setting us above others. How wrong that is, yet how beguiling: that we mistake for personal honour the respect and esteem that belongs solely to the gift of being a priest of Jesus Christ. 

There is a deeper sense of gift here too. We can rightly say that the call to priesthood is given by the Father. It is given because the Father wants to give companions to his Son. Just as the Father sent his Son, so too he chooses and sends us priests to be his Son’s companions. We are, then, the Father’s gift to Christ, to share in the mission given to Christ by the Father. I may say, then, that from all eternity the Father has seen and intended that I would be a companion, in priesthood, of his Son, a gift given out of his love. 

We know only too well, as have all our brothers of ages past, that we are men who face every temptation, who know every weakness that characterises our humanity and our age: the difficulty of sustaining faithfulness in the commitments we have given; the difficulty of handling all relationships with integrity and openness; the challenges of social media and their addictive power; the dangers of misinterpreting anger or praise or indifference. The list is as complex as our common humanity. Yet the Lord has chosen us. Day by day we can rejoice in that choice, in the utterly astonishing fact that we are bound to him forever and that he chooses to use our hands, our words, our hearts to accomplish the most sublime work of his grace. The gift unfolds in so many ways, but especially, I suggest, in the way so beautifully expressed by Tony Philpot, in our witnessing and sharing in 'the great and miraculous joy' in the lives of so many ordinary people. That indeed is the stuff of our daily living! 

ii) How the priest relates to his brother priests and bishops. 

Now the second question on which we are to ponder is this: how do we priests relate to our brother priests and to our bishop? This is, indeed, a rich vein of our history and one from which, in my view, we have inherited a great deal. 

In the centuries since the Reformation, one consistent theme emerges: a concern for the cohesiveness of the body of priests, often spoken of as priestly fraternity. This concern has at times been expressed by those who had oversight, whether in Rome or locally, whether apostolic vicars or bishops; it has been expressed by groups of priests and by leading individuals. The concern has given rise to many different initiatives, from the late 17th century Institute for the Secular Clergy based on the work of Holzhauser, which became the formative influence in Oscott College, or the inspiration of Francis de Sales and Vincent de Paul in the St Sulpice movement which shaped the life of Wonersh in the 19th century, through to the priests' support movements of the last decades: the Ministry to Priests Programme and the Emmaus Programme. Many other expressions of this desire for fraternity emerge and play their part: Jesus Caritas, Third Order confraternities, dining circles, golfing groups. All have contributed. Not all have enjoyed lasting success. The challenge remains. 

Modern culture obviously has its contribution, with its strong individualism reinforcing our desire to get on with our own tasks and cherish an independence of action. The weight of diverse responsibilities we each carry can make expressions of fraternity seem like a luxury for which we can barely afford the time. Yet perhaps there are deeper roots to this matter which are helpful to understand. 

In the decades following the Acts of Supremacy, the experience of the Catholic priest was one of profound isolation. He had no settled home, no church from which to minister. He was dependent for his life and work on the network of people, local knowledge and personal commitment. This was no brief interlude. Indeed, as Champ puts it, 'The habit of independent, self-determined action became automatic, accompanying the isolation in which most of them lived.' She continues, 'This unique formative experience lasted through generations, for over two hundred years, and became part of the way in which secular priests saw themselves. It became fundamental to the identity of the secular priesthood in England and Wales' (p 39). 

I do not think I am exaggerating if I say that this 'habit of independent, self-determined action' is part of the DNA of our priesthood, even to this day. It is one of our great strengths, yet having its downside too. At least Bishop Ullathorne found it so when, in the 1880s, he commented: 'The clergy are so fond of independence. One is obliged to think a great deal about their feelings to save a great deal of difficulty!' 

During the two centuries which laid down this foundation, it is not as if the clergy were of one mind. Our story is also one of constant conflict within the presbyterate. This includes, of course, the early conflicts with our Jesuit brothers, which resulted in the complete institutional separation of their mission from ours by Papal decree in 1602. Even this intervention did nothing to settle the deep divisions among the secular clergy over the pattern of oversight, or episcope, which was required. The first Post-Reformation bishop was appointed only in 1623, working closely with a chapter of senior priests, which was also a point of conflict. That appointment was not a success.  Great uncertainty remained for the rest of that century and throughout the next, to be brought to a close only in 1850 when diocesan structures were put in place. By then some deep-seated patterns had been established and old habits die hard. 

Not surprisingly, then, a constant appeal of the first diocesan bishops, emphasised by both Wiseman and Manning, was that priests foster 'a love for their diocese and loyalty to their bishop'. Thankfully, in my experience, that appeal has always elicited a rich and fruitful response and this sense of loyalty is strong today for the most part. But renewal is always needed. 

The renewal of these relationships has to be more than a matter of expediency. It must be clearly rooted in its source and foundation. It must be based on that same sense of the privilege of sharing together in the priesthood of Christ. As we all know, the institutional aspects of these relationships, whether between priests or with their bishop, are fraught with tensions, mutual demands springing from the legal structures of both Church and civil responsibilities. So pinpointing the source of our fraternity is very important. Only when we are rooted in that shared awareness, convinced of the transforming significance of the person of Jesus in our history, and conscious that each of us stands in this company only because he has chosen to send us out to do his work, does our sense of fraternity find its true expression. 

Presbyteral fraternity has its diocesan characteristics and culture. Each diocesan presbyterate has its own collective memories, its own jokes, its own heroes and villains. In a time in which a presbyterate is made up from an increasing number of different sources, and in which the formation received by its priests is no longer shared or uniform, the need to get together, both to share that culture and to contribute to it, is as important as ever, always welcoming the newcomer whose road to priesthood may have been very different to one's own. 

In my view, a good and simple test of this fraternity is the attendance of priests at the funeral of a brother priest. We do not go to a priest's funeral because he was a friend, or because he shared our views. We go because he is a brother. In the unforgettable words of Ronnie Knox, a great blessing of being a diocesan priest is that 'your brethren will bury you cheerfully’! 

Divisions among priests inevitably arise. They may be over practical matters, over strongly held preferences in aspects of ministry. Mostly you know how to deal with them. But there is one fatal disease that can infect a presbyterate. Diocesan fraternity becomes impossible if we are the kind of people who take offence at the words and deeds of other priests, or deacons or bishops, and decide to freeze them permanently out of our lives with a hardness of heart. Then our presbyterate does not stand a chance. Nor too does our mission. 

In these relationships we bishops have our part to play. Here too, Pope Francis had some telling words when speaking to the Polish Bishops in Kraków. In response to a question he was speaking of pastoral closeness. To us bishops he said this: 

'I think I must speak to you of the most important closeness: that closeness with priests. The bishop must be available for his priests. When I was in Argentina, I heard many, so many times, from priests, when I went to give the Exercises. I said: “Speak with the bishop about this …” “Oh, I called him and the secretary said to me: ‘No, he is very, very busy, but he will receive you in three months.’” But this priest feels himself an orphan, without a father, without closeness, and he begins to go down. A bishop who sees messages from a priest, in the evening when he returns, he must call him immediately that same evening or the next day. “Yes, I am busy, but is it urgent?”  — “No. No, but let’s come to an agreement …” The priest must feel he has a father. If we take paternity away from priests, we cannot ask them to be fathers. And thus the sense of God’s paternity is removed. The Son’s work is to touch human miseries: spiritual and corporal. Closeness. The Father’s work: to be father, a bishop-father.' 

iii) How the priest leads the community placed in his care. 

A priest's paternity is, of course, expressed in his mission. So now we turn to the third point: how the priest exercises his mission, how he leads the people entrusted to his care.

There are many ways in which priests exercise their ministry, but in my view the parish remains the core and essential element of that ministry. Some more words of Pope Francis, again, in his unscripted response to the Polish bishops: 

'I would like to stress one thing: the parish is always valid! The parish must remain: it’s a structure we must not throw out the window! In fact, the parish is the house of the People of God, the one in which it lives. The problem is how to build the parish! ... There are parishes with closed doors. But there are also parishes with the doors open, parishes where, when someone comes to ask, one says: “Yes, yes … make yourself comfortable. What is the problem?” And one listens with patience, because to take care of the People of God is exhausting, it’s exhausting!’  

And then: 

'We bishops must ask the priests this: “How is your parish doing? And do you go out? Do you visit prisoners, the sick, little old ladies? And what do you do with the children? How do you help them play? How are persons received? How are they heard? Is there always someone in the confessional?”  If there is a confessional with the light on, especially in city parishes, the people always go to confession, always! It's a welcoming parish. 

'There are those that say that the parish is no longer useful, because now is the time of movements. This isn’t true! The movements help, but the movements must not be an alternative to the parish: they must help in the parish, carry the parish forward. 

'Should one seek novelty or change the parish structure? The parish (as such) must not be touched: it must remain as a place of creativity, of reference, of maternity and all these things. 

'Invent, seek, go out, seek the people, engage in the people’s difficulties. If you don’t go to seek the people, if you don’t approach them, they don’t come. And this is a missionary disciple, the outgoing parish. Go out and seek, as God did who sent his Son to seek us' (Kraków, 27 July 2016). 

There is a strong echo in these words of much that is to be found in our traditions and daily ministry. These words can inspire our leadership in a parish. But what is more our own history also helps to make this leadership more specific, more indigenous to England and Wales. 

In the 1550s, the ambition of Mary I and Cardinal Pole was to build up an educated, resident, pastoral and preaching body of priests. Their ambition actually took shape after their deaths, in the College at Douai. There in the 1580s, Cardinal Allen was already giving our ministry a particular shape. He insisted that the objective of the mission in England and Wales had to be more pastoral than evangelical, not so much conversion but the reconciliation of fearful or timid Catholics (Champ, p 33). He wanted priests to transform careless Catholics into conscientious and courageous witnesses and in this work he urged priests not to be too rigid in their approach to the demands of the public repudiation of Catholic faith. Rather he urged priests to be gentle and balanced in their approach, a 'subtle and supple approach', so as not to drive people away (p 41). 

This emphasis has endured. For a long time we have focussed on the existing Catholic community, in its strengths and weaknesses, in its needs and expectations. We have been less focussed on the out-going work of direct evangelisation, even as current research suggests (cf Stephen Bullivant, Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales: A Statistical Report, Benedict XVI Centre, St Mary’s University, pp 11-13). The building up of the Catholic community, in its position as a minority, has been our experience and tradition. What we see today, in our very changed circumstances, is the need for this minority to find a confident voice at every level, in putting forward the truths of faith in a culture that has lost much of its nerve in asserting fundamental human and humanising principles of meaning and action. 

One further point: In commenting on the disintegration and reconstruction of Christian life brought about by the Reformation, Champ points out that the abandonment of the Sacrament of Reconciliation contributed to the breakdown of the pastoral bond between the priest and the people in his care. In her words, 'The penitential cycle, which tied priests and people is a close bond, was largely broken’ (p 41). Today it is the experience of many that when this cycle is re-established then the vitality of Christian living is restored. It is surely a paradox of our age that just as objective truth is culturally outlawed the processes of confession of faults are as popular as ever, evidently as TV entertainment, aggressively in investigative journalism and, thank God, fruitfully in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There is so much healing to be done. 

Let me return to Fr Jacques Hamel. His life did not include 'important' or 'prominent' roles, but was spent serving in four parishes within his diocese. It obviously brought him deep satisfaction as, at the age of 85, he continued to serve as a curate in the parish where he had been parish priest. He was well-known and well-loved among the people. They attended his funeral Mass in huge numbers. 

That put me in mind of the funeral of Blessed John Henry Newman. As you know, the streets along the seven-mile route from the Oratory to Rednal, taken by his funeral cortège, were lined with up to 30,000 people. I am sure that most of them had never read a book or a letter written by the Cardinal. But they knew him as a loving and pastoral priest, who had attended them in their times of need. 

Herein, most surely, lies the heart of our pastoral ministry, the witness that we are to give. Everything else stands or falls on this: our closeness, a favourite word of Pope Francis, to those whom we serve. That closeness has changed in character over these centuries, but in essence it remains the same, just as the human quest for God remains the same and the struggles of every person to respond to the unchanging and endless mercy of God remain, in essence, the same. The cost of our priesthood also remains unchanged: it costs everything. Of course the ways in which that gift is made change age by age: no longer crucifixion, as embraced by our Master; most infrequently among us but not elsewhere by violent death; more likely the slow, daily down-payments of a generous response to each person who makes a request of us, the effort of yet another homily, or personal interview, or casual conversation turned beyond chatter into a moment of true evangelical exchange. 

There are no headlines in this talk, just as there are, usually, few headlines in the life of the faithful priest. Most headlines tend to be an exaggerated generalisation as can be seen in the writings of many commentators on the life of priests. Nor do I use the word crisis, even though it is a word constantly used about the priesthood in England and Wales, right back to the ‘crisis’ of the corruption of late mediaeval clergy. In the light of better research, that crisis, like many others, proved to be largely insubstantial. But here we are, largely in good spirits, always in need of encouragement, and, in my view, never lacking inner resources and strong desire to respond to the Lord and to the tasks he gives to us. 

Now a final word of challenge: In one of his many Catholic sermons, Cardinal Newman spoke of us emerging into a wider world in which, I quote, ‘we shall be so large that our concerns cannot be hid and at the same time so unprotected that we cannot but suffer’. Our only protection, he insisted, was a strong body of priests who had received a solid spiritual and theological formation in the seminary, who were united in fraternity with their bishop and with one another (cf Champ, p 75). In this he was surely correct, although he may not have known the kinds of pressure that we are actually under or the radical changes with which we live. 

I believe that what is required of us today is a genuine development of the independence of action that has served the pattern of priesthood well, into a network of willing interdependencies such as we have not before fully achieved. 

The immediate post-Reformation mission in England and Wales demonstrated the power of a local network of interdependence without which the local church in this country would not have survived or flourished (cf p 140), but today something more complex, more overt, more embracing, subject to scrutiny, is required. The networks of interdependence, which may well be the key to our mission and to the witness we give, include all those we have been briefly exploring: a willing and full interdependence between priests and with their bishops, especially in the leadership of parishes in processes of change; genuine interdependence between parishes in the use of resources and sources of inspiration; sustained and ready interdependence with the service offered by the diocese and in meeting the requirements that can only be fulfilled at that level. 

These interdependencies have to become second nature to us, balanced with the continuing characteristic of self-reliance and self-motivation. It is a sobering yet crucial thought that no true renewal in the history of the Church in England and Wales has come about through centralised, overarching plans or declarations. We are a Church which flourishes on individual, courageous, leadership, most often exercised at local level. Yet we cannot pretend that in today's interdependent world such leadership is now sufficient. It is not. We have to be and to be seen as one body, coherent in vision, intent and knitted together in mutual cooperation and shared responsibility. 

And this spirit and pattern of interdependence should carry us beyond the Catholic community too, in a willingness to pursue every good cooperation with those who share our social concerns. As Catholics we should be skilled and alert in recognising the marks of the 'seeds of the Word' wherever they are to be found and ready to work with others, even with the most unconventional of bed-fellows. 

I would like to think that if some of our martyrs, St Edmund Gennings from Lichfield or Blessed George Napier from Oxford, or Blessed Thomas Maxfield, all secular priests, were here today, they would recognise among us, and rejoice in, the same spirit and love of the Lord that inspired them. They may even be astonished at the perseverance shown by so many today in the face of difficulties that they would surely find bewildering. I think, too, of Andrew Bromwich, from Oscott, who stands at the end of the period of martyr priests and the beginning of the new order of more systematic, patient, pastoral priesthood. He too would rejoice in this company. And I am sure that if Louis McCray were with us today, he would nod with the quiet wisdom of his long years of service in this diocese, in the fashion of Fr Hamel, though he would not be without his sharp critical comment too! I think that Tom Gavin and Seamus Gilroy would be proud of the vocations among us that they nourished. I would like to think, too, that George Patrick Dwyer would, in his inimitable fashion, tell us to get on with the job and stop making a fuss. So many great priests are among our inheritance and we know that even now they stand at our shoulders, a second squadron of guardian angels, guiding and encouraging us with their prayers. 

To return to the words of St Paul: 'I have never stopped thanking God for you. I remember you in my prayers ... I ask that your minds may be opened to see his light, so that you will know what is the hope to which he has called you, how rich are the wonderful blessings he promises his people, and how very great is his power at work within us who believe' (Eph 1.16-18). 

Thank you.