home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted June 23, 2005

Lay ecclesial ministry discussed at bishops' meeting

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

The U.S. bishops set the stage June 16 for adopting a major document on lay ecclesial ministry when they meet again in November.

Reflecting extensive developments in the church over the past several decades, the draft document the bishops are working on is titled "Co-Workers in the Vineyard: Resources for the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry."

Introducing a panel presentation on the first day of the bishops' June 16-18 meeting in Chicago, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., told the bishops that there are currently some 30,000 lay ecclesial ministers working for the U.S. church in full- or part-time paid positions such as parish directors of music, liturgy, catechetics or youth ministry.

Bishop Kicanas, chairman of the lay ministry subcommittee of the bishops' Committee on the Laity, said the proposed document the bishops will be asked to discuss and vote on in November deals specifically with "those laity who are involved in leadership responsibilities, particularly those in parishes" who are "collaborators with the ordained, priests and deacons, in the work of the church."

Among topics the planned document deals with, he said, are the theological foundations of lay ecclesial ministry, the pathways to it, formation for it, guidelines for the official authorizing of people as lay ecclesial ministers, and workplace issues that should be addressed.

Leading off the panel discussion, Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago highlighted changes in church teaching and practice over recent decades, from a time when ministry was seen as almost the exclusive domain of priests or religious to a time when virtually anything done on behalf of the church or to help it was called a ministry.

He cited the "ministry of grass cutting" as an example of how, at one point, the notion of ministry had expanded so much that the word had lost real meaning.

As the work of the ordained gradually came to be described in terms of pastor, reflecting the idea that bishops, priests and deacons participate in Christ's headship of the church, he said, the use of ecclesial ministry also evolved to become a term attached not only to the ordained but also to those people who, based on their baptism and a development of skills or expertise, exercise "a certain care of people" in the name of the church, sharing in the pastoring role of the ordained."

Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, the second panelist, discussed the call to lay ecclesial ministry and the authorization of people to exercise ministry in the name of the church. He said the proposed document speaks of the call as involving not just a desire to serve, but also a process of discernment on the part of those who feel called and those who will authorize individuals to act in the church's name.

He said this involves "a process of determining the suitability" of a person to act on behalf of the church and in a publicly recognized service to it.

"Nobody makes himself or herself a lay ecclesial minister," he said; rather, such a person "needs to be authorized by somebody who bears authority for and in the church" such as a bishop or parish priest.

Bishop Gregory M. Aymond of Austin, Texas, spoke about the necessity of formation for people who are authorized to exercise ministry and leadership in the name of the church, so that they will be adequately prepared "to lead and not mislead."

He said the "four pillars of formation" applied to priestly formation -- human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral -- also apply, with appropriate adaptations, to the formation of lay ecclesial ministers.

The proposed document the bishops will vote on in November will discuss types of formation programs dioceses can develop, adapted to local needs, to assure that their lay ecclesial ministers receive the formation needed to share in the ministry of the church, he said.