Dublin — The leaders of 24 international reform groups who met in Limerick, Ireland, in April are urging Pope Francis to call for a halt to the church's policy of clustering parishes into megaparishes as a response to the decline in priest numbers.
In an open letter, the 32 signatories -- from groups such as Catholics for Renewal in Australia, A Call to Action in England, and the Society for Open Christianity for the 21st Century in Slovakia -- tell Francis that the future of parish life is "massively threatened."
Bishops seeking to address the priest shortage are "merging active and vibrant parishes into anonymous and unmanageable superstructures," the letter said.
While merging seems to be "the formula of the hour," the reform leaders warn that in these new megaparishes, personal contact between people and ministers is being lost as the sacraments are removed ever further from the everyday life of church citizens.
This is leaving the faithful "alienated, unsettled and insecure" as priests are increasingly focused on administration instead of caring for souls.
Signatories included Fr. Helmut Schüller of the Austrian Pfarrer-Initiative in Austria; Martha Heizer, the excommunicated chair of We Are Church Austria; Deborah Rose-Milavec of FutureChurch in the U.S.; and Paul Collins of Catholics for Ministry in Australia.
They were among delegates from more than 10 countries who met in Ireland April 13-17 to discuss the governance of the church and to develop strategies for church reform.
Redemptorist Fr. Tony Flannery, co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland, told NCR that clustering in Ireland usually involves about four parishes being overseen by one or two priests. However, he said, in France, it can involve up to 10 parishes, with just one priest trying to keep Masses going "here, there and everywhere."
"It is only a matter of a relatively short few years before we have the exact same situation here," said Flannery, one of the letter's signatories.
Calling for new models of ministry and new ways of managing parish life, the letter tells Francis that there is opposition to clustering among a cross-section of the faithful -- young and old, divorced and remarried, gay and straight -- and that new paths to vibrant parishes where everyone is "welcome without exception" are needed.
"Let us establish a new culture of co-responsibility and joint decision-making in all structures of our Church," they write.
"Let us open the priestly office to everyone who has the charism," they continue, in what could be interpreted as a plea for married and women priests.
At the reform conference in Limerick, Fr. Shaji George Kochuthara, a Carmelite of Mary Immaculate, said in India, "many people feel we should do something to change the style of the church, to become a more participatory church that serves, one in which everyone feels equal and involved -- not as a spectator or just there to listen."
Francis has given people a sense of freedom to discuss things, said Kochuthara, who teaches at the seminary in Bangalore.
"We may not agree on everything, but we should have the freedom for dialogue and a willingness to listen. For many people, it is a relief that they are listened to -- not that they should get everything that they want, but a listening atmosphere should prevail in the church."
In Flannery's view, the church needs to be more open and welcoming, and it needs to be more vibrant locally.
Calling for the development of new management models and forms of pastoral ministry, the reform leaders say these would allow parishioners to participate according to their charisms.
"Many parishes have long shown by example how things can be done differently," they state. Their letter highlights how the faithful, "by their personal dedication, by strength of their baptismal calling," help relieve priests of their administrative responsibilities in order to free them to continue offering vital pastoral services.
Meanwhile, in parishes that no longer have priests, creative solutions are being developed to ensure cohesion within the parish community and in the day-to-day management of their parishes.
One source of concern for the reform leaders is the current model of parish council, which they claim isn't working. According to Flannery, "Its weakness lies in the fact that it is a consulting body, while decision-making is still restricted to a small clerical group."
"That must change if we are to have any sort of meaningful co-responsibility, from parishes right up to the Vatican," he said.
"We need real responsibility for parish councils with the power of decision-making, which would allow priests to be free to do the ministerial work," Flannery said.
Should their plea fall on deaf ears, the letter's authors warn that they are concerned that priests, deacons, ministers and committed parishioners will no longer be willing "to walk this path."
"But we are hopeful," Flannery told NCR, because a lot of what is in that letter is already part of Francis' agenda. Flannery said the letter, while making some strong requests, shows strong support for that agenda.
In some effusive lines, the letter writers state: "Pope Francis, your vision of the church moves us. Instead of judging, you seek to understand. Instead of closing doors, you open hearts. Here, the original model of the Church, as Jesus has shown us through his own life, is finally perceived again."
Elsewhere, the letter writers commend the pope for a vision that is in line with the Second Vatican Council.
They tell him he needs parishes to bring his vision of the church to life.
"Without active parishes, your vision lacks the foundation and the necessary strength to overcome opposition. Our parishes are the future of Jesus' Church; but it is exactly the future of these parishes that is massively threatened," they write.
[Sarah Mac Donald is a freelance writer based in Dublin.]