by FR. WILLIAM DEMPSEY
MOST senior churchmen say that the curate is the best placed person because he has no responsibility. He has no responsibilities because he has no rights. One archbishop is alleged to have said that the only right a curate has got is Christian burial. A man without civic rights is a slave, The priest without ecclesiastical rights is a slave within the system.
In an awkward situation the curate can do only one thing. If the parish priest is not treating him properly, he can ask the bishop to transfer him elsewhere. But to ask for a change could mean from the fryingpan into the fire: the bishop might appoint him to a worse parish. (Not so long ago parish priests were made canons on their record for being curate breakers.)
The curate enters into two main relationships. One is with the parish priest which can be described as a master-slave relationship. He sweats, not to earn his bread, but to keep the parish priest happy. The rector may judge him more on how he folds an alb than how he looks after the local hospital. At best, he may be the recipient of a dose of paternalism, or, at worst, treated like an unwanted lodger. He may not even be allowed to take a fellow-priest to the presbytery dining table.
The master-slave relationship gives this "Man of God" no independence. He is not like the doctor who diagnoses, treats and refers patients to hospital consultants in his own right. Quite frequently he is not consulted on parochial matters. What happens about baptism, and who gets into the parish school is all done at the bidding of the parish priest.
The curate has a special relationship with the parish loners. Being unmarried. he is the big boy who has never grown up and therefore he enjoys a welcome into every home. He may run a football team, a youth club, scouts, guides and brownies. Parents like him because he takes the children off their hands and he is trustworthy. The curate as a rule is popular, but this .is never in his favour. The capital crime of his life is to overshadow the parish priest.
The curate can develop a zombie-type personality through living out of a suitcase, or frustration can make him bitter and alcoholic, or even drive him to seek a more satisfactory relationship in ma rriage.
A whole range ofnegotiating machinery has been established to foster harmony and personal fulfilment. Ideally, the parish should have a strong community spirit, but the parish priestcurate relationship does not always contribute towards this_ There is no common policy inspiring the Pastoral Ministry.
If the master-slave :elationship is the true description of the curate's position then it is not capable of further develoment. It must be abolishepd with all the evangelical vehemence of the Wilberforces.
The Church can be seen as a bureaucracy. A bureaucracy
has specific aims. First, it gives an ungenerous interpretation to human behaviour. The justification for an ecclesiastical bureaucracy is that it disciplines human frailty. There is hardly an ecclesiastic who can see wider participation working: what are you going to do with the reverend or the right reverend who will not toe the line? The clerical mentality is a bureaucratic mentality.
Secondly, the bureaucracy creates a distance between people and administrators. It promotes elitism and the higher ranks strip the lower ranks of any criteria of excellence, The episcopacy is the sacerdotal elite using a household bureaucracy from vicar-general to private secretary.
Many complain that the bishop only knows his clergy through his household bureaucracy and this leaves much to be desired. When a curate gets a letter to report to his bishop usually he is paralysed with fear.
Why be outspoken? To ventilate a personal grievance in this way would be a grievous error. To put it bluntly: are we
living a system which men can behave charitably and honestly?
The• motivation arises from the effort to get dialogue under way. Discussions generally wind up on the note: these problems exist everywhere; all presbyteries are the same, all parishes have their problems. Worse still, when a priest approaches his bishop about a personal problem, the bishop tries to persuade him that he has no problem at all.
There is no true realisation that the charism of authority is to form a community, to develop dialogue from that community, and to reach consensus within the community. The Church's structure should possess a perfection that will serve as a model for secular society: this is far from being the case.
The great hope lies in the growth of a pastoral episcopate. The ratio of bishops to clergy is too wide. As a beginning the bishop should, each weekend. go to a different parish in his diocese. hear some confessions, say Mass and preach. In this way, he meets his clergy and people face to face.
The future shape of the ministry may be as many bishops as parish priests at the moment. assisted by deacons, married and unmarried. If this happens the bureaucracy disappears. Then we shall be able to speak of the New Pentecost.