Fr Larry Barnett
Last Sunday we had a balls-up. It doesn’t happen often but this was comic. I arrived early in Tian-Go for 9am mass to find the church locked. Usually, one of the lay leaders opens the church, sweeps the floor and gets it ready for Mass, so it was odd that the church was still locked. I rely so much on the leaders that I had forgotten to bring my own key. Nothing to do but sit and wait. At 9.10, when no one had appeared, I went walking through the village. Six of our oldest and most faithful parishioners were sitting on the street behind the church. They had come early but, finding it still locked, had retreated to the shade.
Father, where’s your key? I admitted leaving it behind. Where’s Huei-Jen and Mei-Yu? I asked (both have keys). With a typhoon threatening, their employer had asked them to work this morning. What about Sa-Yun? (She also has a key). Because she missed work last week, her boss in the city asked her to work extra this weekend. And La-wai (and her key)? Her daughter-in-law is ill so she had to go to the city to look after grandchildren. All four leaders were gone but each had assumed another would surely be there. I sat in the shade with the faithful remnant.
What’s to be done? someone asked. After a period of silent reflection, someone else said ‘Why don’t we go to the door of the church and pray anyway?’ Noble suggestion! We trouped round the corner and sat on the stoop of the church. I said a short prayer for the village (protection against the coming typhoon) and its children (school summer holidays are in full swing). Bu-oh (78) prayed (in Dai-an, the mother-tongue) for the sick of the village. We said the Our Father and I gave a blessing. We adjourned to the local noodle shop for a snack and a beer.
The incident showed just how dependent we are on the lay leaders – without them the parish would grind to a halt. There are eight villages in the parish and each has two or three lay leaders who keep the church in good order, lead weekly house prayers, keep the accounts, and assist with Sunday masses, weddings and funerals, by arranging readers, singers, etc, and announcing the various parts of the liturgies. Some of these lay leaders also sit on the parish council (two representatives from each village) which elects a president, two vice-presidents and a treasurer. This council meets about three times a year to arrange major events such as Christmas, Easter, and Grave Sweeping Day.
Most of our lay leaders are women, the de facto leaders of their respective households, well known and respected in their villages, usually connected by marriage to leading families in several villages (marriage is still exogamous – women marry someone outside their own village). They are the first contact for me and the other priest working here. We (Fr Pat and I) try to be present at the house prayers in each village every week and have Mass in each village every weekend (in rotation). The lay leaders keep the whole enterprise from flying to pieces by keeping in touch with everyone and telling us when someone is ill, in hospital, dead or otherwise in need. They make sure that we attend celebrations a month after the birth of a child so that baptism can be administered and they take the lead in the ceremony. Wedding and funeral ceremonies are so complex that, without the assistance of lay leaders, I would be completely swamped.
The point of all this, and the point of the balls-up in TianGo, is that, although the priest is the pivot, the visible head and ritual leader, the parish functions well only through the hard work (unpaid and after-hours) of dedicated lay leaders. I am daily reminded, and never forget, that the gospel is preached here because of these Spirit-filled leaders and not because of my own bumbling efforts alone. I might remember to take my keys to Tian Go next time but, if I don’t, the lay leaders will be there to ensure that the faithful of the village can gather in prayer. Without them, our pastoral life is much the poorer.
Fr Larry Barnett is a Columban priest working in Taiwan. He is home in Takaka this month to celebrate his 25th anniversary.