Fr Chris Townsend: I’m More than a ‘Parish Pump Jockey’
In order to break the current model of the parish church as a service centre, like a filling station, I think we need to be much more honest about the functioning of our parishes.
In our very pressurised lives as priests, we operate out of a service station mentality — and are often surprised when we are treated as “pump jockeys”.
We dispense sacraments and try our hardest to ensure that the buildings don’t fall down and that the children get exposure to at least some sort, sometimes half-hearted, catechesis.
We need to look at ideas such as “Divine Renovation” and other programmes like Alpha that ensure that we are an evangelising community.
But most of all, I think we priests need to have a chance to reconsider the model that we inherited.
Ask what parish you want — and then make it happen. So much of our Catholic community life is spent waiting for others with ideas, with courage, with the craziness to do things.
Recently I had the privilege of spending eight days in silence on retreat in KwaZulu-Natal. No phones, no electronics, simple food eaten slowly.
In this space I was able to rethink what I think it means to be a priest in a parish. The rethink in this case is not radical change, but just honouring myself and my parish commitment with an opportunity to look at what it means to be a parish.
The one thing that kept on coming into my reflection space is how little time we give to teaching a relationship with Jesus in prayer. Maybe it was because I admitted that function isn’t prayer and function isn’t prayerful. How do we do this?
One of the first points is to recognise that the Sunday Mass (or gathering, which so many of our communities without priests must have) is a “roll-up” of a week (or weeks) of experience for the community that attends.
What do we need? Space: silence, prayer, community, and a way to experience the presence of God, by singing, dancing, serving, chatting.
I need to hear that as you cross the threshold into the eternity of the liturgy, you don’t do so without a fantastic array of baggage. Experiences, pains, joys. Somehow, this is the reality of the worship you come to participate in and make.
If we understand that, the structure of our worship lends itself to all those moments of prayer by allowing you to be all that — in a structure that gives you space. Without watches.
It also means that my Sunday Eucharist, as priest, is a “rolling-up” of all my experiences.
If I am to break the “pump jockey” mentality, then I need to admit that I am a “Christian with you, a priest for you”, to misquote St Augustine. I also have the right to worship in Eucharist, for I too am a Catholic and a Christian, and it is my Sunday Eucharist, too.
I also come with my own baggage, my own issues. My experiences of being with you, and for you (and often against you!). I can’t make my Eucharist about one of you as you often make your Eucharist about me… I’m here for Jesus too.
So where do we go with this? There are two ideas that spring to mind. Our Eucharist needs to be ours. Owned in a sense. A village table on a Sunday.
The other idea is a solid and serious admission that many of us don’t find our Sunday Eucharist prayerful and refreshing. This honesty needs to refresh our churches. Some want more music, different types of music. Some want no music. Some hate the readers, the microphones, the flowers, themselves.
So we need to take a step back. What makes for prayer? How do we pray? How do we pray together? Do we pray?
This fundamental deliberation will go a long way to divinely renovate our parishes. It will allow ourselves the space to rethink, recalibrate what our Sunday Mass is, and what we have to do as part of it.
The story of ministry becomes one of the admission of our own part of a journey that is often not easy. We often don’t feel Spirit-filled and Spirit-led because we have no space even for ourselves. We are crowded out of our own lives.
Hence the need for parishes to become centres of honest prayer-mentoring. Of individuals, of groups. Of the Liturgy as Prayer.
I’m not sure I’m the man for all of that. But if we are honest, we can recognise that there are so many who pray in our communities. Some of them will be able to tech others to pray. And some of those can accompany others as prayer guides.
In our parish, we are looking at a retreat ministry: actually making space over recollection days and retreat weekends where we are able to discover, rediscover and explore prayer. As groups. As individuals.
One of the greatest experiences of my own retreat was the giving and honouring of space. This is what we need to do to rediscover our Sunday liturgy. It’s after all, our greatest expression of communal prayer.