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In the never-never land of church life


I have been a minister in the Catholic church for 26 years. And I am a laywoman, married, mother of three sons and one daughter-in-law, and soon to be a grandmother. I am called the “pastoral associate” in my parish, a title that sounds more dignified than “niche-filler,” which also would be accurate.

I arrange for the formation of ministers of the liturgy, direct choirs, process annulments, do pastoral counseling, write a weekly bulletin column, work in the wider community on ecumenical issues, teach in the catechumenate, prepare worship services, and so on. The most precious compliment I’ve ever received came from Les and Arline, an older couple who thanked me for “bringing out the talent” in others. Arline said she wished I had “gotten hold of her 20 or 30 years ago.” Les suggested 40 years ago would have been better. God love them.

The title being used more and more for people like me -- and there are a lot of us -- is lay ecclesial minister or LEM, not to be confused with lunar excursion module, though sometimes it feels like I’m exploring a whole new world.

There are more lay ecclesial ministers in ministry than priests or deacons. We are the fastest growing “order” in the church. As seminaries graduate one or two men a year into priestly ministry, lay folks by the dozens are in advanced degree programs in pastoral studies and taking seminars on the catechumenate, annulment law, church music, youth ministry, evangelization, social justice ministry and so on. Without statistics at hand, it is no stretch to say that most hands-on ministry in parishes, hospitals, schools and centers for social justice is performed by lay ministers.

As prevalent and as necessary as lay ecclesial ministers have become, we still exist in a strange never-never land of canonical invisibility. One alternately feels like a pioneer and a fool who can’t get a real job.

Over the years I’ve witnessed the conflict that surrounds the identity and ministry of lay people, issues that consume our leaders and become the topics of an untold number of meetings, debates and articles. These issues can be trivialized, but they are all symbolic of a deeper reality and, as such, they are important.

Consider the long deliberations to determine whether a little girl might carry a cross or candle in procession beside her brother.

Or the issue of language. When I began in ministry, these were the words spoken over the chalice: “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all men.” When, in 1981, the Apostolic See permitted the dropping of that one word “men,” many of us thought that with such a change to the most significant text we speak, other changes would easily follow. But still, we recite in our creed, “For us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven … ” And efforts to add sisters to brothers are being stymied, even when the original text clearly includes all of us.

The issue of preaching

Or there is the issue of preaching. Only the ordained may preach at the Sunday Mass. This is the case even if the ordained person does not speak the same language as the congregation, or has laryngitis, or has run out of things to say, or just doesn’t preach very well. He must preach the homily or there must be no homily at all. In other words, it would be better for the people to hear no word, than to hear it from the mouth of a non-ordained minister, regardless of education, dedication, ability or -- dare we say it? -- the Spirit’s work in that minister.

Preaching is important to some, but to most folks, it is holy Communion they come for. Consider the energy expended over the years around issues of Communion: to receive kneeling or standing; on the tongue or in the hand; from the cup; from a lay minister; the minimum age of the minister; whether the minister must receive after the priest presider; whether lay ministers may purify the vessels; whether lay ministers may help apportion the consecrated elements. And if not, how a priest with no ordained help and another Mass in 30 minutes is supposed to get it all done.

Communion is important. And community as well. Catholics who still live in parishes where their ancestors are buried in the churchyard want to be buried there, too. They want to marry in the same church where they were baptized; to raise their children in the school where they went to school; to worship in the parish church they’ve supported all their lives, sometimes building part of it with their own hands.

In my archdiocese, we are in that that phase of priest famine when folks are fighting over the scraps. Parishes are “stockpiling” help from religious orders and pastors are squabbling about one parish having three priests in residence with only 1,000 families while another has only one priest with 1,500 families. Five years from now it won’t make any difference because there won’t be even the scraps to fight over. If there is to be a surge in priestly vocations from male, celibate candidates, it is decades away.

Meanwhile, our people are asked to give up either Communion or community. That’s the choice, if they are given a choice. Be formed into a mega-parish and forget your old community and your lifetime dedicated to building a church home. Or give up Communion.

How does this affect me, a lay ecclesial minister? I have to live and work with the knowledge that my church would rather the people starve than permit me to feed them. Sometimes it makes me wonder what kind of life I have chosen -- to work for people who are apparently still raising a version of the Thomistic question, “Do women have souls?” The question, “Does a woman image Christ?” seems to me from the same genre. Sometimes it makes me angry, but I find anger exhausting. A mercifully few times, in the darkest hours, I questioned if Christ died for me, too. Oftentimes it just breaks my heart.

Wondering why I stay

Why do I stay? I admit I do wonder at times if I can spend the remainder of my life in this work and maintain my center, stay focused on that which is most important. I can only hope that I’m living in a time of transition and that my children and grandchildren will know a difference.

What I tell myself, and younger lay ecclesial ministers who come to me for counsel, is that there is an age-old tension between order and inspiration. When order and inspiration cooperate, there is great possibility for good. Consider the story of the Waldensians and the Franciscans. Both were movements that began in the second half of the 12th century. Both were in reaction to the church’s wealth and corruption and need for reform. Both founders -- Waldo and Francis -- were dedicated to extreme poverty, the itinerant life, and preaching to the ignorant. Why are there today so many followers of Francis and so few of Waldo? Because Francis went to Rome. Or, more accurately, Rome opened its doors to Francis and not to Waldo.

Or consider the modern examples of Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa -- two women whose intercession I seek everyday. Day was inspired to begin the Catholic Worker movement, to establish places of care for the most marginalized of society. There was concern about her apparent association with socialism and her bishop denied her the title “Catholic.” Dorothy did not abandon her church as she continued her work, nor did she abandon her dream. She simply persisted until the bishop saw the good of what she did. Order (the bishop) tested inspiration (Dorothy Day’s dream).

The case of Mother Teresa is similar. She had a vision of Christ speaking to her from the mouths of the poorest of the poor and she was moved to serve them. The archbishop of Calcutta denied her request to engage in this new ministry and asked her to wait a year, and then one more. Mother Teresa complied, prayed, hoped and continued to petition the archbishop until he was satisfied that her inspiration was tested and true.

Imagine if Dorothy Day or Mother Teresa had persisted in following their inspiration without submitting it to order. Would we know of them now? Would there be Catholic Worker houses across the land or the Missionaries of Charity, the worldwide religious community founded by Mother Teresa?

As I consider the roles of order keeper and inspired visionary, which would I choose? Would I really want to be remembered as the bishop who tried to stop Mother Teresa? The tension between order and inspiration is real and necessary and both the keepers of order and the inspired visionaries may suffer. To bring this tension to fruition requires patience (so much patience!), commitment to the truth, humility and, above all, charity.

Not of their company

I’m reminded of the gospel story of the disciples who wanted Jesus to stop someone who was casting out demons in his name, but wasn’t one of their company. The disciples were affronted, but Jesus calms them. The good is from the Spirit, whether the person doing the good deed is one of our company or not.

Notice what Jesus did not say. He did not say all that is needed is inspiration. He did not suggest to the disciples that they abandon company with him or each other. At the same time, there are those who are effective ministers outside “the company.” Inspiration informs and enriches order. Order tests and directs inspiration. The Spirit is greater than the church.

This tension between order and inspiration exists today around the issue of lay ecclesial ministers. It’s a hard place to be. It’s difficult to be patient when people are starving. It’s difficult to be patient when the decisions are made by those who know there is a famine, but who haven’t been really hungry. There is no “bishop shortage.” Bishops do not celebrate three crowded Masses in four hours unattended by duly appointed clerical assistants. Too many bishops and priests rarely listen to other homilies, much less hundreds from the same man in five years; thousands over a lifetime. And, understandably perhaps, too many priests are confused, threatened or downright resentful of these lay people who dare to work miracles and not be of their company.

It is in the area of policy setting and decision-making where lay ecclesial ministers are the most invisible and the most frustrated. We lay ecclesial ministers fall through the cracks of the existing structure. This was no more obvious than when the abuse scandals were publicized. Many of us who spend our working lives in rectories, sacristies and sanctuaries were not totally shocked by the headlines. We observe the late hours, the moodiness, the amount of time not accounted for. And further, we are the ministers from whom the folks seek counsel when they are not comfortable talking with a priest. We live and work “in between.”

At a recent gathering of lay ministers one woman summed it up well. She said she was seeking a way to contribute without making an issue of the contribution itself. How could she share her insights with her pastor and bishop without the desire to be “part of the loop” interpreted as presumptuous or an act of rebellion?

It is like exploring a new world. I continue because, God help me, I believe that I am called to this work and that no other work would satisfy. It makes me crazy at times, but it’s a call that has borne fruit. I believe that eventually the bishops will taste that fruit and find it sweet. That led by the people -- as they so often are -- the work of lay ministers will be received and accepted. We will be given the education, the support and the opportunities to minister according to our abilities alongside those who are ordained. And we will be held accountable.

Meanwhile, there is famine. When there is famine, emergency measures are allowed. Brother bishops and pastors, are you listening? When there is famine, emergency measures are allowed. If you love Jesus, feed your people.

Paige Byrne Shortal is the pastoral associate at St. Francis Borgia church in Washington, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 2003