Rant of the Week: Don't Dis Lay "Ministry" Print
Written by Sherry   
Thursday, 01 March 2007 08:48

I feel another rant coming on:

The subject: Lay Ministers and Catechists.

First of all, the big picture:

In Vatican-speak, the generic term “catechists” means all Catholics who work intra-ecclesially – full or part-time, paid or volunteer – and who are not a bishop, priest, deacon, seminarian, or religious. They are critically important because “catechists” make up 69% of the global “ecclesial work force”. All 2.76 million of them.

In most parts of the world, the role of a catechists runs the gamut from open air evangelistic meetings, religious education, leading weekly prayer services in remote mountain villages in Ecuador, or providing trauma counseling to victims of religious violence in the Sudan. Whatever is essential to the life of the Christian community and doesn't require ordination. That’s why the Vatican tracks and publicizes their numbers. That’s why the Apostolate of Prayer has dedicated the month of March to praying for their formation. Because the life and work of the Church in most of the world would simply be impossible without these dedicated lay apostles.

Since the Vatican doesn’t have a statistical category for “lay ecclesial minister”, the term “catechist” includes people that both sides of the American Catholic spectrum love to hate. The 1.6 million “catechists” listed for "America" (which for the Vatican includes the entire western hemisphere, north and south) would include professional lay ecclesial ministers in Seattle, LA, and Boston and the volunteer CCD teachers in western Kansas for whom we put on a Called & Gifted workshop two weeks ago. “Catechists” would also include the 140 young lay evangelists who preached the three week “Great Mission” in the Peruvian Andes that culminated in the baptism of 1,000 young people last week.

“Catechist” would include people like Scott Hahn and theologians like Tracey Rolland at the JP II center in Melbourne who is known as an theological soulmate to the former Cardinal Ratzinger. To the extent that they give ecclesially sponsored presentations, it would include Mark Shea and Amy Welborn. And the term would include people like me and Clara, my Australian equivalent, and our many part-part-part-time lay collaborators who buzz around on weekends putting on formation events.

Why am I ranting?

Because I have witnessed innumerable conversations at St. Blogs over the past three years that ooze distain and heap ridicule upon lay people - especially women - in some form of ecclesial ministry. Over and over, lay people who work inside the Church are portrayed as self-absorbed, irony-impaired, power-hungry, dissenting ideologues who are out to hijack and shipwreck the faith of anyone unwary enough to go near them. Oh, and for reasons that I don't even want to contemplate, the women are often described as old, fat, and remarkably unattractive. The horror of "lay ecclesial ministry" has become an urban legend with conservative Catholic bloggers. It's time to say "Stop it!"

Rant the first:

No one has put more time and energy into preaching the gospel of the secular nature of the lay apostolate than we have. It is one of the first things we cover in every single Called & Gifted. We sell Russell Shaw's excellent "Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church" at every event and at our webstore.

But it does not therefore follow that lay Catholics who are called to work inside ecclesial structures are betraying that secularity or that mission. We don't cease to be lay or lose our secularity when we work inside the Church for the sake of the mission to the world; it is one of the unique things we bring to our common mission. And it is lay involvement in and especially outside the ecclesial structures that makes that mission possible.

In a 1.1 billion member Church which has formally declared that formation for mission is a "right and duty" of all Catholics (Christifideles Laici, 63), do we really imagine that a mere 405,000 priests can tackle that in addition to their already heavy sacramental responsibilities? (Fides: there are 2,642 Catholics per priest in the world.) Not to mention this little matter of the Church's primary mission: evangelizing the people and cultures and structure of the world? (Fides: there are 12, 108 persons per priest in the world.) I've worked with a lot of hard working priests but have never known one who bilocated.

As those of you know who followed the debate in the US Bishop's conclave about the use of the word "minister" with regard to the laity, it was the legendary Cardinal Avery Dulles who made the crucial intervention that ensured that the word "minister" was retained when referring to lay ministry. We are not faced with a choice between the "good" secular apostolate and "bad" lay ministry within the Church. As Dulles noted in his 2006 lecture on The Mission of the Laity:

"It would be a mistake, I believe, to make a sharp dichotomy between ministry in the church and apostolate in the world, as if it were necessary to choose between them," Cardinal Dulles said. He said those in lay ministry have an important role in forming "a Catholic people sufficiently united to Christ in prayer and sufficiently firm and well instructed in their faith to carry out the kinds of apostolate that Vatican II envisaged."

Rant the second:

It is so time to get over the 70s. Regarding the wacky 70s, I only know what I've heard from those who were there, but I can tell you that the American Church in 2007 is enormously different. Over the past 10 years, I've worked directly with hundreds of lay pastoral leaders in 75 dioceses in the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Indonesia.

The vast majority are there simply to serve God and the Church
. They didn't create the priest shortage and most would be really happy to have more good priests. They don't have any problems knowing the difference between their ministry and that of a priest and they aren't dying to be ordained. This is going to be a dreadful disappointment to the conspiracy theory fans among us but it really is that simple most of the time. Most started out as volunteers (many still are volunteers) and their work gradually grew into something larger.

I've met lay ideologues, of course, just as I've met ordained and religious ideologues on both sides of the spectrum but they tend to congregate with fellow-travelers in ideologically charged environments such as universities and large urban dioceses. But out in the trenches, most people are acting in non-ideological good faith, even if they aren't well catechized. Many are are making considerable personal sacrifices in order to do so. And some are very, very impressive lay apostles who are responding to a call of God and giving themselves utterly to the building up of the Christian community and the furthering of its mission. But you wouldn't know it from what you hear around St. Blogs'.
Rant the third: It is sin plain and simple. To ooze blanket contempt for a whole group of fellow Christians whom you have no direct knowledge of and who are, in their stumbling fashion, attempting to serve Christ is calumny. It is reducing their attempt to follow Christ and serve his Church to a weapon in the culture wars. It is about as far as you can get from St. Paul's admonition that love is "not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes." (I Corinthians 13)

The next time you come across someone dissing the idea of lay Catholics in ministry, ask Marko Makuec Shir to pray for him or her.

In February 2003, Marko, a married man with three children, was trained to do trauma counseling by his diocese. In April 2003, his little village was attacked by rebel forces. Marko sent his wife and children to Khartoum but stayed behind to spiritually assist the 12 Christian families and the 500 soldiers defending the town, most of whom were Christians as well.

In August, the rebels finally took his town. While visited a wounded friend in the hospital, Marko was shot and killed by a rebel who thought he was a soldier. FIDES calls him a "martyr catechist".

Marko Makuec Shir, pray for us.