success stories

Posted Saturday, January 11, 2003

A Story Worth Telling

Ms. Marti R. Jewell
from the book: The First Five Years of the Priesthood
The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN

In the end, what sustains us are our stories. Some are the foundational stories of our faith, such as the stories told of Jesus, who chose the twelve apostles and sent out the seventy-two. Some are the stories of an early Church that designated ministries, some of which became clerical and some of which did not. Some are stories of the work of Jesus' followers, the work of the early Church, the Diaspora and on into the world. They are the stories of tradition that responds to the needs of God's people, sometimes by institutionalizing ministries, as did the Council of Trent, and sometimes by renewing ministry, as did the Second Vatican Council. Yet the end of the story always remains the same. It is always about the coming of the reign of God. These are the faith stories that sustain us, even as the context in which they are told changes.

The world we live in is changing. The way we know ourselves as human beings is changing. Our perceptions of society, culture, and time have changed. Boundaries are shifting. "The implicit image of society as settled, divinely appointed, up-and-down hierarchical arrangements . . .is being replaced by horizontal imagery of ‘community'" The world today is better educated and more self-aware than ever before. It is a world that has come to understand that it holds within itself the power of life and death, and that it is just one small planet floating in a vast universe. It is a world that has seen scandals at every level and so no longer automatically gives trust. At the same time, it is a world where deep hunger for authentic spirituality is growing.

"Holiness is no longer defined by participation in that otherworldly realm ritually reproduced in our sanctuaries . . .Contemporary Catholics are developing another sense of the sacred." People have come to discover the immanent, available nature of God and the sacramentality of ordinary life. The image of the priest, standing solitary and alone, the mediator between God and God's people has changed. A priest does not stand alone, and has not for a long time.

Parish life is flourishing, even though parishioners are not the "pray, pay, and obey" Catholics of yesterday. Sociologists are discovering that the youngest generations of Catholics differ significantly in their acceptance of faith and morals. Parishes are expected to provide everything from childcare to schools, from sports marathons to outings for seniors. The reception of sacraments requires sacramental preparation. Many parishes require their ministries to speak multiple languages and address cross-cultural needs. And all of this in a Church where the number of priests is declining by 10 percent per decade, religious by 33 percent, and parish leadership is increasingly made up of professional (or ecclesial) lay ministers. Growing at the rate of 70 percent per decade, this is the most rapidly growing segment of ministers in our Church today.

This is the context in which we live. How, then, do we tell the story of the newly ordained? The men who are being prepared to minister in the world of the twenty-first century have a right to expect the preparation they need. A return to theologies and theories of the past will serve them well. We do these newly ordained and the congregations they serve an injustice if we do not prepare them for today's world. The final sentences of this study are perhaps the most significant of all. A large agenda does loom ahead of us. We are learning what it means to be Church in a new era. With so much of the story changing, how do we continue to respond to the needs of God's people in ways that will serve the mission of the Church?

Practical Responses

Over the past fourteen years I have interviewed many young (and not so young) men who are applying for candidacy to the priesthood. They come with a sense of call, a desire to serve a loving God, who, they believe, has called them to the priesthood. They come to offer what they have in service to God's people. They see themselves living out this call as a personal, individual effort. Dean Hoge refers to the fact that most young priests prefer to see themselves as different, as set apart.

Ministry, however, is not an individual effort. It does not, in fact cannot, happen in isolation. It is the action of the entire faith community responding to the presence of a loving God. Ministry is about the building up of the kingdom, about faith communities that care for one another and carry the Good News into the world. In today's Church, ordained serve our Church community alongside lay ecclesial ministers, men and women who believe they have a vocation to service within the Church. The newly ordained do not stand alone. They are moving into a ministerial community, which must respect what they bring and which asks for that same respect in return. Lay and ordained roles are different, but the life of the Church is supported by such a ministerial community. How do we establish role clarity for both the ordained and lay ecclesial minister? Leaders of parish communities, ordained and lay alike, must hold the vision and model the actions that support the life of the Church.


Education for ministry goes far beyond the communication of specific theological knowledge. It is a complex and lifelong process that demands adjustments that can range from mild to severe. New ministers, whether ordained or lay ecclesial ministers, have much to learn as they are socialized into their roles in the Church. While new ministers can quickly discover some of the basic information they need, such as how to reserved the parish hall or how to complete sacramental records, there is another area of socialization that is much subtler and far less easy to discover.

New ministers are entering a world that has its own culture, its own language, beliefs, traditions, and attitudes. How do they learn this culture? How does the newly ordained come to deal with the fact that he is no longer a private person but has become a public figure? How do they understand how to cope with being either deified or vilified by those they serve? How do they learn to minister in a theologically diverse Church?

What has become the norm inside a closed seminary or academic community — for example, styles of clothing, expressions of sexual orientation, or personal piety — may not be appropriate in a parish community. It can be challenging to move from an "ivory tower" environment with its own culture, systems, and relationships into a diocesan and parish structure that is quite different an often far less nurturing.

How do ministers, ordained and lay, learn to collaborate with one another? Often when newly ordained move into a parish structure, they will be working with seasoned and experienced lay ministers who are the decision-makers in their particular arena. How do the newly ordained learn to be supervisors? There are situation when a lay person, as likely to be female as male, becomes the supervisor of the ordained. How do new ministers learn about gender differences and how to work with colleagues of the opposite sex? How do they learn servant leadership with its call to serve and empower rather than be in charge?

The entry experiences of the newly ordained, paralleled by those of new lay ecclesial ministers, reflect a period of disillusionment. How the new minister is initiated into the diocesan and parish structures will, for good or ill, impact his ministry life, and service for years to come.


"One challenge undergirds all of the above. It is the need to foster respectful collaboration, leading to mutual support in ministry, between clergy and laity for the sake of Christ's Church and its mission to the world. This is a huge task requiring changes in patterns of reflection, behavior, and expectations among laity and clergy alike.:"

New ministers need to have experiences of healthy collaborative parishes. A healthy workplace is one in which people know how to listen to one another, can be truthful with one another, work well with diverse members, and have free access to one another, work well with diverse members, and have free access to one another and needed information. It is one in which collaboration is truly honored. We can learn from those who are successfully accomplishing this collaboration. "The ministry of the ordained and the ministry of ecclesial lay ministers are mutually supportive and essential to the work of the kingdom of God. Effective collaboration is life-giving to both lay ministers and ordained ministers but gives its greatest gift to those who receive its greatest benefit: the entire people of God."


1. There is a need to further develop our theology of ministry. According to Fr. Michael Himes, "Crucial to a renewal of ordained priesthood in our times is a renewal of the priesthood of the whole Church. Unless the priesthood of the laity is fostered, the priesthood of the ordained must languish."

As we minister to the people of God, we are called to patterns of relationship that honor both ordained and lay ecclesial ministers, standing shoulder to shoulder in their service to the mission of the Church. The voices, roles, and significance of the lay ecclesial ministers are missing in this study. Yet the bishops, as recently as 1999, have called the Church to value and develop the relationship between lay and ordained ecclesial ministers. While lay ecclesial ministers are professionals in every sense of that word, to view their presence as "paid staff" or as "lay involvement" is to miss the crucial new chapter in the story of Church. Lay ecclesial ministers serve from a sense of vocation.

Our understanding of both sacraments and Scripture support this development. "Central to the renewed concept of ministry in general and lay ministry specifically is the council's definition of the Church as the ‘People of God' . . . It presents the scriptural image of the human and communal nature of the Church where all baptized are members of the community. All members share in the ministry of Jesus, whether ordained or not. Baptism is seen as the defining sacrament of ministry."

The parable, offered in Christifideli Laici, of the vineyard owner who call workers at different hours of the day, yet offered the same work and the same wages, serves as a powerful model. Models for shared ministry are found in Paul's letter to the Corinthians with their theology of the Body of Christ. Lay ecclesial ministry, flowing in its present form from the Second Vatican Council, is grounded in a theology of an image as ancient as that of hierarchy.

"In the wake of the Council we have arrived at a clearer recognition that it is the nature of the Church to be endowed with many gifts . . . All ministry, be it the ministry of the baptized or of the ordained, is to be understood in relation to the community of the Church which expresses and receives its identity as the Body of Christ in Word and sacrament. All ministry is for the service of the Church an the wider world, a participation in the ministry of Christ the servant." The relationship of the ordained and the lay minister, one of communio, flowing from baptism and rooted in the ministry of Jesus, has become the unfolding story of ministry in the Church today.

2. Second, there is a need to deepen our understanding of the sacramental life of the Church. Stories that continue to sustain us have an underlying rhythm that holds them together. With time, the rhythm becomes more complex, richer, and multi-layered. The stories of the Catholic Church are held together by the rhythm of our sacramental nature, a rhythm that has developed over time. We are a sacramental Church, Cardinal Danneels, writing to the Synod of Bishops, says that people long for the sacraments and yet do not appreciate their meaning. Perhaps what is happening is that people are listening to the ever more complex rhythms in our sacramental life. The sacramental life of the Church, like ministry, is found in the context of the faith community. We have come to know ourselves as a eucharistic people, the Body of Christ. We believe that baptism is the source of all ministry. How are we telling the stories of the future of the Church? How do we reconcile the impact of fewer ordinations on the sacramental life of the Church? We are a eucharistic people. How do we sustain this most basic rhythm of our story?


In the words of Dean Hoge, the mission continues but the circumstances are changing. The faces, the parishioners, the ministers are different. We are called to be a healing, ministering, evangelizing presence in the world. We are forming ministerial communities of ordained and lay ecclesial ministers, working together, integrally woven into the Body of Christ, call by vocation, calling forth the community of believers, a community, in turn, called to minister to the world. The bishops have begun the dialogue that is essential to the process. Seminaries and academic programs have a significant role to play. Conversations between lay and ordained ministers are taking place in parishes, dioceses, and on the national level. What is ahead of us, in the words of Bishop Howard Hubbard. . . . "is not some sort of tragic ecclesial catastrophe, but a deepening and broadening of awareness about the nature of the Church as a community of collaborative ministry and about the authentic nature of priestly service." Can we create the stories that will call forth and empower those needed by our Church today? It is an agenda worth taking on, a story worth telling.