by M. Francis Mannion
Lay ecclesial ministry programs are a significant development in the Catholic Church in the U.S. Candidates are proposed by the pastor, trained by the diocese, installed by the bishop, and officially designated as lay ecclesial ministers. Lay ecclesial ministry is still in the early stages of implementation and, understandably, exhibits some growing pains. Among these are a lack of clarity about this ministry and some exorbitant claims made for it.
It is, for instance, held that lay service is new to Catholicism. Despite popular opinion, there has existed from the first days of Christianity laity who were active in building up the life of the Church. The ways in which laity have been successful in the development of the Church have varied greatly over the centuries. There has always been some recognition that Baptism calls every man and woman to serve the building up of the Kingdom of God – whether by work within the Church or in the everyday circumstances of earning a living, raising a family, or serving the common good.
Since Vatican II, the role of the laity has been given new emphasis. In parishes and dioceses, there are numerous people at work in service of the liturgy, the proclamation of the word, and the advancement of justice and charity. This is an outstanding fruit of the Holy Spirit who inspired the Second Vatican Council.
However, one of the dangers involved in the designation of certain people as “lay ecclesial ministers” is that an elite could be created in the Church which would add a further layer to the distinction between clergy and laity. So I ask: Are not all lay ministers lay ecclesial ministers? Is not the parish DRE who has served in her role for 20 years automatically a lay ecclesial minister? What about the diocesan director of evangelization or the lay parish administrator? And why does the Bishop install lay ecclesial ministers and not other ministers? There needs to be further clarity on these matters.
One should see the lay ecclesial ministry movement for what it is: one more initiative since the Second Vatican Council to involve the laity more fully in the work of the Church and its mission in society.
An article in a Catholic publication some time ago described lay ecclesial ministry as “radically new.” But anything that is radically new stands in discontinuity with the history of the Church and is not in accord with how the Church develops.
The same article went on to say that the rise of lay ecclesial ministry will eventually eclipse the rise of monasticism in the fifth century, the birth of the Franciscans and Dominicans in the 13th century, and the explosion of religious orders after the Council of Trent—especially in the 19th century.
This is what I mean by an exorbitant claim. If lay ecclesial ministry sees itself as replacing traditional ministries and orders in the Church, then surely it has gone too far, and is bound to be a disruptive influence.
The Church needs every baptized man and woman be of service in some way to the life of the parish and active for the good of society. What the Church does not need is a special elite body of laity which marginalizes the gifts and charisms of the ordinary believer and clutters up the traditional order of the Church with claims to special status and authority.
Can lay ecclesial ministry be modified to survive the kind of critique I am offering here? I believe it can.
Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.