Reports by Luke Coppen
THE ANNUAL meeting of the National Conference of Priests has produced a range of recommendations aimed at improving the working conditions of priests.
, The 71 priests attending the week-long conference at _Newman College in Binning, ham agreed a series of propositions to combat isolation and low morale among the clergy, including a 24-hour helpline for stressed and depressed clergy.
, The conference, which met last week, also called for a more organised approach to the closure and amalgamation of parishes and for bishops to ensure a smooth transition between the appointment of parish priests. It urged dioceses to improve their care of priests in their first year of ministry.
These measures, and forthcoming plans for clergy appraisal, reflect the NCP's increasingly "professional" approach to the priesthood and its desire to use the insights of industry to safeguard the health and well-being of priests.
Fr Nicholas Kern. of Shrewsbury Diocese, who proposed the 24-hour helpline, said that it was particularly urgent in view of the recent suicide of a priest in his diocese. He said it would run along the lines of the Samaritans helpline and would be fully accountable to the bishops.
Fr Peter Conley, of Birmingham Archdiocese, moved a motion calling for regular
contact between young priests and vocations directors in the vital first months of their ministry.. The debate showed that in some dioceses there are structures in place for junior clergy. but the provision across England and Wales is uneven.
There was widespread concern about the handling of parish closures. A proposal called for an approach "based on an assessment of real pastoral needs rather than considerations of expediency." It urged more consultation with parishioners and realism about priest' s abilities and parish resources.
The conference also felt that care should be taken to ensure continuity when parish priests change. It approved a motion calling for training days for new appointees and for a longer. overlapping transition period between parish priests.
Delegates expressed concern that declining numbers of priests would leave some parishes without regular Eucharist.
Fr Gerry Smyth, of Middlesborough Diocese, moved a proposal asking the European Bishops' Synod to consider opening the priesthood to married men and to hold an "amnesty" for priests who have left their ministry to marry.
"Lay people are at ease with married clergy becoming part of our strength," Fr Smyth said. The proposition was defeated by a margin of three votes.
The conference overwhelmingly endorsed changes to its constitution ensuring that black priests will be represented at future conferences. They were proposed by conference chairman Fr Philip Sumner, of the Salford Diocese, who works in Moss Side. He said: "The fact that there are no black priests at this conference suggests a serious situation in itself, when there are so many people of African or Asian descent in our parishes. Their voice isn't really being heard within the conference."
The NCP's amended constitution now ensures that there will be two representatives of the Association of Black Priests of England and Wales — a putative organisation that the conference hopes will soon be created.
The NCP also passed a proposal welcoming the advances toward peace in Northern Ireland.
In his closing speech. Bishop David Konstant, liason bishop for the NCP, said that the conference had been positive and encouraging. He said that the NCP's role was "to formulate difficult questions" on behalf of bishops, priests and the laity and recalled that the chief role of priests was to "lead the poor we serve to communion with God."