How our Church needs to be fixed

by George Rippon

Article originally published in Catholica

As I sit down to write I am often not quite sure where I will end up. This time I know. Having seen most of my recommendations ignored over the years I will in faith and hope give them another run, with some variations.

Starting at the top I wish Francis in Rome progress in sorting out the entrenched Curia. Maybe he should sack the lot and start again. At this time I do not propose to give direct advice to His Holiness.

We need to have a say in the appointment of bishops…


Outside Rome top of the heap we have our bishops directly appointed by Rome from a shortlist of three “safe” names submitted from the country involved. Bishops are often referred to as “Branch Managers” from Rome.Here I will get on my hobby horse, allowing the people (of God) a major say in the election of bishops. After all we need bishops from the local priests for the people (of God). The appointment of “safe” bishops who would not rock the Barque of Peter does little for the local Church. An example, about a quarter of a century ago there was a dramatic drop in vocations. Instead of being frustrated by a rigged agenda bishops on their Ad Limina visits should have been thumping the tables in the Vatican saying “we are running out of priests back home, what are you going to do about it?” The answer expressed or implied was “Nothing!”

Three options come to mind. First, shorten and simplify the priestly formation process used over recent centuries — with less theology and philosophy. The distressed at the door of the presbytery do not need a lesson in theology or philosophy. More emphasis on liturgy, scripture and counselling skills. Second, make celibacy an option, and third and God forbid, (Sir Humphry Appelby “the end of civilization as we know it”) admit women to the priesthood. While Rome sits on its hands with its head in the sands the time has come to look at the bigger picture.

Being beholden to Rome for their jobs, bishops are reluctant to speak out on controversial matters lest they be censored and punished. Witness the case of Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba who had the courage to suggest that at some stage in the future the Church might have to consider ordaining married men and women. Bearing in mind that Rome had done “NOTHING” about the problem it is ironic that this was one of the reasons for the arbitrary sacking of Bishop Morris without due process or any right of appeal.

Getting back to my main theme — Bishops. In a previous article I raised the question. How are bishops appointed? [LINK] My impression:

Fr. John PP answering the presbytery doorbell finds a high dignitary from the Archbishop’s Office on the doorstep. Quickly wondering what he might have done wrong, or what he might have failed to do, he is reassured when his visitor says, “no worries. Father, I just need to talk to you about episcopal appointments.” As you may know we have one country diocese without a bishop and one of our Regional Metropolitan bishops is due to retire before the end of the year. Your name has been mentioned as a suitable candidate for the episcopate. Taken aback Fr John said, “I am happy here and never saw myself as a bishop. I will need to think about it”.”Fine,” said the other, “talk to some other priests about it and maybe the regional bishops. Don’t mention it to your parishioners at this stage. We need to send three names to Rome for the Pope’s final decision. Even if you miss out, subject to your agreement you can remain on the list for next time. Confidential discussion we have with some of your senior parishioners indicate that you are highly regarded here and in our view you would be an ideal bishop. So have a good think about it and get back to me in a week or so.”

So much for a system designed, in the absence of change to keep the appointment of “safe” Bishops under the direct control of Rome forever — not good enough. Some time ago a senior Australian cleric had his eye on control of the Roman Congregation for the appointment of bishops worldwide, fortunately he was not successful. Here I think the time has come for a radical look at the involvement of the people (of God) in decision making in our Church. I would not involve our present bishops bearing in mind their obedience to Rome, After all Bishops Geoffrey Robinson and Pat Power could only speak freely after retirement. LikewiseBishop Bill Morris after his sacking by Rome. I have a lot of sympathy for our bishops stuck as they are between a rock and a hard place. I am sure many would like to see change and reform but, with Rome so intransigent, what can they do?

Parish “Visitors”…

I have in mind the involvement of lay parish “Visitors” appointed to visit parishes and take soundings from the local people. They would be completely independent and local bishops would not be allowed to frustrate their work. After appropriate publicity the Visitor would attend a parish meeting, with everything on the table (parliamentary style) for discussion. Prior written suggestions would be accepted. At regular intervals Visitors would get together and compile a report on their findings. With more than 200 parishes, Melbourne would need several visitors, women and men even some non-Catholic. Our Anglican friends have a long history of church democracy.

To his credit Archbishop Frank Little tried something like this when he set up the local Deanaries many years ago. A Deanary is a cluster of about ten adjacent parishes. He gave no agenda as he wanted it to be clear as to how the the people in the pews saw the future of our Church. Sadly, here he was before his time with the majority of Mass goers intensely loyal to the Church and happy to stay with the status quo. So deanaries became other committees. An example, when the revival of the Diaconate was raised, our Deanary had a document from Head office (i.e. the Archbishop) stating, candidates should be male unless already married, have a diploma in theology and after ordination would not be allowed to work in his home parish. What was missed was that many of the deacon’s duties were already being carried out by Pastoral Associates mainly woman often on a voluntary basis. Times have now changed with a great loss of respect for the Church in recent times. Catholics who no longer “go to Mass” could be invited to take part in the discussions.

Knowing Frank Little he would like to have written to Rome saying “we have carried out a major review in our Archdiocese (Melbourne) with the following among the main responses: 80% want more priests; 60% want a greater role for women in the Church; 55% want an upgraded Diaconate including women; Many want the Third Rite back; And many more. Your response is awaited, ASAP.”

He lived In joyful hope. Frank had a quirky sense of humour often referring to his regalia as “the big hat the stick and the crosier”. Mitres and Crosiers not to mention Cappa Magnae look so out of date and irrelevant in this day and age. Frank retired early. This made way forGeorge Pell to take over the Archdiocese of Melbourne.

As I review what I have written I get the feeling that the time for action is here. We need to find ways to assert our entitlement for our bishops to act on our behalf with Rome. I recall vaguely a petition with many thousands of signatures probably including items mentioned above being submitted to the Bishop’s Conference for referral to Rome. As I recall a very negative response was received from our bishops indicating that the matters involved were the sole responsibility of Rome, Roma locuta est. (Rome has spoken).

Once parishioners got used to Visitors taking soundings and seeing some responses to matters raised the time could come to see how parishioners could be involved in the election of bishops.

On reflection I have opened a can of worms for myself, or put my head on the block, in suggesting that the middle management of the church (Bishops) be taken out of Rome’s control and vested in the people at grassroots level. I don’t think we should embarrass our present bishops by seeking their involvement although I feel that many would applaud our efforts.

A petition to Pope Francis?

So drawing on the experience of our “Visitors” we could devise a petition to Pope Francis seeking to allow Catholics in the pews to have a real voice in the selection of candidates for the episcopate and not just tokenism. We would need to make it clear that our intention was to abolish the present secret process in favour of allowing catholics in the pews the right to elect our bishops. To simplify the matter this would be the sole item on the petition. Church porches would be ideal spots for signatures but I suspect many priests would be reluctant to support this. Progressive Internet publications would make ideal promoters. Bishops would be kept in the picture but not allowed to interfere.

Before considering the possible content of a petition I would like to outline different ways in which the laity could be involved in the process. As a completely new concept it would need to be set up in a way that Rome and the existing episcopate would have to seriously consider.

First set up an Electoral College with delegates chosen by Pastoral Councils in the diocese or region needing a new bishop. Under Canon Law every parish should have a Pastoral Council to assist the priest in running the parish. Visitors now with a feel for parish affairs could also be included. As I write it is clear that much thought needs to be given as to how the laity could be involved in the whole process.

As I read my last three paragraphs I sit here in my comfortable room advocating major things to be done by others like designing a complex petition and establishing an Electoral College. But as I often say “God works in mysterious ways”. As I opened up catholica on Friday (3/3) there was the first of a two-part series by Peter Wilkinson outlining how from the early days of our Church the power and right of the faithful to have a say in the election of bishops has been eroded and now vests solely in the Pope. If ever we are going to make progress here it must hopefully start soon with Pope Francis. I see it as our best chance yet.

As I reflected on the problems of drafting a petition and setting up an Electoral College I even thought of addressing a personal letter from the pews to His Holiness. (Little old me, the optimist!)

I will finish here hoping that my comments could contribute to the discussions that will follow after Peter Wilkinson’s article.


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