Priests and Lay Collaboration - A Spiritual Reflection

The Priest and the People – Search For Collaboration.

Cardinal John Henry Newman once said that, “All of us are called to holiness but not all paths to holiness are the same.” Why is this the case? Because the ways that God would heal us, or allow us to be healed, are not the same for everyone. But how does this healing take place in our life? Typically through the actions of another person who has answered a “call” from God to minister to you in a particular time, place and situation.

Over the past year, I have often spoken about the importance of “vocation” and “call.” This is even reflected in our new Parish Vision (“Called by Name - Gifted by God - Committed to Prayer - Driven to Serve …Abiding in Hope”) and Parish Mission (“We are a community on a pilgrimage to a sacred place, inviting all to walk with us as we: Discover Jesus in our lives; Understand our life’s purpose; Develop a personal relationship with Christ; Enrich our local community; Impact the whole world.”)

One of the challenges facing the Catholic Church has been to determine who, exactly, does what. Since “activity-flows-from-identity,” it is important for priests, religious sisters/brothers, deacons and lay parishioners to first understand “who they are” and consequently allow this to animate “what they do.” This can be broken down into three discernment arenas:

  1. The Call to Discipleship (which begins with Baptism) And Holiness. EVERYONE is called to this.
  2. One’s “State in Life” – This is the traditional understanding of “vocation” where one is identified as Priest, Religious Sister or Brother, Deacon, Married or Consecrated Virgin.
  3. Unique Individual Call or Mission - Parishes need to be places where we can discern our “vocation.” In this regard, #3 above is the most critical. Thus, last year, St. Monica sponsored the “Called and Gifted” program from the St. Catherine of Siena Institute. This offered parishioners the opportunity to discern their unique and personal gifts/charisms, and then to use this as a point of departure, through prayer and discernment, to discern their Call or Mission from God.

A contemporary examination of this process was initially outlined during Vatican II in the document, “The Decree On The Apostolate Of The Laity” (or “Apostolicam Actuositatem”). Later, following the 1987 Synod of Bishops on the topic of the lay faithful in the Church, Pope John Paul II issued this letter detailing the theological and aspects of the role of the laity in the Church as well as their formation and mission. His document, The Vocation And Mission Of The Lay Faithful In The Church And The World (or Christifideles Laici) addressed such issues as: The Dignity of the Lay Faithful in the Church as Mystery; The Participation of the Lay Faithful in the Life of the Church as Communion; The Co-responsibility of the Lay Faithful in the Church as Mission; Laborers in the Lord’s Vineyard; Being Good Stewards of God’s Varied Grace; The Education, Training and Formation of the Lay Faithful. More recently, the U.S. Catholic Bishops, acknowledged and reflected upon the ways lay men and women were answering the Lord’s call and employing their gifts to take an active and responsible part in the mission of the Church in Called And Gifted For The Third Millennium.” This 1995 document specifically spoke about the four “calls” of the laity — to holiness, to community, to mission and ministry, and to adulthood/Christian maturity. It also examined these calls in light of Church teaching, pastoral practice and changing conditions in the world. It also identified several challenges and suggested questions for individual and group reflection. Finally, in 2006, Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry followed the publishing of “Called and Gifted,” by bringing more formalized form and focus to the phenomenon of ecclesial lay ministry in the United States. It attempts to answer such questions as “What, exactly, is a ‘lay ecclesial minister?’ What is the theology of lay ecclesial ministry? What should the preparation of lay ecclesial ministers look like? What is the relationship between lay ecclesial ministers and ordained ministers?”

So what do priest and lay parishioners look for in such a collaboration? I think that this question needs to be examined from two points of view.

First, what do the laity want from the priest in such a relationship? They look for the priest to see, seek and affirm the lay office; to call forth the unique charisms of the laity; to provide a link between lay initiatives and the teachings/traditions of the church and, in turn, to re-present the entire church (its traditions, teachings, heritage, etc…) back to the lay faithful; to understand the need for, and to actually seek, collaboration with the lay members of the parish. The laity also look for a priest who understands his own personal gifts and charisms (as well as their limitations) and thus, who knows that “Father” can’t do everything himself. They want a priest who trusts and has confidence in the Church and in his priestly office yet is, likewise, confident in the office of the layperson and the legitimacy of their calling.

What does the priest desire in this relationship from the laity? I look for someone who has a clear sense of what his/her individual call and unique charisms are; who invests time and effort in seeking, finding, discerning and developing these gifts and charisms; who can articulate the general idea of his/her particular mission in the church; who has a clear sense of what he/she individually and specifically brings to the mission; who has confidence in their charisms and “office” and who will own the responsibility of carrying out their mission without having to rely on “Father” to micro-manage the details.

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