"Together in God's Service"
NEW YORK -- In the beginning, few understood what they were, even as professional lay people began to work in parishes after the Second Vatican Council as religious educators and pastoral ministers. They were doing what most Catholics had traditionally associated with priests and nuns. By now they have become as much a part of U.S. parish life as Catholic schools and Sunday morning coffee hours.
Their numbers keep going up and their proponents say they are around to stay, even if the declining numbers entering seminaries and novitiates suddenly turned around.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, in a recent pastoral letter, concludes, "lay ministry rooted in the priesthood of the baptized is not a stopgap measure." It is a calling legitimated by baptism, he added.
Msgr. Philip Murnion, director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York, consults with pastors and others in Church leadership roles. One reason for the surge in lay pastoral ministry, he notes, is that there are fewer priests and nuns available to fill slots in parishes.
But there are other factors as well.
"There are more educated Catholics who see church ministry as something they want to pursue but don't want to be priests, deacons, or sisters," he says. And, he notes, lay people can bring expertise in education, social ministry, finance and other areas desperately needed by parishes.
Bishop Gerald Kicanas is auxiliary bishop of Chicago and episcopal advisor to the National Association for Lay Ministry. He notes that lay pastoral ministers are empowered by their baptism to work for the Church, just as other lay people toil in the marketplaces of business, politics and family life.
Bishop Kicanas further notes that lay pastoral ministers need more than graduate degrees. Parishes need lay pastoral ministers who have professional expertise but also are on a spiritual journey themselves which they can relate to other lay people. Mike Gable, assistant director of the mission office for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, was for nine years pastoral associate at St. Michael's Church in Sharonville, Ohio.
As a married man with four children to support, parish ministry was not the most lucrative occupation, says Gable. Yet, he says, that financial struggle gave him credibility in his middle-class suburban parish, where he focused on social ministry concerns, raising awareness about poverty issues in the Cincinnati area and in Latin America.
"People saw me and saw I wasn't in it for the money," he says.
Pat McDonough, a counselor at Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Syosset, NY, has had an extensive career in parish ministry and in marriage preparation programs in the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island, New York. She sees studies on marriage preparation as indicating a model for future Church ministry.
"Research from Creighton University claims that the best model of marriage preparation includes lay, religious, and clergy working together as church to minister to engaged couples," she said. All three elements are necessary in the wider arena of church ministry in evangelizing and educating about the faith, she added.
Diane Vella, pastoral minister at Holy Name of Jesus Church in Woodbury, New York, likes her job because it gives her an opportunity "to be involved in every aspect of parish ministry." She is involved in parish religious education, social ministry, and liturgical planning, among other duties, and as an unofficial counselor in a busy suburban parish with only one priest.
Ms. Vella finds her relatively low pay in the expensive region of Long Island to be one drawback of her work. She also finds it difficult to take time away from her duties. The parish has about 900 families, small for Long Island but relatively large compared to other areas of the country.
"There is no way two full-time ministers can do well the work that should be done," she says. Ms. Vella spends much of her time training other lay people to become involved in evangelization, social ministry and liturgical planning.
Just since 1982, according to a study by Jim Castelli and Father Eugene Hemrick, the number of U.S. Catholic parishes with at least one lay minister has more than doubled. That growth, says Msgr. Murnion, indicates that the Church will need to find better ways to incorporate lay ministry into the life of dioceses.
Lay ministry has taken off around the country, he says, but still "the Church doesn't know how to recognize it." In some dioceses, lay ministers participate in ceremonies where the local bishop formally commissions them for ministry. And in many dioceses around the country, institutes have sprung up to offer needed training for lay ministers.
Still, most lay pastoral ministers are employed by pastors and have few ties to diocesan structures. When pastors change, they are sometimes dismissed, resulting in hard feelings.
"There is still a sense among lay ministers that while their call is legitimate, there are still those who say their job is not nearly as explainable as priests' and nuns' are," says Brian Reynolds, chief administrative officer of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky.
These professional concerns need to be addressed in the context of diocesan life, notes Msgr. Murnion.
Peter Feuerherd is a frequent contributor to the Catholic press.