Some of you may be aware that I have been on a visit to the Tombs of the Apostles (ad limina Apostolorum), which every bishop has to do every five-to-seven years. Part of the visit is to celebrate Mass at the Tombs of SS Peter and Paul, in St John Lateran, (the pope’s cathedral) and St Mary Major.
Each bishop has to submit a report to the pope of what has happened in the diocese since the last visit. Below I offer a very brief résumé of my report (the original is just under 100 pages).
Several statistics stand out in my mind. Since my last visit, the Mass attendance throughout the diocese has gone from 16,500 to just over 12,000. The overall finances have fallen by 8.3%. There have been four ordinations since the last visit and there have been 32 deaths and retirements of priests.
In the last report to the Holy Father in 2010, I expressed the hope (somewhat naïve in hindsight) that by informing everyone of the situation regarding vocations and priests stepping down from pastoral responsibility, we might have been able to foster vocations to the priesthood, the permanent diaconate and to lay ministry in sufficient numbers to provide for our needs. Sadly, this has not happened.
Given that there are fewer and fewer clergy year by year, it is vital that we have a pastoral strategy that enables the faithful access to the sacraments and growth in their spiritual life. At the same time, we also need to make the best use of the diocesan clergy, especially the younger ones, while ensuring that they are not overburdened. Therefore, I have set up a new Vicariate for Pastoral Strategy. Given that there is a good proportion of lay and clerical representation on the council of this vicariate, we should achieve an equitable solution.
I feel that if we are not able to achieve such a solution or no solution at all, then we will need to turn our minds to the question of the viability of Middlesbrough as a diocese; whether, indeed, it is not the amalgamation of parishes that we should be looking at but the amalgamation of the diocese with another!
On a more positive note, we must continue to develop and facilitate lay ministries. We need some role in the Catholic Church in our countries which is equivalent to the role of a Lay Reader in the Anglican Church. One whose qualifications are recognised outside the Church, enabling them to take on such roles as lay prison chaplains, hospital chaplains, school chaplains etc.
Already we are developing and trialling the ministry of lay-led funerals. While the number of priests grows less, the number of funerals either remains the same or grows.
The development of the Diocesan Caritas has been a very positive thing and causes much enthusiasm and commitment to the Social Teaching of the Church and a way of working ecumenically with other Churches. It inspires peoples’ imagination and gives a way to put the Gospel into daily action. There is a real desire for this right across the differing age groups and social backgrounds of the diocese. This is certainly something to be celebrated and developed over the years to come.
My own personal motto is “Expectantes Beatam Spem” – As we wait in blessed hope (for the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ). I have often said that I truly believe that we remain in the loving and providential hands of the Father and so I can never feel hopeless or fearful. The Lord is our light and our help whom shall we fear (Ps.26). I tried to be realistic and honest in the report and in the end all is by the grace of God. Glory be to him in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3.21)