A random ramble with Colonel Blimp

A few miles south of Hadrian’s Wall, and at the eastern end of Northumberland, I am making use of a cottage generously offered by benefactors for the purpose of breaking the back of a short dissertation. The best laid plans of mice and monks, of course… it is breaking me.

It is perhaps not totally effective, or even healthy, to attempt to overcome the incessant distractions of pervious months and seek a near complete solitude for 10 days in order to form one’s reading and thinking into a coherent pattern, transcribe it to computer and expect a satisfying result. There have been periods of waxing and of waning in the operations of the intellect, and yesterday proved to be quite frustrating and indeed disheartening. The downside of solitude is that there is no one, apart from God and his heavenly court, to unload onto. And the heavenly ones, of course, do not usually respond immediately or audibly.

So today is a mood-and-mental-health day. No dissertation work. Rather it has been reading the weighty tome I have been sent to review, snatching some sunshine here and there, and coping with the unexpected sound of voices a short while ago. This cottage has no immediate neighbours – it is quiet. Were these there voices of intruders, burglars or another sort of villain? No. It was two boys, about 10 and 8, playing in the brook that runs through the property not 20 yards from the back door. Voices from other times and place spoke within. Trespassers! Cheeky little blighters. Then the clerical voice spoke up and raised the matter of safeguarding implications. That voice was both a testimony to how well drilled the clergy are now about safeguarding, and a witness to how the innocent joy occasioned by children has been decimated by the abuse crisis. As it was I allowed myself a minute enjoying their clambering over the little bridge and launching some sort of vessel down the current of the brook. Just a minute of course, as after that an inchoate sense of guilt emerged.

Going back upstairs another voice sounded: health and safety and legal liability. What if one or both of these lads took a tumble, gashed a forehead or broke a bone—would I be liable? Would my hosts?

How well programmed we often are.

Thankfully a voice of a relatively sane perspective spoke up. Boys will be boys.Or boys should be boys at any rate. Indeed, how refreshing that these two are not on tablets or smartphones or glued to an Xbox screen, but having a little adventure with mother nature in the fresh air.

In the section “The best of the blogosphere” in this week’s Catholic Herald reference is made to Austen Ivereigh’s suggestion at Crux, and echoed elsewhere, that Pope Francis will ask the next synod of bishops to discuss the possibility of ordaining married men. Fr Jerome Bertram in another article later in the same edition of the Herald neatly clarifies the history of clerical celibacy and notes that the Church has always admitted the possibility of married men being clerics of one rank or another. The real issue, he identified, was that of sexual continence—that once ordained, clerics were expected to abstain from further sexual relations with their wives. This is the Latin tradition and it would have to be addressed if anyone were to promote the ordination as priests of married men who are not converts. Even married convert clergy have to be formally dispensed from continence. This exception proves the rule; sexual continence would be the expectation should married Catholic men be permitted priestly ordination in the future. Would this render ordination a little less attractive?

However, the real point here is that the article seemed at first reading implicitly to situate the possibility of ordaining married men in the context of a vocations crisis: “More than half of the Catholic Church’s communities worldwide have no resident priest.” Ivereigh cites the example of “the diocese of Xingú in the Brazilian region of Pará, for example, [which] has 800 parishes or missions in a territory the size of Germany, but just 27 priests…”. My initial reaction was that any diocese with 800 parishes or missions, even if it had 800 priests (perhaps even especially!) would be an unwieldy unit to administer. Moreover, how could a diocese of such magnitude shrink to only 27 priests?!

Of course,things need some clarification. Xingú is not a diocese but a territorial prelature, which generally signifies a mission field rather than an established Catholic community. On its website it lists 16 parishes and pastoral areas, not quite the 800 I was expecting. Apparently it has nearly 368,000 Catholics (not all, nor perhaps even the majority, of whom would attend Mass one could reasonably expect) and 25 priests, 2 deacons and 3 seminarians. This is a very high priest to people ratio of course, even allowing that a significant percentage will not be active in the life of the Church. Yet there are 3 seminarians, a healthy ratio against the number of priests. So surely the crisis is not one of vocations?

Ivereigh does not explicitly say so of course. Later, however, he cites Europe, which does, we have been told for years, have a vocations’ crisis:

But there are also dramatic examples in Europe, where catechists or lay people in effect run the parishes in between rare visits by the parish priest.

Please keep in mind some context. The total population within the territory of the prelature of Xingú is 526,000, and the area it covers is 386,086 km² in a remote northern region of Brazil. So it is about 90% of the size of California with just 1.36% of California’s population. As Ivereigh himself admits, Xingú is an “extreme” example.

My point is that Europe and Xingú are not equivalent examples, not comparisons of like with like. Catholicism in Europe is nigh two millennia old with a well-established diocesan and parochial infrastructure and, until recently, a prevailing culture that supported that structure and its growth. Its population density is much greater than that of remote Brazil. Xingú was founded in 1934 as a mission prelature and remains so.

It is not ideal that the Catholics of Xingú have such a relatively restricted access to the sacraments and the pastoral care afforded by the clergy. Yet was this not ever so in mission lands? With patience and missionary zeal, as well as the witness of holy clergy and devout liturgy, clergy would emerge in most places over time. First the relative deprivation of youth had to be endured.

It seems remarkable that this traditional and well-known scenario, however imperfect, should now offer cause to raise the controversial topics of ordaining married men, ordaining laymen or permanent deacons as locally-restricted priests (second-class priests effectively), or even the un-precedented matter of women deacons (as opposed to deaconesses, a non-sacramental ministry in the early Church) which is no doubt a strategic ploy with a view to the holy grail of women priests.

If there is a crisis, it is not really in vocations. The numbers of seminarians in the western Church are on the rise again in many places. Where they are not on the rise, the cause is more often than not a more fundamental problem in the local Church. In other words, a vocations’ crisis, if it exists, is invariably but a symptom of a deeper, more fundamental and more urgent crisis in the Church. This crisis, rather than theologically and historically implausible band-aid solutions for augmenting the numbers of clergy, is what needs to be faced.

On the matter of vocations, one last word. For last week’s Catholic Herald I submitted a letter which was just past the deadline (of which they courteously informed me) and suggested that it could go in this week’s edition. As it happens, your ever more Colonel Blimp-like correspondent sent in another letter in response to an article last week. Quite reasonably the Herald chose to print this second letter only (which should I get two in one edition, after all?).

Colonel Blimp OSB

Since this first letter will not see the printed page I include it below. It addresses the Pastor Iuventus column of 5 August, which spoke well of the “vocation” of the Catholic teacher. It was a good article and its content is sound, but the use of “vocation” in this context struck one of my rawer nerves. So, allow me to get it off my chest, so I can cook supper and gird my loins to attack this blasted dissertation tomorrow.

The crisis in the Catholic teaching profession expressed by Fr Pittam in last week’s Pastor Iuventus column is one with which many of us will recognise. Yet in his article he expresses an unwitting ambivalence about the status within the life of the Church of teaching. He speaks several times of it as a “vocation”, but also sees the need to recover the “missionary charism of teaching”. This ambivalence reveals both a common fallacy and points towards its solution. While in today’s Church it is tantamount to heresy to say so, nevertheless the extension of “vocation” to a wide range of possible life choices and professions seems to be both untraditional and misguided. When everything is a vocation, nothing is; much as when everyone is “special” no one is, in fact, special. Marriage as set forth in Genesis is shown as the default setting hardwired into humankind; celibate chastity for the sake of the Church and the Kingdom is a calling away, a vocation, from that default.

Marriage, single life and professions such as teaching are more profitably seen as missions within the life of the Church. There we find the common denominator between clergy, religious and laity in all their many-splendoured array. Whether we are set to the default, or called away from it for the good of the Church, all indeed have an individual mission within the Church’s central mission, as explained in Article 9 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Perhaps if we stopped telling everyone they have a vocation and told them they have a mission we might find more than one problematic situation in the Church more effectively addressed. Certainly Fr Pittam is right that every Catholic needs to be part of the solution.

Yours faithfully, &c…


8 thoughts on “A random ramble with Colonel Blimp

  1. Father I hope that you can find some time in this gift of solitude to take camera in hand and head out perhaps to the brook the boys so enjoyed to perhaps capture a bit of enjoyment yourself—nothing like a little clamoring out doors to open one’s mind and senses…aids in then retreating back inside to digest tomes, dissertations and then freshly relay the necessary pieces…
    On a side note, I am asking Father that perhaps in your quiet prayer time this evening you could remember my 88 year old father—I take him tomorrow for a rather harrowing surgery–one that may have a very negative outcome—
    Thank you Father and please do enjoy the time away…


  2. Father, why not join us for EF Mass at St Joseph’s in Gateshead either Saturday 20th at 11am or Sunday 21st at 12 noon? You will be most welcome. Alternatively Fr Bede Rowe celebrates EF Mass at Swinburne on Sunday


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