Many of our parishes contain a number of lay people who are anxious to contribute to the organisational side of parish life. Committees and sub-committees, planning groups for everything from liturgy to building schemes: they can't seem to get enough. And of course, for a minority of these budding "collaborative ministers", parish finances exercise a special, almost hypnotic, fascination.
But when it comes to the more fundamental business of cultivating our individual relationship with Christ and building up our communities as cells of God's Kingdom there is often much less enthusiasm among the new class of ecclesiastical commissars. I remarked once to a parishioner that if Christ's message about the Kingdom of God isn't at the centre of all our activities, then there’s no point having parishes at all. The exasperated reply I got was: "Yes, yes. We know all that. But what about the admin?"
Our basic vocation: holiness of life
Before all the committees and meetings and "admin", the basic vocation of all Christians, laypeople and priests, is to be holy. Vatican II's Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, devoted a whole chapter to the subject. Our relationship with God takes shape as a response to the call to be holy: to love God, to be conscious of our weakness and sinfulness and our need for repentance, to act towards other men and women in a way that imitates Jesus Christ.
"The forms of tasks of life are many," says the Constitution, "but holiness is one - sanctity which is cultivated by all who act under God's spirit and, obeying the Father's voice and adoring God the Father in spirit and in truth, follow Christ, poor, humble, and cross-bearing, that they may deserve to be partakers in his glory" (Art. 41.)
The unfortunate truth, however, is that for some Catholics, involvement in parish life is not in the first place a means of becoming holy and following Christ, "poor, humble, and cross-bearing". It is a hobby. The gospel message is a pretext for a form of leisure activity, not a call to be drawn into the life of God's Kingdom.
Not surprisingly, it is the moneyed and comfortable sections of the community who lead this movement for a hobby religion. In our country, Christian churches of all denominations have the largest congregations in the wealthy areas, the pleasant suburbs and country areas whose residents have the greatest financial security. There, the middle-classes love their family masses, their fêtes, barbeques and planning committees!
But in the inner cities and in the decaying rural areas, Christianity has a credibility problem. The world of polite, comfortable people holding coffee-mornings, discussion groups and council meetings are a million miles away from their experience of life, their worries and their struggles.
When you think of what the Bible says about God's favouritism of the poor, and Christ's warnings against the idols of wealth and comfort and spiritual complacency, this situation is a scandal. It is the kind of infidelity to God's purposes which the prophets, and Jesus himself, denounced vigorously.
The German theologian, John-Baptist Metz, has pointed out that where Christians are affluent and comfortable, they do not like to see the gospel as a question mark against their attitudes and lifestyle. Instead, they prefer to rewrite the gospel to suit their interests and situation - with a nice, cosy model of Church membership to match.
Out go Jesus' call to repentance and his uncompromising words about the costliness of discipleship, the dangers of money, the duties to the poor. In come the cheese-and-wine parties and the self-congratulatory services and masses - usually served up to entertain their own children, like a birthday party at McDonalds. Instead of being converted to the values of the Kingdom, well-to-do Catholics manipulate and distort the message of the Kingdom to fit into their narrow, worldly ideas of what is reasonable, efficient and desirable.
The champions of this self-serving religion like to present themselves as radical and forward-moving, eager to participate in the mission of the Church - if only the antiquated clergy would move over and hand them the reins. But what they actually want is to hijack the local Church, stifle the prophetic content of the Christian message, and turn the parish into a social club with themselves as the executive committee.
This is the real motive-force behind a lot of criticism of the clergy. The would-be collaborators do not accuse priests of being unfaithful to the radicalism of Christ's own preaching. Christ's radicalism is the last thing they want! Their standard complaint is rather that the priests are lacking the business and management skills needed to "run" the parish in the most cost-effective and efficient way.
In these circumstances, what we need above all is to restate the basic priorities of Christ's own preaching - the demand for repentance, for holiness of life, for a genuine, humble discipleship that makes sacrifices, especially on behalf of the less fortunate. And instead of dressing up traditional middle-class assertiveness as a desire to collaborate in the Church's ministry, we should also have the courage to unmask the real causes of so much "power-struggle" in our parishes and in the Church at large.
The chattering classes in heaven
To finish with, here's a parable - for "those who have ears to hear".
The Day of Judgement arrived quite suddenly, before the parish council had time to discuss whether God's big day should be allowed to go ahead or not. All the most efficient and go-getting parish organisers pulled up at the gates of Heaven in their big shiny four wheel drives, brandishing their drawings for a new presbytery garden, their hymns sheets for the next youth mass, and their schemes to redecorate the parish hall in their chosen colours. And St. Peter said to them: "Welcome! Now you may join the banquet of the Kingdom! Now you may enter the company of your heavenly Father, and live with him in everlasting peace and joy and love!"
And all the chattering-class Catholics said, in their most patronising tone: "Yes, yes, we know all that, Peter. But what about the admin?"