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, its 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. Lets 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 its 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 subcommittees final report should address:
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 dioceses Kino Institute (described by Tom Robertss articles), its clear this revolution is infusing the church with new life. If that life is to take root, these are logical next steps.
But theyre not inevitable. Indeed, given the way the Roman wind is blowing, implementing them will require a fair bit of courage.
Lets hope theres no turning back.
National Catholic Reporter, January, 9, 1998