The Wellington Archdiocese is heading in the right direction with its lay leadership training programme, says Fr John Fuellenbach who toured the country through July and August.
‘I just hope it has not come too late.’
‘In my opinion, most dioceses (there are a few exceptions) have been too slow and the initiative from above has been too half-hearted—in short, they have started lay leader training a little late—let us hope not too late.’
Fr Fuellenbach says in the face of a dwindling number of priests, it is not enough to consolidate parishes.
‘The important work to be done at parish level is to guarantee pastoral care. Therefore, it is vital that lay leaders are trained to take over religious services when priests are not there.’
Parishes in African countries, for example, are much better prepared for a decline in the number of priests because they have been training lay people to conduct services on Sunday since the days when Christian churches came into existence and when there were no priests available for the services needed.
He says the pastoral priority must be in training youth leaders as well as pastoral leaders in general who are able to lead small communities.
‘It is an age-old experience—the faith that is not shared regularly will die easily. Frequent and regular faith-sharing meetings are a must. But who will and can do it if no priests are available anymore?’
Concerning the young people, the Catholic Church in New Zealand still has a big advantage with thousands of students in its schools where religious services are offered.
‘But the known problem is that 90 percent of the students and many teachers do not attend church services. If teachers do not participate in the church’s life how can they inspire students to do so? Young people can easily smell a fake; why should they follow practices their own teachers do not care for!’
Fr Fuellenbach believes the church population will continue to shrink as in most western churches but there will always be a few priests to guarantee what is called the ‘Holy Rest’.
‘A new pattern has to be found—there will be a shortage of priests everywhere and you have to make provision for these times.’
In this regard New Zealand is facing the same problems as all western countries.
‘But I have a feeling you are a bit better off in terms of church attendance and awareness of the problem and you are trying to do something about it. Make sure you use this advantage for a new beginning.
‘I admire what concerned and committed people here still do in terms of effort and hard work in a situation that can be so frustrating. Keep on doing it! Nothing is lost, because what really counts in the work for the Kingdom of God is not success but being faithful to Jesus’ message and mission.
‘Lay leader training really seems to be the answer at the moment in church pastoral policy. It is only trained young and excited leaders that can convince and in turn make young people once again interested in their faith.
‘World Youth Day has shown that young people are open to the faith and can get excited about the faith but this will not have any great impact if it is not followed with determined actions and trained leaders. One has to be realistic—a World Youth Day alone will not bring the young people back.’