New-style church being born in France due to shortage of priests


RITE AND REASON:Perhaps what is already happening in the French Catholic Church is an indication of where Irish Catholicism is headed, writes David Rice.

IT HAS often been said that France has her crises before the rest of Europe - whether it be the French Revolution itself, or the student revolt of 1968, or the alienation of people from the churches.

There is one such crisis where France is ahead of Ireland, and that is in its shortage of Roman Catholic priests. France is also ahead in its response to that shortage. In essence the lay people have taken over the local church and run it for themselves.

In one diocese in northern France there is only one priest to serve 27 parishes. It means the priest has been reduced to the role of circuit rider who drops by on rare occasions to offer a Mass and consecrate some hosts. For the rest of the time the people run their church themselves. In 2001 the diocese of Nice had to reduce its 265 parishes down to 47.

One of these, the recently created parish of Nôtre Dame de l'Espérance, runs along a celebrated strip of the Mediterranean coast, with five churches. There were five priests; now there is just one, who cannot cope on his own. Yet all five village churches are flourishing.

The secret is that each church has an appointed lay person, called a relais local, whose duty is to run both church and parish, and perform almost all functions save uttering the words of consecration and administering those sacraments only a priest is allowed to do.

A principal function of the relaisis to conduct a Sunday Communion service in the absence of the priest - for all practical purposes a Mass without the consecration. There is frequently no priest at a funeral any more.

At the Église Sacré Coeur in Beaulieu, I attended one such funeral, conducted by the relais localefor the church. She received the coffin. There were words of welcome, the singing of hymns, a short eulogy of the deceased, readings from scripture, a brief reflection by the relais, the lighting of candles beside the coffin, a blessing of the coffin with holy water, and prayers for the deceased. It lasted about half-an-hour. There was no Mass, as there was no priest. But there wasn't a Communion service either.

This new de facto structure in the parish is not confined to relais locales. Marie-Anne Hosley, an energetic Frenchwoman whose mother hails from Co Down, has lately been appointed general manager of the parish with its five churches. While her official title is économe, she assures me it is more about admin than money.

Although unpaid herself, she manages a payroll of nine people, including cleaners, organists and two parish secretaries.

Other lay people - men and women - are equally active in many of the former roles of the priest - parish visitation, counselling, pre-marriage instruction, attending the sick, bringing communion, chaplaincies to hospitals and retirement homes and in some areas to scout and youth groups.

Also it is lay people who, almost exclusively, perform the crucial role of imparting their faith.In the neighbouring diocese of Monaco, Bernadette Keraudren gives many hours guiding catechumens - those who want to become Christian or Catholic.

The catechumens go through about two years of guidance, all done by lay people. None of this is stop-gap until better times come. This is for keeps, because better times are not coming. Soon there won't be any priests at all. Or so few that it simply won't count. So people here see a totally new church ministry evolving, which will inevitably become more formalised.

But the dearth of priests means that the people will ultimately be left without the sacraments and without the Eucharist, the centre of their faith. That is why the relais, and all these other layfolk who are de facto running the church, are asking, when will the Vatican wake up to the facts of life and allow or recognise new ministries?

"Vatican Two talked about us all being priests," Hosley says. "The priesthood of the laity. So maybe the church will soon have a new form of priest." That could mean that, in one fell swoop, there would be women priests and married priests. Many here believe that time is not far off.

David Rice, a former Dominican priest, is the author of six books