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Mahony affirms lay ministry, calls synod

NCR Staff

Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony has called for a “major reorientation” in the church’s approach to ministry, building on the growth of ministerial roles for lay people following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

In tandem with release of a new 12,000-word pastoral letter, titled “As I Have Done For You,” Mahony announced that he would convoke a diocesan synod in the fall to strive for “greater collaboration and inclusivity in ministry in the church of the new mŸllennium.” It will be the first synod Ñ a gathering of priests, religious and laity -- in Los Angeles since 1960 and is scheduled to conclude in 2002 or 2003.

The pastoral letter will be widely read, in part because it deals with a controversial issue -- whether the growth of lay ministry threatens the distinction between ordained priests and lay people -- and in part because Mahony is often touted as papabile, or a candidate to be the next pope.

There are 29,142 full- or part-time professional lay ministers in the United States today, as compared to 27,155 priests. Lay ministers fill roles such as pastoral associates, parish business managers, directors of religious education, catechists, directors of programs for adults joining the church, youth ministers and liturgy coordinators. There are also approximately 21,800 lay people in ministry formation programs.

Some U.S. bishops as well as Vatican officials have expressed strong reservations about lay ministry, especially a fear that if the unique role of ordained priests is blurred as laity assume responsibilities formerly performed by clergy, it will compound the priest shortage.

The letter is issued in the name of the cardinal and the priests of the Los Angeles archdiocese. It opens by contrasting conditions in a fictional parish, “St. Leo’s,” in 1955 and 2005. By the latter date, the parish has one priest and one deacon, with the rest of the staff composed of laity. Mass is celebrated in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean. A variety of small groups are responsible for many parish functions.

Mahony argues that this transition from a priest-led to a more collaborative parish life is providential.

“It must be recognized that lay ministry rooted in the priesthood of the baptized is not a stopgap measure,” Mahony wrote. “Even if seminaries were once again filled to overflowing and convents packed with sisters, there would still remain the need for cultivating, developing and sustaining the full flourishing of ministries that we have witnessed in the church since the Second Vatican Council.

“In the wake of the council, we have arrived at a clearer recognition that it is in the nature of the church to be endowed with many gifts, and that these gifts are the basis for the vocations to the priesthood, the diaconate and the religious life, as well as for the many ministries rooted in the call of baptism.”

Mahony argues that the priest shortage has produced a richer appreciation of the gifts of laity.

“It has taken the shortage of priestly and religious vocations to awaken in us an appreciation of a broadly based shared ministry and a realization that it is in the nature of the church as the Body of Christ to be endowed with many gifts, ministries and offices,” Mahony wrote.

“What some refer to as a ‘vocations crisis’ is, rather, one of the many fruits of the Second Vatican Council, a sign of God’s deep love for the church, and an invitation to a more creative and effective ordering of gifts and energy in the Body of Christ … the gifts of the lay faithful have been flourishing in unprecedented numbers and in unforeseen ways.”

Mahony’s embrace of lay ministry contrasts with the tone at the November meeting of the U.S. bishops, where discussion of a proposed document on the subject elicited strong criticism. Auxiliary Bishop Joseph F. Martino of Philadelphia said that promoting lay ministry could “foment confusion,” while Bishop Thomas Connolly of Baker, Ore., warned of “clericalizing the laity.” Bishop Daniel DiNardo of Sioux City, Iowa, said that ratifying the spread of lay ministry could be dangerous, that there is a need for a more “top-down” approach beginning with more clarity about the distinction between ordained ministers and laity (NCR, Dec. 17, 1999).

The same fears were expressed in a November 1997 Vatican document on lay ministry. It condemned “abuses” that confuse the distinction between laity and the ordained and warned that erosion of the uniqueness of the priesthood may diminish vocations. It also stated that lay participation in church ministries is a matter of deputation rather than right (NCR, Dec. 5, 1997).

Zeni Fox of Immaculate Conception Seminary in South Orange, N.J., called Mahony’s letter “pastorally astute and theologically sound.” Fox wrote a 1997 book, New Ecclesial Ministry, about lay ministry.

“He clearly roots all ministries in the church in baptism and in the community,” Fox said, “so that the priesthood and lay ministry are two complementary pieces of the whole. This does call for a new way of working together.”

Fox said she was impressed with the way the letter arose from discussions among the priests in Los Angeles and points toward further discussion in parishes and in the synod. “The process follows the theology,” she said, adding that it will be important to involve lay ministers in these discussions.

Fox said she did not find it surprising that Los Angeles priests appear to support lay ministry. “My personal experience working with many, many pastors is that they are men deeply in touch with both the theology and the existential needs of the moment,” she said. “They are not threatened by lay ministry at all. They are the ones calling it forth.”

Mahony told NCR that he hopes the synod will produce a 10-year vision, mission and pastoral goals. The full text of the pastoral letter is available at http://cardinal.la-archdiocese.org/000420.htm

Snapshots of parish challenges
In “As I Have Done For You,” Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony offers several “snapshots” concerning the growth of lay ministry and asks that parishes discuss them as a means of discerning “a strategy for reshaping ministerial structures in more appropriate ways.” A sampling of Mahony’s snapshots:
  • A 56-year-old sister has been the director of religious education in her parish for 13 years. Over the last year, tensions between herself and the pastor have been mounting. These tensions are brought to a head when a first-year seminarian, 30 years old, is assigned to help out in the parish as part of his seminary formation. The pastor is “all aglow with excitement and enthusiasm,” referring to the seminarian as “the hope for the future of the church.” The DRE feels resentful because the pastor has made a “big scene,” “falling all over the seminarian.” Do you have any advice for her? For the pastor?
  • The pastor and priest associate of a large parish are both on the verge of burnout. The pastor hires a parish business manager and asks the bishop for the appointment of a lay pastoral associate. The latter takes up several tasks often associated with the priesthood. But the parishioners want personal contact with a priest in such circumstances. Discuss various strategies for facing the ministerial challenges in this scenario.
  • A laywoman feels called to lay ecclesial ministry but cannot afford to live on a “church salary.” How to proceed?
  • The Guadalupanas have gathered at the parish church on Thursday evenings for years, followed by a meeting with the parish priest to discuss their various apostolic works. The new pastor informs them that he is unable to join them. The Guadalupanas feel abandoned. More important, they are reluctant to meet without the presence of a priest, because of their commonly held conviction that they cannot make decisions affecting the life of anyone in the parish without his approval. Any advice?

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000