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Fewer priests, more pastoral work
A chance to rediscover the need for, and the life of, communion between priests and between parish communities
In a growing number of places in the world, there are fewer vocations to the priesthood. Their average age is increasing and their numbers are decreasing. The same priest often has many parishes, or “pastoral units” are established, where those parishes are entrusted to a small group of “co-parish priests”. What can be done to animate parish communities in an effective, creative way, without overburdening the priests with too much work? This experience is a stimulating example of what might happen.
First diocesan experience of pastoral unityTen years ago, three of us arrived in Val di Ledro, in the Trentino area: Fr. Lino Giori, suffering from a tumour, Fr. Pio, nearly 70, and myself. We had to look after eleven communities in a valley with six local authorities (communes). We were welcomed by six mayors, and everyone was watching these first diocesan experiences of pastoral unity.
The Bishop and his staff gave no particular instructions or indications for our task. We had first of all to offer our experience. We differed in age, health and talents, but we all wanted to grow in unity. Our witness helped in the choice of the Pastoral Council, made up of two representatives for each community. In this way the various communities got to know one another better, and this helped us to develop pastoral work for the valley as a whole, and to learn from one another.
We realised that the first priority was to have mutual love not only among the members of the Council, but also between the parishes. Two of them have more than 1000 people, while others are smaller, and they all have different expectations. Some of them were quite lively, while others were unsure of what to do. Through listening to one another, we understood that we had to function like a heart, which has two motions, systolic and diastolic. As parish priests, our task was to discover and bring to light the positive aspects of each community, and then to promote them widely along gospel guidelines that would help us to grow together.
One day, in a moment of stagnation and discouragement for the smaller communities, we asked the Councillors to share one or two positive experiences from their own communities. This produced a new influx of life that gave new energy to everyone.
A year later, Don Lino had gone to heaven and some years later, don Pino retired. I was left on my own, but things had now taken off. Before Don Pino left, Providence sent me the Provincial of the Divine Word fathers, asking if I could find work for Father Benito, recently arrived from the missions. He too was living the spirituality of unity, so it was an opportunity to begin a relationship of communion with him and thus guarantee the presence of Jesus among us for the good of the community.
Effect on civil societyThis experience went beyond church affairs, for it encouraged the six local authorities to see that the network we had built among the parishes could be something positive for the local communes. Before we came there had been some discussion about forming one commune, but the experience of the parishes accelerated the process and helped to change the minds of those who hadn’t fully understood the idea of a single commune. In the referendum held in 2009 a considerable majority, 75%, voted “yes”.
The next day, this banner headline appeared on the front page of the local paper: “Val di Ledro has chosen unity”. It was an important sign for me of the commitment we were promoting in the valley.
Of the four people who previously presided at the Pastoral Council, one is now deputy mayor, one has a ministerial role and another is a councillor. The relationship among us also helped during the local elections. A politician from the left helped one of the right wing groups who could not find enough people to fill their electoral list, saying, “Don’t worry, these people are interested in the good of the Commune, but they are reluctant to take my left wing line. If you contact them, I am sure they will feel better with you.”
Growth in lay commitmentThis climate of listening, of working together, is bearing much fruit. The first of these is the growth of the laity. When the Bishop came for his pastoral visit, he said that he had found a lively valley, with a mature laity.
I told him that there are two reasons for their growth. First of all there is no resident parish priest, so they are more responsible. The second reason came from my own experience, following the spirituality and the “model” that I had found in the focolare movement. Many lay people involved in it have a deeply radical Christian life, and therefore take on responsibility.
When I take part in their meetings, in the summer Mariapolises for instance, I am not needed for organisational tasks and can dedicate myself to my ministry (confessions, celebration of the Eucharist, counselling...)
That serves as an inspiration to me to concentrate in my parish work on fundamental concerns, dedicating myself to “prayer and the Word” , to quote the Acts of the Apostles.
I remember a famous “decalogue” on priestly and pastoral life which Klaus Hemmerle, the bishop and theologian, presented to the German Bishop’s Conference, which goes like this: “It is more important to care spiritually for my co-workers, than to do things by myself and to do as many things as possible. It is more important to be present in just a few but central parts of the organisation, with a presence that radiates light, than to be half present everywhere, always in haste.”
In fact it proved important for us to concentrate on the promotion of lay participation and commitment, entrusting tasks of evangelisation to them in proportion to their growth in Christian life, especially their experience of living and spreading the Word and the life of communion.
Communion among parishesAnother fruit is the growing relationship among the parishes. People move between communities and they help one another. If an organist is required, one from a neighbouring town comes. At funerals, the choir is made up of people from various communities. Eucharistic ministers are available for neighbouring parishes. On one occasion a parish short of funds borrowed from another, without using a bank where interest would be high.
Another fruit is a sensitivity and openness to those who are far from the Church. This month we had two importance experiences of this kind.
A girl came to ask for her child to be baptised. She was not married to the father, her partner, and was not sure about the meaning of marriage. The community came to the Baptism, they celebrated with her, and at the end of the ceremony she came into the sacristy to ask me if she could join the choir again after many years absence.
A young woman died and the husband did not want everyone to know. The usual bells were not rung and the funeral was held privately. I had been to the house during her illness, and I celebrated the funeral in the way they wanted, with no choir and no bells, making myself one with their pain and their wishes. I did however invite some people to be present in an unobtrusive way, since I was sure that God’s love would reach these people through us. At the end the husband thanked me. His brother, who had come from Germany and who goes to both Catholic and Protestant Churches for the music, told me that he had never heard such a clear and hopeful homily. I am sure that their hearts were touched not by me, but by the love of God in our community.