Last Updated:Saturday - 12/11/2010
December 4, 2000
Labourers for the harvest
Responses of the laity differ based on their level of involvement
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
In the last eight weeks, we have been on a 35-year journey through just a few of the Church's ideas on lay ministry. There are many other documents we might have looked at, and many other passages within the documents we used that also relate to this issue.
Like any writer worth her salt, I've had to select while trying to remain fair to the other possibilities that space and time did not allow me to highlight. Perhaps some readers of this series have been inspired (or provoked) to go and seek out the fuller texts, in which case my aim, to whet their appetites for more, has been served.
My other aim was simply to foster dialogue in this evolving area of lay ministry. I was recently privileged to attend a meeting in Louisville, Ky., of seven North American colleges who all have Lilly Endowment grants to foster the growth of lay ministry in their areas.
Newman Theological College is currently the only Canadian college involved, with its pilot project lay pastoral leadership program consisting of 15 candidates sent by 12 western and northern dioceses. As an introductory item, each college was asked to respond to the question: "Why does the Church need this project?"
As we who are Catholics know, the Second Vatican Council expanded the understanding of ministry to include the ministry of all the baptized. Even when we are baptized as infants who could not accept responsibility for the implications of Christian Baptism, as adults we are asked to consider what those implications are.
Responses will differ widely according to our level of faith engagement. For many it will remain a decision their parents made which they neither reject nor particularly embrace.
For those of a deeper faith engagement, the embracing of the implications of Baptism in a Vatican II understanding require an active Christian discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian killed by the Nazis in 1945, wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship. As the title suggests, the book presents authentic Christian discipleship as something that costs us dearly if we are to live it in a serious and committed way.
God's grace (especially for Lutherans) is a totally free gift, but our response to that gift is an indication of how much we value it. If it does not make much difference in our lives, then Bonhoeffer suggests that it is "cheap grace" with its value diminished because we do not respond to it as a valuable part of our lives.
Bonhoeffer was a reformer who was calling the Lutheran Church of his day to examine whether it was offering its people "cheap grace" by watering down the life of discipleship until little was required to be a follower of Christ. In fact, as many of us know, to follow Christ is neither easy nor cheap, but when we persevere, it is the road to a deeper joy than "the easy life" could have delivered.
Another way to express the message of Vatican II is to say we are all invited to a deeper life of discipleship, one that shuns the "cheap grace" of easy answers and a superficial approach to faith. The council was a gentle parent, however, and it did not force or compel, but rather invited this deeper engagement.
A growing number of laymen and laywomen since that time have been eager to live this fuller life of faith engagement. The council encouraged this eagerness and as subsequent decades unfolded the opportunities for many new kinds of lay ministry were taken up with zeal. As Pope John Paul acknowledged in his statement Christifideles Laici, "Bearing fruit is an essential demand of life in Christ (John 15:5) and life in the Church" (n.32).
Those not called to this deeper faith engagement, like those not called to priesthood, can still live faithfully and be part of the flock that Jesus loves. There is no fault in being a quiet faithful member of a Christian congregation, just as there is no fault in being called to more than this.
St. Paul explains this well in his analogy of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-30) noting that all of us have our place and role and there is really no such thing as a higher or lower part because all are necessary for the health and functioning of the whole.
Therefore, let me say clearly that the emphasis on lay ministry does not mean that all laity are called to this more active form of discipleship.
And within lay ministry, of course, there are many levels ranging from basic forms of voluntary service in the Church to those devoting many years and much debt to study in preparation for a more professional level of service in the same Church. Hopefully we can all encourage one another no matter what the involvement, or even non-involvement of the other may be.
Some of us who were young at the time of the council have been somewhat impatient and perhaps unrealistic in thinking that as we matured the council's ideas should have become fully established. The "brief span of days" that is our human lot in life cannot be compared to the ages of the Church which necessarily take longer to unfold and come to fruition.
Those still on fire with the spirit of the council may need to grow in trust that God's Spirit will prevail in spite of human hesitations and doubts. The season of Advent calls us to wait patiently and to persevere in the building of the kingdom which is both here, in our hearts, and yet still to come. "Ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to the harvest" (Luke 10:2).
(Last in a series – Adela Torchia is director of the Lay Pastoral Leadership Program at Newman College.)
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