Last Updated:Saturday - 12/11/2010
November 20, 2000
U.S. bishops looked at lay ministry
Confusion, overlap natural result of new ministries being superimposed on existing structure
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
After looking at the Vatican statement on Ecclesia in America last week, it seems appropriate to turn now to a U.S. bishops' statement on lay ministry that came out this year.
The NCCB lay ministry subcommittee issued a report called Lay Ecclesial Ministry: State of the Questions, which was the result of a four-year study commissioned by the bishops.
The subtitle suggests that we need not expect final solutions here, only an analysis of the present situation in the United States and some prognoses for the future of the lay ministry question. A Canadian bishops' statement on this question, released last year by the Ontario bishops, will be the subject of the next article.
The report begins by citing a 1997 comment by Pope John Paul addressed to French bishops saying: "We see a true source of hope in the willingness of a considerable number of lay people to play a more active and diversified role in ecclesial life and to take the necessary steps to train seriously for this."
The U.S. Church has witnessed a rapid rise in the numbers of laity formally and professionally involved in what the bishops called "ecclesial ministry." In 1992 there were 21,500 laypersons (including vowed religious) working in formal pastoral roles.
By 1999 this number had increased to almost 30,000 with about 60 per cent of American parishes employing lay ministers. Some of those lay ministers (12 per cent) are also found in health care, prisons, seaports and airports.
With such large numbers it is not surprising that a certain amount of clergy-lay stepping-on-each-other's-toes has taken place. The report emphasized the necessity of viewing lay and ordained ministries as complementary rather than competitive.
Naturally this is easier said than done. Whenever new forms of ministry are superimposed upon a prevailing structure, inevitably there are areas of confusion, overlap and concern.
Some of us who grew up with the Second Vatican Council and remained active in the Church feel as though our whole lifetimes have been spent nurturing the infant Vatican II Church and being nurtured by its rich promises of an abundant life in Christ.
We may have been guilty of losing patience when the process seemed slow. The reality is that 35 years is a short time in which to begin implementing such a huge reformulation of the Church's identity and mission.
The term "lay ecclesial minister" used in this NCCB document, for example, is an ambiguous and controversial one. For the longest time, lay ministry was seen as largely ex-ecclesia, as the laity evangelizing the world.
By the time of Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi in 1975, it was clear that laity were also ministering within the ecclesia (see article WCR Oct. 30). The wake-up call of Vatican II, rousing laity out of the sleep of passivity into an active form of Christian discipleship had been a clarion call inviting a rich unfolding of gifts and charisms.
While vocations to the priesthood and religious life declined, vocations to lay forms of ministry mushroomed which led, in some cases, to a concern about preserving the distinctiveness and centrality of ordained ministry. A formal theology of lay ministry has yet to be developed, but as the report affirms, it is worthwhile allowing the lived experience to unfold first.
There is also a concern that laity lack the necessary theological and pastoral education for a variety of teaching and ministry roles in the Church. As the NCCB document states: "The larger society in which we live and minister is one that asks credentials of all who would serve it. The development of competencies and the acquisition of degrees do not substitute for the charism or call to ministry, but they are usually an essential complement to that call."
The question of appropriate credentials has a further set of ambiguities in the lived parish experience in which a pastor often prefers to call upon someone he knows in the parish, regardless of formal credentials, and a subsequent pastor may dismiss a longtime lay parish assistant without the due process normally observed in employment situations.
With these and other issues still needing attention and clarification, we can see why the NCCB document is subtitled "state of the questions." However, the report points out that overall parish lay ministry is an extremely satisfying experience, and that lay-clergy tensions were only reported in 10-15 per cent of the situations assessed.
The baby boomers may be greying, their gums may be receding and their arms not long enough to hold the book in focus, but the lay ministry "offspring" of Vatican II presents an entirely different image of youthful exuberance and vigour.
There is perhaps no surging ahead towards a dignified adulthood without living through the pimply awkward stage when some forms of energy are high (and dangerous?) and need careful channelling. Next week we will see what one group of Canadian bishops has to say.
(Fifth in a series – Adela Torchia is director of the Lay Pastoral Leadership Program at Newman College.)
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