"Together in God's Service"
By Paul Quirini
ALBANY, NY -- Lay ministry is gaining acceptance in the contemporary Church, but diocesan and parish leaders must support such work if Catholics are to experience ministry by lay people, according to lay ecclesial ministry experts.
At a time when priests are dwindling in number across the United States, parishioners need to recognize the value of service that lay ministers provide, said Lucille Merlihan, director of the Office for Lay Ecclesial Ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
"Most people will naturally look to Father for assistance, but with fewer priests in parishes, out of necessity people are being cared for by lay ministers," she said. "There's a growing acceptance of that, and we're very supported by our Cardinal (Francis George). It's slower in some parishes than others; if a parish is traditional, they may have high expectations for having priestly ministry rather than lay ministry."
Many Catholics who accept lay ministry wonder why lay ministers can't do more, Merlihan pointed out. In the case of a terminally ill person who has been ministered to by a lay minister, the person sometimes asks why the lay minister can't anoint the person through the sacrament of the sick or preside at the funeral.
"They do indeed feel very ministered to, and it's their way of affirming the lay minister," she said.
Affirmation of lay ministry is important, but endorsement of this work must come from bishops and archbishops if Catholics are to accept the growing involvement of the laity.
"In some ways, diocesan leaders aren't doing enough to promulgate lay leadership," Ms. Merlihan said. "We have to think of what we can do to promote acceptance more and make people more aware of what lay people are doing."
John Reid, co-founder and director of Reid & Associates, Inc., agreed that Catholics tend to be more accepting of lay ministry when local Church leadership shows its support.
"The acceptance is uneven because the support for lay ministry across the country is uneven," he said. "Clearly, when the institution's response is stronger, when there is a greater effort to bring lay and ordained ministers together periodically to acknowledge the family of ministers, there is a greater sense of acceptance because the understanding is better. Everybody benefits when that happens."
Reid & Associates, Inc. is a national consulting firm based in Seattle that promotes spiritual development and helps non-profit Church groups, health care organizations, colleges and universities, and corporations be more effective.
Lay ministers complement the work of priests, but as the number of clergy decreases, the laity become concerned about the effectiveness of ministry overall, Reid noted.
"Most people are interested in quality pastoral ministry," he said. "There's a growing frustration on the part of many lay people that with the scarcity of priests for leadership positions, there's a real danger that many people will not be well-served."
The Formation for Ministry Program in the Diocese of Albany, NY, trains lay people for such ministries as baptismal preparation, bereavement, visiting the homebound and "all of the jobs an associate pastor used to do," said Betsy Rowe, the program's director. "The Church needs the gifts of everyone, and all gifts, all ministries are of value."
Begun in 1984, the Formation for Ministry Program is a two-year program designed for formation of the laity of the Church; about 800 lay ministers have been trained for ministry through the program.
Ms. Rowe understands why people have come to expect priests to minister to them entirely, but lay ministers are being appreciated for their service despite this mentality.
"Naturally, people are going to prefer Father, but I think people who are involved in lay ministry feel accepted," she said. "They have a certain dignity and bring passion to it, and there comes a point where, if people feel cared about and ministered to, it doesn't matter whether it's a priest or lay minister."
Public affirmation of lay ministry is one way that ordained ministers can help Catholics accept the increasing role of the lay people, but perhaps the best type of advocacy is lay ministry itself, says Ms. Rowe.
"It's simple human kindness extended to one another, and if you've received that kind of service in the name of the Church and Jesus, wouldn't you feel ministered to?"
Paul Quirini is a reporter for The Evangelist, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Albany, NY.