Last Updated:Saturday - 12/11/2010
October 16, 2000
The emergence of lay ministry
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
I was 13 years old at the end of the Second Vatican Council, just beginning to have a religious consciousness of my own.
As I grew up and my faith deepened, the Church, it seemed to me, was also growing up, no longer responding with fear to every new situation, but instead saying, "Let us see how we can communicate the relevance of the Gospel in the light of our current historical and cultural context."
In this way, the message of Christ remains fresh as its ongoing vibrancy is made clear to the world. Recognizing, for instance, that educated laymen and women in the 20th century could no longer be dissuaded from reading the Scriptures, the Church wisely encouraged the laity to go ahead and "break open the Word of God."
And we did, with relish.
As a young adult in the 1970s I was proud of our Oblate Retreat House (Villa Maria) in Winnipeg with its beautiful Scripture-based retreats to which we also warmly welcomed our Protestant sisters and brothers. These retreats invited us to deepen our relationship with Jesus, the Messiah, the Liberator, the Anointed One, the Redeemer, the intimate friend.
The Holy Spirit was also invoked, this breath of the power of God who in each generation passes into holy souls, making them friends of God and prophets (Wisdom 7:25-27). And the image of God the Father grew broader and richer just in time.
As the ecological crisis unfolded, we knew that our gracious Creator, God the Father and Mother (Genesis 1:27) who had so lovingly provided the earth for our home, did not want us to squander or abuse it but rather to be good stewards of its abundant riches.
As I grew into a deeper, personal faith and became more conscientious about the needs and sufferings in the world, the Roman Catholic Church of Vatican II seemed to be full of joy and hope (gaudium et spes).
The early documents reflected this invitation to deepen our faith and to approach the table of the Lord as mature and responsible adults.
The life of the Church became a central part of my life as I raised two children and explored many areas of parish involvement. We were encouraged to take our Baptism seriously as a call to become active disciples of the Lord, using our gifts to minister to God's people.
In the last three decades of the 20th century, the mounting interest in lay ministry coupled with the reduced numbers of priests and sisters, led to an increasingly active laity. According to an American study in 1999, almost 30,000 lay parish ministers are to be found in 63 per cent of American parishes, with about the same number of laity currently pursuing studies in preparation for such roles.
Lay ministers work in sacramental preparation programs, religious education for children and adults, in administrative and organizational functions, in youth and music ministry and in other aspects of parish life according to the needs of the area.
Such an upsurge of new forms of ministry have been both welcomed and watched closely by the hierarchy of the Church. As a result many documents from Rome and from the bishops have addressed the issue of lay ministry.
In the next few weeks we will explore some of these documents to begin gauging the direction of lay ministry in the Catholic Church of the 21st century.
We will begin by revisiting Gaudium et Spes (1965), the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, which together with the council's Decree on the Lay Apostolate, opened many new doors of lay involvement in the mission of the Church.
We will go on to examine Pope Paul VI's 1975 Evangelii Nuntiandi, an apostolic exhortation on evangelization in the modern world. Then in 1989 Pope John Paul issued Christifideles Laici, an apostolic exhortation on the laity based on the 1987 synod of bishops which examined the vocation and mission of the laity.
Ten years later, Pope John Paul issued an exhortation called Ecclesia in America based on a 1997 special assembly for America of the synod of bishops. And then just this year the U.S. bishops' conference put out a statement examining the state of the questions surrounding "lay ecclesial ministry."
On the Canadian scene we will examine a 1999 statement by the Ontario bishops entitled Lay Pastoral Associates in Parish Settings: Perspectives, Considerations and Suggestions.
Although such a brief survey of a selection of Church documents cannot hope to present the full gamut of approaches to lay ministry, we hope to contribute to the dialogue of this increasingly vital area of Church Life.
What is the role of the laity in the Roman Catholic Church in Canada as the new millennium takes shape?
(First in a series – Adela Torchia is director of the Lay Pastoral Leadership Program at Newman College.)
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