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Lay leadership deserves protection

One lay pastoral life director on a little island off the coast of Washington gets canned. So what? Who cares?

His leaving isn’t going to alter the course of the church, and, anyway, if this is the way the new bishop wants to do business, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

And so it goes.

And, there was the couple in Wisconsin. That was a shame, too (NCR, April 24). They left a longtime home and good jobs in Connecticut to become pastoral associates at Holy Rosary Parish in Lima Township, in the LaCrosse, Wis. diocese. One day, the pastor who hired them says it isn’t working, and the couple is out of a job and a place to live. From the sound of it, though, there weren’t many in the parish who shared the priest’s opinion. In fact, the speculation is that the couple may have been working too well for the priest’s liking. It’s hard to share the leadership spot.

Before these travesties become the status quo, someone needs to call a halt. Starting right here.

We will pay attention to that lone pastoral life director or that couple serving as pastoral associates and the lay seminary professor who is ousted from his job because of complaints by an extreme right-wing zealot with no theological training, and we will pay attention to nuns demoted or fired from theology faculties without due process. We will pay attention because those in authority must be made to know that someone is watching and will seek some accounting.

We will tell the stories as we can, knowing that the few that make it to print represent the stories of many others who have been faithful servants of the church only to come up against callous disregard for their gifts and, often, for years of good work.

We will watch, too, because there is an element in the church intent on deconstructing the weave of lay leadership that has slowly developed over the past three decades, a pattern in many ways still incomplete and vulnerable. So we will ask questions when the lay ministry program in Sacramento, Calif., which has been commissioning its graduates for at least six years, decides to abruptly stop the practice without prior notice and without consultating those involved.

Ministry by lay men and women in the Catholic church has been an uneven exercise. In some dioceses lay ministry flourishes and is conducted, in the most healthy way, in concert with priests and bishops. In other dioceses, laity who take on any degree of authority are perceived as threats, tolerated only as fill-ins during the most extreme circumstances.

In most cases, the reality lies somewhere between those alternatives. The unfortunate truth for any lay person who decides to embark on a ministry within the church is that his or her future can change with the appointment of a new pastor or the retirement of a bishop. So much depends on the person in charge, and who will be in charge is often less predictable than the next day’s weather.

Looming menacingly now over the whole enterprise is the most recent Rome document on laity (NCR, Dec. 5 and Dec. 12, 1997). If the church has an imperfect and still-developing understanding of how lay leadership can be fostered and used without compromising or marginalizing the ordained priesthood, the recent Vatican pronouncement only muddies the water more.

And all official protestations notwithstanding, that document is definitely being used by those who feverishly work every angle to manipulate the church back into some romanticized period that never existed.

Lay participation and leadership in the church will not go away, nor will the need for it if the most recent figures on the growing Catholic population and continually dwindling population of priests are any indication of what is to come.

What is missing today is a serious and responsible discussion of the place of laity in the church as partners in responsibility for the life of the church, not just as extras off the bench, as it were, until somehow the church recruits enough first-stringers.

As Msgr. Philip Murnion of the National Pastoral Life Center put it in the Jan. 9 issue of NCR: “The question is, is there a new form of ministry here that needs formal acknowledgment by the church, a real vocation?” If the answer is yes -- and that certainly seems the correct response -- then the church is experiencing a whole new vocation, one that is not holy orders, but also not simply one of good works.

If there is need for further definition and structure, let the discussion begin. Dismantling what has already developed -- and running roughshod over lives and careers -- because of fear or a wish for a simpler bygone time is no answer to the challenge.

National Catholic Reporter, July 3, 1998