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Four steps needed to affirm the new ministers

One slogan of the lay ministry movement is “no turning back,” lifted from a 1995 speech on the subject by New Ulm, Minn., Bishop Raymond Lucker. It strikes a bold, optimistic tone, suggesting that the trend towards lay collaboration in ministry in the American Catholic church is an irresistible impulse.

As rallying cries go, it’s a good one. It is also -- and it behooves everyone to be clear on this -- untrue.

The harsh truth is that the clock can be turned back. Witness the recent instruction from the Vatican on lay ministry, which resurrected the worst kind of patronizing clericalism in declaring that the involvement of laity in ministry is an ad-hoc response to priest shortages, and that the unique status of the priest must be protected above all.

Granted, the buzz now is that the instruction will have little effect in America because the U.S. bishops will massage it sufficiently to leave things pretty much as they are. Let’s hope so, but that interpretation relies heavily on the good will of the bishops, to whom principled defiance of Rome does not always come naturally. The instruction has already done damage to the morale of professional lay ministers, and it could become an ecclesial wrecking ball unless measures are taken to protect the progress made in this area and to ensure its future growth.

In that context, the three-year project of the bishops’ subcommittee on lay ministry could not be more timely. So far, the subcommittee has generated tremendous good will by opening itself to dialogue and involving lay ministers themselves in drafting early versions of documents. Those are positive steps and they merit commendation. But it’s by no means preordained that the effort will turn out well. The chief danger is that the bishops could end up suffocating lay ministry by fixating on issues of definition and control.

If, however, the bishops’ primary impulse is one of support, they can do some real good. If the notion is that lay ministry is a positive sign of the times that deserves affirmation -- but not micromanagement -- the work of this subcommittee could be among the bishops’ most important accomplishments.

In that light, there are four critical points the subcommittee’s final report should address:

  • Ritual: The bishops should create a public commissioning liturgy for lay ministers that would express that lay ministry is an official, recognized vocation with the full support of the church. The danger is that such a ritual could become a filter through which the bishops screen who they do and don’t want to become lay ministers. So the function of this liturgy should be to ratify the wishes of communities, not to replace them with episcopal diktat.
  • Compensation: Issues of salary and benefits should be addressed so that the church does right by the people who serve it. The bishops would take a tremendous step forward if they were to examine the wage and benefit packages earned by youth ministers, pastoral associates and other types of ministers in other faith traditions, or even secular professionals who do similar work, and then establish as a principle that Catholic lay ministers should get something close to fair market value for their labor. The bishops should also take measures to protect people’s job security and benefits. While pastoral teams must have some flexibility in hiring and firing, lay ministers should be assured that a change of pastor doesn’t mean they’re out in the cold.
  • Education: One of the most pernicious vestiges of clericalism on the ministry scene today is that if you’re a priest-in-training, someone will help foot the bill for your education, but if you aspire to be a lay minister, you’re on your own. It’s an inequity that not only has practical consequences -- ensuring a shortage of adequately prepared candidates for jobs -- but it’s also unjust on its face. The bishops should establish scholarship and loan programs at the diocesan level that provide serious financial support to those who are preparing for careers in lay ministry.
  • Collaboration: The bishops should say, loudly and clearly, that lay ministers are professionals and colleagues whose collaboration in the ministerial life of the church is a fully appropriate realization of Vatican II’s people of God ecclesiology. It’s time to admit, once and for all, that Father doesn’t always know best -- and never did.

These points are reasonable ways to institutionalize the lay revolution in ministry underway in American Catholicism. Looking at the energy and hope emanating from places such as the Phoenix diocese’s Kino Institute (described by Tom Roberts’s articles), it’s clear this revolution is infusing the church with new life. If that life is to take root, these are logical next steps.

But they’re not inevitable. Indeed, given the way the Roman wind is blowing, implementing them will require a fair bit of courage.

Let’s hope there’s no turning back.

National Catholic Reporter, January, 9, 1998