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Age before suitability S

uppose, in a fictional parish, the pastor decided that henceforth sen- iority would be the sole criterion in ministry appointments in the parish.

Suspend your disbelief for a moment and imagine the results. The young priest who helped out at weekend

Masses would no longer be given the main Mass on Sunday – this would be reserved to the elderly monsignor. Priests lacking seniority would only be permitted to say the early morning or convent Masses in such a parish. The enthusiastic young accountant giving

his time and treasure to the parish on the finance committee might continue to be tol- erated, but his post-retirement colleague would be more often heeded – and would probably be given the chair of the committee. And the youthful ministers of the Word

and Eucharist would be sidelined in favour of those who had much longer been resident in the parish, regardless of their reading ability or even mobility at the altar. It would never happen, of course. Parishes

everywhere are keen to involve young people, with an eye to the future; talents are encour- aged and used at the service of the Gospel. This inclination is at the heart of the mission statements of most parishes, spoken or unspoken. People with par- ticular talents work in the areas which best suit their tal- ents: to organise people in any other way would not only create incompetence but would make for personal unhappiness in those whose talents would be so inappropriately used. Seniority is esteemed in parish life, age being undoubtedly honourable, but it is not the sole criterion in matching people with positions. It seems odd, then, that seniority remains the main criterion by which many dioceses organise their clergy, in Ireland at least. Junior men (those ordained most recently) take junior posts, while seniors take the more significant posts. In this, local churches probably take their cue from the universal Church, where older men occupy the most senior positions, irrespective of what gifts may be available in others less senior.

16 | THE TABLET | 17 September 2011

In my own diocese, and in some others as well, age is what counts. One becomes eligible for the office of parish priest when there is no older man seeking that office. Talent or suitability are not obvious considerations; being next in line is what counts. But there is a pecking order in parishes


Probe the unspoken reasons behind appointments in your parish and elsewhere

Take St Paul’s advice to heart in matching roles with gifted people

Be courageous in critiquing systems that seem at odds with God’s ways

too: smaller parishes for the younger priests, bigger and often more demanding parishes for the older ones. Sometimes this is not inevitably so, but where the natural order is changed, it is not because of a particular charism or gift being recognised, but rather because a major parish was the one available when the particular priest was next in line. And the reason for this whole disastrous sys- tem? Because it has always been so. It would be laughable if it did not have such sad out- comes, in unhappy priests – and parishes. Seniority as a means of proceeding used to be common in society generally. The bank manager attained his position after years of aspiring to such an office (though now, he is more likely to be half my age). The civil service maintained its own hierarchy, with its most senior positions reserved to its most senior members. In practically every other part of society this method of appointment has been aban- doned — except the Church. Why is this so? A dodgy theology is part of

the reason. Some church people have an almost magical view of the power of God’s grace. In this world view, the ordained person can do anything required of him: God’s grace will see to that. Talent or suit- ability are not relevant: the grace of the sacrament of ordi-

nation is sufficient (combined with a certain imagined infallibility on the part of the bishop, another product of the same dodgy theology). And attainment of a certain chrono- logical age is a key factor in this strange belief system. Lack of familiarity with the writings of St

Paul might be another factor. For Paul wrote so movingly about the power of the Spirit, and the gifts and talents this Spirit makes available to the community: see Ephesians 4:11-12 for a beautiful description of how the

Certain appointments in parishes have traditionally been determined more by the seniority of candidates than by considerations of individual talent. But the priority should be to find the person who has the particular gifts needed in a specific post

gifts of all should be employed to build up the Body of Christ. The matching of these God-given gifts and talents with particular ministry situations would appear to be one obvious outcome of this powerful statement of Paul’s faith. Leaving aside good theology and a working knowledge of the Scriptures, some common- sense principles employed in most organisations point to the benefits of matching skills and talents with particular positions. “Square pegs in round holes” result in disas- trous consequences for the places where these appointments take place and for the “square pegs” themselves. Another principle is unfortunately all too

prevalent – where people are promoted beyond the level of their ability. In the church context, this may well happen because of some priests’ inability to say “no” – or due to a culture where loyalty to the diocese is rewarded by promotion which takes no account of ability or competence. I speak as a product of such a system. When I was ordained 25 years ago, I became a pastor, for the simple reason that I was next in line. Having spent years in the city and enjoyed that ministry locale, I was posted to a small rural parish, a place where several others would have made a better job of it than I have. The parish I was posted to had no say either, they were to be grateful to have got a priest, any priest at all. If I had more courage, perhaps I should have asked to be allowed to wait till a parish more suitable to my own gifts and talents became available. But I did not. Perhaps the system continues as it is because men like me acquiesce. In regard to diocesan clerical appointments,

the racing adage “horses for courses” comes to mind. Certain horses run better on certain courses. People are often well advised to stick to what they know best. The Hollywood phrase “smart casting” might also be applied. Unfortunately, un-nuanced principle of sen- iority generally seems to work against this. St Paul, patron of the employment of the

gifts of individuals in the service of all, pray for us!

■Fr Bernard Cotter is parish priest of Uibh Laoire, residing at Inchigeela, Macroom, Co. Cork, Ireland. Email

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