March 2019 Editorial: Hydraulics, Demographics and the Task Ahead

Hydraulics, Demographics and the Task Ahead

I see you have a leak, Father.’ Sometimes, in moments of reverie or exasperation, I return in my mind to the evening, about a decade and a half ago, when a parishioner came into the sacristy after Mass and broke the news to me: ‘I see you have a leak.’

I responded by not responding. I suppressed my irritation in one of those moments – and which of us hasn’t experienced them! – when it is virtually impossible to distinguish between the presence of forbearance and the absence of moral courage. What I wanted to say was, ‘Leak? I have a leak? Should I call a urologist?’ The leak, in fact, was not in me but somewhere in the church roof, and the solicitous parishioner, God bless him, had a roofer rather than a urologist in mind.

I could have elaborated, if I had not been hamstrung by forbearance (or was it lack of moral courage?): ‘The leak is not mine; it is ours. Yes, we have a leak, the parish has a leak. That is the nature of things in the wake the Second Vatican Council. On leaks, electrical faults, carpentry, landscaping, fundraising, and much, much more, please consult Gaudium et Spes, 36, Lumen Gentium, 31, Christifideles Laici (passim)’.

Rant over. The Church’s real leak is, of course, not hydraulic but demographic. Mind you, to call it a leak is quite the understatement: it’s a steady flow. And it’s every bit as much the concern of solicitous parishioners as it is of priests. It is indeed our leak, our haemorrhage, and we, together, are called to address it.

We’re occasionally reminded that we’re not playing a numbers game, that an abundance of posteriors on pews may not necessarily be the apotheosis of pastoral or prophetic acumen. That is true, but it’s not the full truth. The Lord respected people’s freedom. He asked, ‘What about you, do you want to go away too?’ (Jn 6:67). But he also said, ‘Go, make disciples of all nations’ (Mt 28:19). The pursuit of an increase in the number of disciples is mandated by Christ himself, and that much-vaunted ‘smaller, leaner Church’ is by no means the last word on the matter.

On the other hand, the increase mandated by the Master is not merely numerical; it is an increase in faith, in intentionality. It is an increase that is to be pursued by raising, rather than by lowering, the bar of discipleship. Not for nothing did Dietrich Bonhoeffer open his book, The Cost of Discipleship, with the words, ‘Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.’

Numerical decline brings with it a whole set of nuts-and-bolts questions. Staffing: who will do what? Funding: how will it be paid for? Priorities: is it the best use of resources? Such questions may often be the most urgent, but they are less often the most important. They are maintenance-questions, questions about the management of remaining assets, about the continuation of familiar paradigms and approaches. All told, they are questions about leaks of one kind or another.

In chapter five of Luke’s Gospel, the apostles have laboured all night with nothing to show for it. The Lord does not instruct them to give the same approach another shot: he invites them to do something different, to put out into the deep. May he help us to discern today’s duc in altum, and rather than shoring up, may we have the courage to put out a little from the shore.

Chris Hayden

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