When parish priests are welcomed to their parish the words used emphasise the role of the priest to the whole parish. This is also emphasised, usually, in the title of the parish priest, the ‘Vicar of Wilberfoss,’ the ‘Rector of Cockfield,’ for example. The priest lives within the community, and is part of that community. If the community celebrates, the priest celebrates. If the community remembers, the priest remembers. If the community suffers – say by the effects of plague or virus, the priest suffers. In this celebrating, remembering, suffering, the priest can have a significant role in enhancing celebration, articulating remembrance and caring in suffering, and indeed, in bringing these concerns to God in prayer on behalf of the parish. This is far more than ‘service of the community’ which can run the risk of seeming paternalistic. It is embodied living Christian ministry in a parish.
This is recognised and strengthened by law, which over the centuries and to this day encourages the role of the parish priest. By law the priest is to be available for the people of the parish, irrespective of their professed faith. By law the parish priest is to pray daily for and care for the parish. By law, indeed, the priest is to live in the parish – except in very limited circumstances.
This connection with the people of the parish, the local community and indeed the land of the parish, emphasises the love and care of God for the local, the particular and the everyday. Parish ministry, a ministry right at the heart of the Church of England throughout her history, is essentially incarnational.
The Parish Church is very much a focus for much of the parish priest’s ministry. However, the priest is not simply a chaplain to a church, just as a diocesan bishop is not the chaplain to a cathedral. Involvement in schools, care homes, work with the vulnerable and needy, concern for social issues that affect the parish, are all part of the ministry of the parish priest.
Of course parishes and communities change, and some reorganisation is needed, and the wise priest will involve others in this ministry – it cannot be done alone. However, any reorganisation will have, indeed must have, as its focus the essential and incarnational nature of parish ministry.
In 1817 Jean-Marie Vianney was appointed parish priest of the remote French village of Ars-en-Dombes, it was a depressing place with a run down church and the post was usually given to poorly educated priests who could not be trusted with more. His superiors thought Vianney a suitable choice. He was to remain there to his death 42 years later in 1859.
On arrival Vianney was anxious to minister to all the people of Ars, not just the faithful few. He lived a humble life, avoiding lavish priestly dress and preaching a simple faith. He challenged the morals of the people and opened their eyes to the riches of a loving faith. Despite personal illness and the envious unkindnesses of neighbouring clergy he persevered and his care and prayer for individuals made him famous well beyond his parish. In 1858 over a thousand people visited Ars each week to seek his counsel and prayer.
Like so many of us he was a complex person. However, at heart he was a loving man who cared deeply for his parishioners and who had an ability to be at ease, and to chat helpfully,with all. His example, seen as foolishness to some, including colleague priests, is now seen as a sincere sanctity. In 1929, St John Mary Baptist Vianney, the Cure d’Ars, (feast day 4th August) was proclaimed the principal patron saint of the parochial clergy. His witness is both an inspiration and a challenge to the church and clergy of today.