The importance of lay ecclesial ministers

Across the American continent the Catholic Church is served by lay people who work side-by-side with clergy serving the people whom Christ has gathered. Some are educated and trained professionals, others are volunteers, but all would say that they answered a call to serve Christ in His Church. This is why it is puzzling that an article in America magazine by Russell Shaw decried the rise of “lay clericalism.” Shaw’s premise is that these educated and inspired lay people are apparently abandoning their baptismal responsibility to be the leaven of the love of God in society. He believes that the empowerment of the lay person sent them into the Sanctuary because they feel that “what counts is participation in some form of ministry that brings a lay person within the penumbra of the clerical state.” 

While he recognizes that the emergence of lay ecclesial ministries has been an important development in the Church, he takes issue that the Church has failed in its responsibility to form the laity for mission. “Pope Francis’ vision of a missionary Church engaged in outreach to the world is at risk of being a dead letter for American Catholicism. If that happens, the clericalism of the Catholic laity will deserve a large share of the blame.”

Shaw’s criticism is misdirected. While he rightly stresses the need to prepare Christian adults to evangelize the world, who does he think will be responsible for their formation? He made brief reference to Catholic Action, a lay movement of the early 20th century, which sent young soldiers for Christ out to rebuild the Christian world that had been decimated by modernity and revolutions. The value of Catholic Action was that the laity could reach places in the world that the clergy could not. He laments that good and decent Catholics today do not view themselves as lay apostles to the world as they did in the various Catholic Action organizations that swept across the world in the 1930s and 40s. 

There is an important layer left out of this piece of Church history, however. Catholic Action was a movement that was generated from the highest level of the Church’s hierarchy. Pope Pius X knew that the Church needed well-informed and virtuous lay people who could help rebuild Christian society. There was never any suggestion that participation in Catholic Action changed the state of the laity, nor was it a participation by the laity in the power of the hierarchy. Catholic Action always required that the laity be formed Spiritually before venturing out into the world to participate in the apostolate of the laity, and that formation was led by clergy. Any hope that a variation of Catholic Action will re-emerge lies in the presence of well-formed lay people serving in parishes.

Church history teaches us that the Holy Spirit will inspire the necessary structures needed to carry out the mission of the Church. “Lay ecclesial ministry has emerged and taken shape in our country through the working of the Holy Spirit.” This was the statement made by the U.S. Bishops Conference in 2005 in their guide for the development of lay ecclesial ministers: Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord. “They are to use their gifts and leadership roles always for the good of the Church, equipping the community for every good work and strengthening it for its mission in the world.” 

The bishops made a commitment to support the vocation of the laity, echoing the encouragement given by St. John Paul II in Ecclesia in America. The co-responsibility of the laity will “lead to a better distribution of tasks, and enable priests to dedicate themselves to what is most closely tied to the encounter with, and the proclamation of, Jesus Christ.” Lay people infuse their ministries with their life experience which flows directly from their state in life. Working side-by-side with clergy does not clericalize them.

The real problem is not with the promotion of lay ecclesial ministry, but with the failure of pastors to carry out the bishops’ mandate for adult Faith Formation that was spelled out 15 years ago in Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us. Had they implemented the goals and principles of adult Faith Formation they would have created a Church of true disciples prepared to transform and renew the social and temporal order. “The Church wisely and repeatedly insists that adult Faith Formation is essential to who we are and what we do as Church, and must be situated not at the periphery of the Church’s educational mission but at its center.” When adults become the priority in the parish, and enter into the world as the leaven in society, you can thank the lay ecclesial minister who prepared them.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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