Christian Churches are not in good shape today. Reform is urgently needed. Instead, in many parts of Europe, Roman Catholic bishops are destroying local communities.

Our world is getting both smaller and larger: smaller because globalisation makes us more aware of the resources and limitations of our one planet; larger because digital technology opens exciting links with people near and far.

We no longer need to leave home to go shopping, playing, praying, learning, talking, posting or banking: much can be done electronically. At the same time, many of our natural meeting places are quickly disappearing. Although we now can have as many Facebook ‘friends’ as we like, we may feel more isolated than ever before. Many meeting spaces in our High Streets are gone. Where should we encounter people for real – friends and strangers –without technological mediation?

These social changes invite us to reflect afresh on what kind of persons we wish to be. How much direct contact do we need and want with our fellow human beings? Where can we as persons grow in love, faith and hope within a community of trust, belonging and shared commitment? Do Christian communities provide a space to relate to each other, to God, and to our own emerging selves? Do they welcome foreigners, outsiders, refugees, and newcomers?

Roman Catholic bishops in Europe are abolishing local Christian communities: pointing to the shortage of celibate priests, they are closing or amalgamating parishes into larger regional units. Parishioners are told to get used to finding a mass elsewhere – as if Christian faith could be reduced to merely getting to Mass. Such bishops are convinced that the church depends on priests. However, this thinking is deeply flawed.

Christians believe that God desires community with women, men and children. All are called to engage in mutual respect, love and support – especially for the needy, weak, marginalised, persecuted and oppressed. Wherever people gather in Christ’s name, Christ has promised to be present and to empower the community. The rich sacramental life in the Catholic Church gives expression and structure to the local community. The celebration of the Eucharist gathers the community in Christ’s presence around one table. However, a shortage of (celibate) priests does not have to mean the end of Christian vocation and community.

It is a tragic misunderstanding that the prime task of bishops is to organise people around priests. Rather, priests are called to serve the local community. If this clericalist misunderstanding is to continue, bishops will quickly become the grave diggers of the church. Instead, bishops ought to renew their own vocation to support and nurture local Christian communities wherever they emerge. Today, the stumbling blocks for church reform and renewal of local communities are not the people but the bishops. Pope Francis has stressed this fact. Let us hope and pray that our bishops will follow suit and support the emergence of Christian communities with renewed courage and commitment.