"Together in God's Service"
By Pat Morrison
BONO, OH -- The Saturday evening Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Bono, Ohio, will begin in about 30 minutes, and the leader of this faith community heads to the church.
But the leader does not dress in Roman collar and clerical blacks.
The person who leads this northwest Ohio parish is Mercy Sister Marilyn Gottemoeller, one of eight officially appointed "pastoral leaders" in the 19-county Diocese of Toledo. Sister Marilyn, who just completed her sixth year at the 200-household parish, was one of the first pastoral leaders selected by Bishop James R. Hoffman.
It wasn't that she woke up one morning and said "I'd like to be a pastor." Rather, she says, the ministry evolved as the diocese saw a need. With the Catholic population on the upswing at the same time as the number of priests was decreasing, parish communities wanted an alternative to closing or merging, and also wanted a permanent pastoral presence more than the "circuit rider" approach which brings in a priest to administer the sacraments but otherwise leaves the parish without a full-time pastor.
What began with a handful of people exploring possible options soon grew into a pilot program for the diocese. "The criteria [the Toledo Diocese] ended up setting included a master's degree in theology or religious education, and at least five years experience in a parish leadership role working with adults," Sister Marilyn said.
There are different titles for the role Sister Marilyn fills. After consulting with canon lawyers and with other dioceses, the Toledo Diocese chose the term "pastoral leader" for non-ordained parish leaders. Parishes which have a pastoral leader also have an ordained priest who is the canonical pastor and attends to duties outlined by canon law that only an ordained priest can perform, and a chaplain who provides sacramental ministry on a regular basis.
At Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the priest who is chaplain at a nearby Catholic hospital is the usual weekend presider for liturgy. Several retired priests help in his absence. Since the priest-chaplain is on hand only for weekend liturgies and special sacramental times, like funerals, Sister Marilyn functions as the pastor during the rest of the week.
In this small, largely rural parish, there isn't a large paid staff. She has a part-time secretary -- "our one paid position, other than my own"-- she says and volunteers do all the rest, from teaching religious education to cutting the grass.
As pastoral leader, Sister Marilyn does everything from planning special prayer services for the First Communion class with their teacher -- Sister Marilyn will be the presider -- to getting bids on repaving the parking lot. She is assisted by a pastoral council and a finance council, but ultimately she is responsible for the welfare of this local faith community.
After professing vows with the Sisters of Mercy in 1957, Sr. Marilyn, a native of Cleveland, taught both elementary and high school in the Toledo Diocese. Eventually she earned a master's degree in religious education and headed the Toledo Diocese's newly established religious education office for six years, developing catechetical training centers around the large diocese.
After serving a term on her religious order's leadership team, Sister Marilyn worked as a pastoral associate at two large parishes before being invited to apply for the pastoral leader position at Bono.
What was new to her was also a novelty for the parish: This was the first time their parish leader was not a priest.
"It was a growing and learning experience for both of us, the parishioners and me," she said. In her first weeks she made listening to the parishioners her top priority.
"I wanted to see what was important to them, what their best memories of their parish were, what they'd like to see continue and what they might wish to do differently."
It had its challenging moments. "They were checking me out, and I was trying to get to know them, too," she said. But today when Our Lady of Mount Carmel parishioners hear "our pastor," they immediately identify with Sister Marilyn.
What do parishioners appreciate most?
"She's ours. She's here for us, and she does a million things here," said one parishioner.
Regular networking with other members of her Mercy community is an important support for her ministry, she said. She regularly gets together with her small area community made up of both Mercy sisters and associate members, including a married couple.
She believes in her work.
"This is the need of the church now, and I have the gifts to put forward if the church is willing to use them in this particular way," she says. "Hopefully this frees priests up to do other work that only they can do."
"I don't know what's coming down the road," she adds. "But right now I have a real sense that this is where God wants me to be."
Pat Morrison is editor of the Catholic Chronicle, the newspaper of the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio.