Today’s letter from Bishop John begins a process that will gradually refashion our diocese into the missionary diocese that Pope Francis wants us to be. There will be no sudden destabilizing shocks but a gradual transformation.
Most will be pleased with the Bishop’s proposals made in repose to the recent diocese wide consultation. Others will feel shocked and threatened at the proposed closure or amalgamation of parishes and want to know why this must happen.
To answer that we have to look back to the end of WWII and the huge housing schemes that followed as densely populated and bomb damaged inner-city areas were redeveloped and new estates were built on the fringes of cities and towns. To serve these, Salford diocese founded new parishes complete with school and in some instances more than one church. Pre-war our diocese had 149 parishes. Fifty years later in 1980 these had increased to 207.
This expansion coincided with an unprecedented increase in the numbers of Clergy. Compare the year 1978 when Salford had 417 priests in active ministry to today when there are only 150 of whom 23 are over the retirement age of 75 but still running parishes! It is estimated that in five years’ time we shall have only 108 priests below the age of 75 to serve 150 parishes.
Then there is a third factor. Sadly, during the past 40 years, as we are all too painfully aware, the practice rate of Catholics has more than halved. Many churches, both old and recent, struggle with poor attendance and support.
To face the future with confidence, to grow into a lean and missionary church that is fit for purpose, some churches will need to close while others will remain without a resident priest but within a larger parish. In this new situation parish communities will need to organise themselves to provide catechists, lay ministers and administrators who will help to run their parish, look after its buildings and free their priest to serve their sacramental needs.
In our own parish we are now used to this new model and, hopefully, are making it work to the benefit of all.
Do read the summary of the Bishop’s proposals, available after Mass. His full 18 page report is on the parish website: olotv.org.uk and the diocesan site: www.salforddiocese.net. Hard copies may be requested from the parish office.