In new book, bishop says lay ecclesial ministry a sign of renewal, hope - Catholic Courier

In new book, bishop says lay ecclesial ministry a sign of renewal, hope

Forward in Hope: Saying AMEN to Lay Ecclesial Ministry by Bishop Matthew H. Clark. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Indiana, 2009). 128 pp., $11.95.

During our lives we meet people whose vision is entrenched in the past; those who live entirely in the moment; and those who look to the future with faith and hope. In his new book Forward in Hope: Saying AMEN to Lay Ecclesial Ministry, Bishop Matthew H. Clark demonstrates his ability to thoughtfully build on his knowledge of the past, prayerfully and creatively embrace the present, and look to the future — with hope and confidence in the continuing work of the Holy Spirit throughout the ages.

Over his 30 years as Bishop of Rochester, Bishop Clark has served the people of his diocese with a listening ear and a gentle countenance that reveals a prayer-inspired trust in the integrity of the Spirit’s call of both women and men to lay ecclesial ministry. The eighth bishop of his diocese, Bishop Clark continued in the footsteps of post-Vatican II Bishops Fulton Sheen and Joseph Hogan in faithfully enacting the council’s decrees — most especially Lumen Gentium — which ratified the important roles both clergy and laypeople play in bringing the world to holiness.

“On the night of my installation as bishop,” Bishop Clark writes in his new book, “I knew I was shifting from a ministry with a very particular focus, with a narrow constituency in terms of talent, gender, and mode of engagement in the Church, to the breadth and scope of a progressive, energetic diocese that had already opened itself to many of the reforms called for by Vatican Council II.” (p. 15)

“Even at that early date,” he continues, ” … I could sense the evolving role of the laity would be a matter of significant attention in the years ahead.” (p. 18)

Now, as his retirement approaches, Bishop Clark shares in a short, well-written book the history, theology and practice of the growth of lay ecclesial ministry within his diocese. Who better to do so, since a major gift of his episcopate has been the broadening of ministerial opportunities to lay men and women? We can only pray that its hopeful and prophetic message — that lay ministers can successfully work side by side with ordained clergy to strengthen the ministry of the church — will be received enthusiastically by the church whose Vatican II documents inspired it and most especially by his fellow U.S. bishops, whose recent document “Co-Workers in the Vineyard” ratified its scriptural and theological importance.

In a compact 128 pages, Bishop Clark reviews the historical and practical considerations that led him first to accept the emerging reality of lay ecclesial ministers within the parishes of his diocese, then to encourage gifted men and women to embrace careers as pastoral associates, directors of faith formation and youth ministers. Since 1993, he has appointed as pastoral leaders of parishes within his 12-county diocese several lay ministers who serve side by side with priest pastors. Now, Bishop Clark writes, “We simply could not do what we do without lay ecclesial ministers. The ideas, energy, and creativity they have and continue to offer simply cannot be replaced.” (p 10)

He also recognizes the exceptional sacrifices made by lay ministers who, by and large, pay for their own educations. In a chapter titled “The Bishop and Lay Ecclesial Ministers,” Bishop Clark notes that, as reliance on lay ministry grows, diocesan seminaries or schools of theology and ministry will need to not only make graduate-level pastoral and theological education available to potential lay ministers, but also assist them financially to meet the cost of this very necessary and expensive formation.

To add further context to his personal “Amen!” Bishop Clark invited five outstanding lay ministers in the Rochester Diocese (Anne-Marie Brogan, Charlotte Bruney, Rose Davis, Patrick Fox and Deb Housel) to share brief reflections on the challenges and joys that they experience in serving the church. They reveal that service to the church on the cutting edge of an emerging ministerial model has not been without struggle. But they also attest to the overwhelmingly positive reception they have received from parishioners who value them as coworkers with priests and deacons in the important work of ministry.

As someone who has deeply appreciated the opportunities extended to me as both a lay minister and ordained deacon, I am grateful to God, the church, and our courageous and wonderfully pastoral bishop for his 30 years of stewardship of the Diocese of Rochester. I share his optimism for the future of lay ecclesial ministry in the church and his belief that it is “not just a sign of innovation or revision but is a sign of true renewal and hope. … It is a work of the Holy Spirit.” (p. 35)

Deacon Defendorf retired in June from his post as pastoral administrator of St. Mary Parish in Bath.

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