The Relationship of the Bishop and Lay Ecclesial Minister - Catholic Courier

The Relationship of the Bishop and Lay Ecclesial Minister

Shortly before the close of the Second Vatican Council, long before I arrived in Rochester, a pastor in my local church who wanted to expand the possibilities for ministry in his parish created a new position. He hired a religious woman to be his “pastoral assistant” – i.e., an assistant pastor without liturgical duties. This woman was among the first lay ecclesial ministers in our country. Soon many pastors in our local church and beyond imitated this practice. It wasn’t long before St. Bernard’s Seminary was awarding the master of divinity degree – the graduate degree once reserved for the ordained – to those who had chosen lay ecclesial ministry as a vocation. It was probably the first Roman Catholic seminary in our nation to do so.


I recall these bits of “ancient” history to make the point that our local church has had more than 35 years of experience with lay ecclesial ministry – and yet we have so much more growing to do fully to integrate these ministers into the ecclesial life of the Diocese of Rochester. When the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Subcommittee on Lay Ministry politely concluded that “the relationship of the bishop to the lay ecclesial minister needs further attention and clarification” (“Lay Ministry: The State of the Questions,” November 1999, Conclusion 1), the committee has almost certainly understated the enormous theological and practical problems with which we now grapple.


As you know, the relationship of the lay ecclesial minister to the bishop emerged as one of the central themes in the NCCB subcommittee’s discussions. Lay ministers themselves have expressed a desire for greater clarity so that all might better understand and appreciate their role in the local church. Wide consultations by the subcommittee with bishops, diocesan priests, the priest consultors to the NCCB Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry, with the board of the National Association of Diaconate Directors and with staff from various NCCB offices have all affirmed that church ministers need and desire greater clarity of roles and definitions. Many of my brother bishops also agree, as do I, that establishing a vital, ongoing relationship between us and lay ecclesial ministers is necessary to the very life and mission of the church of the future.


In making my own contribution to this ongoing discussion, I would like to recall some comments I made last October when I had the privilege of addressing the National Federation of Priests’ Councils Spiritual Renewal Project. (If you are interested, this talk, “The Relation of Bishop and Priest in Ministry,” was published last November in Origins.) I mention it here because I believe that a number of things apply to the relationship between bishops and lay ministers which are analogous to those that arise in their relationship with priests. These similarities serve as a useful way for me to orient this presentation. So if you’ll bear with me, I would like to reframe my previous contribution in this different context under the following headings: relationships in communion; ministry in communion; structures of communion and finally, a spirituality of communion.


Relationships in Communion


With regard to the first heading, “relationships in communion,” as with priests, there is no one pre-established pattern for this relationship of the bishop to lay ecclesial ministers. Indeed, the experience of lay ecclesial ministry is still too fresh and evolving for much to guide us definitively at this point in time. Still it is good to have some kind of template that informs and guides the lived relationship between bishops and lay ministers as this relationship continues to develop. Such a template helps us start from commonly held premises and enhance our capacity to build on solid beginnings.


These premises, of course, are none other than the church’s own self-understanding as taught by the Second Vatican Council, more recent magisterial statements and the work of theologians who help us deepen our appreciation of these teachings. I also believe these rich resources of conciliar, postconciliar and theological reflection allow for the kind of review and evaluation that will help keep the relationship between bishops and lay ecclesial ministers alive and growing.


We might summarize this self-understanding of the church in our time by the shorthand designation communion-mission. For the church, as the council taught, is the mystery of communion between God and humankind. But this communion has an inexorable orientation to mission or, if you prefer, ministry. The grace of personal mission has been given to each member of the church. Such grace is verified through various charismatic and ministerial gifts that enable its enactment for the good of the church and the world. So there can be no “ecclesiology of communion” without a corresponding theology of ministry.


As Pope John Paul II reminded us in his exhortation on the lay faithful, “Communion and mission are profoundly connected with each other; they interpenetrate and mutually imply each other to the point that communion represents both the source and the fruit of mission: Communion gives rise to mission, and mission is accomplished in communion” (Christifideles Laici, 32). Therefore, I will be referring to the basis of any relationship in the church, including that of bishops and lay ecclesial ministers, in terms of our sharing in the church’s character understood as communion-mission or, as my second heading puts it, ministry in communion.


Ministry in Communion


To put this another way, all relationships in the church are both personal (because we are in communion with each other) and ministerial (because our communion is directed to mission). As one of the subcommittee’s conclusions rightly points out, “One of the roles of the local bishop is to maintain the dynamic communio of vocations within the diocese by helping to discern and to encourage all vocations, by fostering collaboration and by acting as a center of unity” (Conclusion 18).


Thus, like his relationship to priests and deacons, a bishop’s relationship with lay ministers cannot exist in the abstract and is real only insofar as it is expressed in a loving communion which is focused on the mission of preaching the Gospel, gathering into community, worshipping God and serving those in need. As the subcommittee concluded in its report:


“The emerging reality of lay ecclesial ministry now needs the attention of the bishops and their leadership in structuring these ministries in fidelity to apostolic tradition and in response to the needs of the community. The Holy Spirit freely bestows gifts on all the faithful, empowering them to respond to a call to ministry. When ordering ministries, church authority has the responsibility to structure and to order its ministries both in faithfulness to the apostolic tradition and in response to the community’s needs at a given time in history. These dynamics of structuring and ordering and the empowerment with gifts are occurring now as we do our part to provide for the future of lay ecclesial ministry” (Conclusion 23).


To this conclusion, I would like to add an emphasis on the fact that such ministry is not merely a parochial or local task – and neither are the relationships by which it is best accomplished. That is why lay ministers’ sense of who they are and what they are doing is best seen in light of the bishop’s role of fostering the communion and mission of the diocesan church. Another of the subcommittee’s conclusions puts it this way:


“As a group of diverse ministries within the church, lay ecclesial ministry is part of the work of the local church. It is important for bishops to foster and to guide the use of the gifts that lay ecclesial ministers bring, ‘not [to] extinguish the Spirit … [but to] test everything [and] retain what is good’ (1 Thes. 5:19; cf. 1 Thes. 5:12, 21; AA, 3; LG, 12)” (Conclusion 17).


We are, in other words, speaking of relationships that exist within the particular church, a church that is not primarily, much less exclusively parochial, but diocesan. And the bishop has the special responsibility of overseeing and coordinating the good order and functioning of ministry within his diocese. This is an aspect of ordained leadership that requires a special emphasis today. Cardinal Roger Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, stressed this point in his pastoral letter on ministry, “As I Have Done for You.” In speaking of parish priests, he wrote: “The ordained guides by establishing, cultivating and sustaining patterns of relationship rooted in equality, interdependence and mutual service … calling forth and coordinating the gifts of all the baptized.” Clearly, this leadership extends to a bishop and in a particular way to his relationship with those called to lay ecclesial ministry.


Or as Thomas O’Meara, in his recently revised work Theology of Ministry, describes it:


“The leaders of the local churches, bishop and presbyter, find their identities in leadership, but this leadership is not purely administrative or liturgical. The pastor’s leadership is not simply directing but being a Christian as a source of community life in a ministry. The pastor directs through enabling them in their own ministries – that leadership is expressed in preaching and made manifest in leading the eucharistic liturgy. An integral aspect, then, of being a presbyter and bishop is to facilitate and coordinate ministries: For the local church this involves attracting, educating and directing an ensemble of ministries and not just hiring or controlling people” (1999, p. 182).


But let me stress once again, this episcopal function of ministerial oversight is at the service of communion. Several years ago, when facing a terrible and painful schism in my local church, I reminded my diocesans, “There is nothing closer to the heart of a bishop or more at the core of his responsibility than the unity of the church…. [H]e has a particular responsibility to see to the unity of his own local church in faith and love because he is ‘the visible source and foundation’ of its unity (LG, 23)” (“Limits on Independent Action”).


Precisely as a center of ecclesial unity, the bishop preserves communion among the various vocations and ministries in the local church, protects their distinctive character and officially designates ministers for a particular service.


For all these reasons, I think it would be helpful if we allowed a term to enter our vocabulary and begin to use it regularly – just as the phrase lay ecclesial ministry has become part of our church lexicon – namely, the term diocesan ministerium. By this term, I mean all those who exercise in the local church an official ecclesial ministry, whether they are ordained or not. By fostering a sense of ministry at this level, I believe the bishop can more readily form a relationship with lay ecclesial ministers – as he does with presbyters and deacons. He can also help such ministers avoid the temptations of individualism and parochialism, the antidote to which is precisely this sense of a diocesan ministerium to which they belong together with the clergy.


In an article I wrote some time ago for the New Theology Review, “On the Pastoral Exercise of Authority,” I pointed out:


“Most certainly, the church is not a collection of individuals, each pursuing holiness on his or her own. It is the people of God, the body of Christ, a community of faith and love. In service to this community, a bishop must provide for good order while still respecting the freedom and supporting the growth of its individual members. As a true servant, he stands in the midst of a community to give his very self as a symbol of its unity and a guarantee of its peace. He preaches and celebrates the mysteries as friend among friends. Presiding in love, he helps the community to articulate its faith and reach consensus about its pastoral goals. He proclaims the vision of the whole, not as the lonely prophet, but as the one who clothes with words what he sees and hears in the hopes and dreams of the people he serves.”


So if I were to summarize this episcopal role within the diocesan ministerium, I would say that bishops are responsible for discerning, fostering, ordering, structuring and empowering qualified ecclesial ministers’ gifts on behalf of the local church over which he presides.


Structures of Communion


If the theory or framework of our relationships is important, no less important are the ways in which we live them out. We need, in other words, what I am calling in my third heading, “structures of communion” – organizational mechanisms that help ensure that ministry in communion thrives in fidelity to the Spirit’s gifts. But whatever structures might emerge to formalize the relationship between bishops and lay ecclesial ministers, none will succeed if they do not spring from the church’s own nature understood as “communion in mission and mission in communion.”


And if such structures are not in place, I fear that Zeni Fox’s pressing question in her book New Ecclesial Ministers will remain unanswered and her warning unheeded:


“If laypersons exercise significant leadership in the church, what is their social place? If it is not in some way with other official ministers, bishops, priests and deacons, their understandings, values and attitudes will not be influenced by those relationships. (And conversely, neither will the other official ministers be influenced by them.) Furthermore, over time many will experience anger at the marginalization they experience in relation to the other formal leaders in ministry…. Without identification as well with the larger body of official ministers, fragmentation rather than unity is fostered. Because a primary function of the bishop is as the center of unity within his diocese, it is the establishment of a formal relationship with the bishop which will contribute to a greater unification of all the official ministers in the local churches. In a church striving to be collaborative, such unity is essential” (1997, p. 250).


Now this church we live in, as I mentioned to the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, is dynamic, on the move and living in a community and world which are quite complex and challenging; and we do it in a spirit of faith. Sometimes that is a rewarding and life-giving experience for us. We sense that things are moving in a good direction, that our hard work is paying off, that the struggle is very much worthwhile. At other moments, the opposite seems true. We ask or are asked, “Why are we going backward?”


We like progress to be linear and incremental, don’t we? We do not like to go backward or to suffer reverses. But the truth is that this kind of experience is part of the fabric of the church’s life. How we deal with this kind of experience together is to me the best test and expression of the relationship we enjoy with one another. That is why we need structures of communion to contain, if you will, the inevitable challenges of being in relationship. I would like to suggest four kinds of structures for this purpose, namely ones that foster collaboration, competence, recognition and equity.


In doing so, I realize it would be naive to think that there could ever be just one right way to structure ministerial relationships. Circumstances differ from place to place. Boston is not Rochester is not Wichita is not Chicago. Each has its own history, priorities, resources, problems, possibilities and dreams. We know also that no two bishops, no two local churches are just the same. So I am speaking from my own perspective and experience, though I hope these have broader implications.


Fostering Collaboration


Mechanisms for fostering collaboration among ministers are probably the most important of these structures of communion. As Father Don Senior remarked in response to “The Study of the Impact of Fewer Priests on the Pastoral Ministry” submitted last June to the NCCB by our Priestly Life and Ministry Committee:


“We need to prepare both seminarians and future lay ministers for a very different pastoral terrain than we have known for a long time. Mutual respect for each other’s vocation and roles, an acceptance of shared responsibility, a practical wisdom about collaboration – these are now essential, not optional virtues needed for the good of the church.”


I realize that other speakers at this symposium have much more to say about collaboration. Let me mention just one more structural item that has appeared recently in the Vatican’s “Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons,” one which has been repeated verbatim in our own national directory awaiting confirmation from Rome: “Under the bishop’s authority and without multiplying existent structures, periodic meetings should be arranged between priests, deacons, religious and laity involved in pastoral work, both to avoid compartmentalization or the development of isolated groups and to guarantee coordinated unity for different pastoral activities” (Nos. 78 and 63 respectively).


Despite the discomfort it causes a few priests, for some five years now we have invited our deacon and lay pastoral administrators to our annual convocation of priests because it is there that we address the common pastoral problems facing those who have oversight of parish communities. Twice a year, for more than 15 years now, we have assembled all who are involved in pastoral ministry – priests, deacon and lay – to special ministry days where we work together on common pastoral strategies. Both these structures are imperfect, yet they help tremendously to break down the natural barriers between various types of ministers in order to concentrate together on the church’s mission.


Fostering Competence


After doing all we can to foster collaboration between ordained and lay ministers, we must provide for their competence. With respect to the latter, the subcommittee concluded, “Bishops have the responsibility to see that lay ecclesial ministers in their dioceses are properly qualified, have received the necessary formation and education, and continue to receive ongoing formation and education for the benefit of the local church (cf. Canon 231; Ecclesia in America, 44)” (Conclusion 19).


The subcommittee’s report also acknowledged a growing trend toward national standards which various bodies have already established in efforts to ensure quality control in ministry. They also called for financial assistance programs for lay-ministry preparation as a concrete sign of respect for the calling many believe they have received to pursue such a life of service.


In our own Diocese of Rochester, we are fortunate to have a graduate school of theology and ministry, St. Bernard’s Institute, which prepares our deacon and lay-ministry candidates by offering master of arts and master of divinity degrees. A master of arts degree is normally required of candidates for ordination to the diaconate, of those seeking diocesan director-level positions or those seeking to be pastoral associates. A master of divinity degree is normally required of deacon or lay pastoral administrators. We also have a certification program that qualifies people for nine designated ministries recognized by the diocese. These include business managers, religious-education administrators, coordinator positions for religious education, RCIA, liturgy and social ministry, as well as pastoral, music and youth ministers.


Many pastors are diligent in making sure members of their staff pursue either graduate study or certification, depending on the position in question. The diocese and parish also provide financial assistance through various avenues. Ideally, a typical graduate student who demonstrates need receives 25 percent tuition assistance from the diocese; parishes contribute another 25 percent; the institute itself provides another 25 percent through scholarships and tuition assistance, leaving only the last 25 percent of costs to the student’s own resources. Parishes vary in their contribution to certification students, but many pay for a program, especially if candidates are already employed. The cost for certification is modest to begin with, well below the cost of comparable educational opportunities.


Fostering Recognition


After collaboration and competence, we also need structures of communion that foster recognition of lay ecclesial ministers. In the work I mentioned earlier by Zeni Fox, she makes the important point that “the Catholic Church through history has not been shaped by a congregational model, but rather by a model of local church, with the bishop as the center of unity. Presently, most bishops play no part in the incorporation of laypersons into the ministry and mission of their local churches…. Although one could say that presently pastors fulfill this function when they hire lay ministers, traditionally it is the function of the bishop” (p. 249).


She goes on to argue that “it is not enough to simply have parish-based blessings and commissionings, because these do not establish a relationship with the bishop. If the bishops’ conference defined ecclesial ministry and delineated the roles which should require that those who fill them be ecclesial ministers, they should also establish a ritual for designating a person an ecclesial minister. The bishop would be the presider at such a celebration; the ritual would establish and define the relationship of the ecclesial minister with him. However, the community in which the ecclesial minister [will] serve also should be a part of the celebration, since the relationship is with them as well” (p. 254).


This question of a formal, ritual, recognition of lay ecclesial ministers by the bishop was, of course, a major concern of the subcommittee’s report. One of its conclusions reads, “One of the responsibilities for bishops remains to affirm the distinctive character of lay ecclesial ministry so that its validity as a form of service within the church can be recognized by all (Ecclesia in America, 44)” (Conclusion 20). This conclusion is closely aligned to the following one: “In general, lay ecclesial ministers should be designated by the diocesan bishop (or representative) to their ministerial assignments within the diocese” (Conclusion 24). The question was also one of the major issues the subcommittee recommended that the NCCB continue to study.


Because this is such an open topic with many ramifications – ones which we are only now beginning to address in our diocese – I would like to spend just a bit more time on it, recalling to your attention two more (Nos. 21 and 2) of the conclusions which the subcommittee drew in this regard. The first (No. 21) concerns the technical terminology which ought to be employed in describing ritual recognition:


“Lay ecclesial ministers serve in the name of the church. Most of the tasks undertaken by them are proper to the laity (e.g. visiting the sick, counseling the troubled, organizing ministries, etc.), and, sometimes, other tasks belong properly to the ordained (e.g., celebrating baptisms, witnessing marriages). The language of delegation is preferred for tasks that belong properly to the ordained. However, if this language of delegation is used for all tasks undertaken by lay ecclesial ministers, there is a risk of subsuming all lay mission and ministry into the office of the ordained. Also, there is a risk that the ministry and mission of the laity could lose their distinctive characteristics. The recommended language for the majority of lay ecclesial ministry, which does belong properly to the laity, includes entrusting, commissioning or instituting. In addition, the language of conferring offices or installing can also be used in some of these cases that are proper to the laity, as well as in cases where a lay ecclesial minister is delegated tasks that are proper to the ordained (Ministeria Quedam)” (Conclusion 21).


Second (No. 2), the subcommittee raised indirectly the possibility of the bishops’ conference formally naming which ecclesial ministries would receive ritual recognition, aware of the possibility the Holy See could be petitioned for their official establishment as ministries on a par with lector and acolyte:


“Throughout the history of the church, the hierarchy has been responsible for ordering its ministries. The official ministries vary in response to needs that change over time. Examples of changes in ministries include the following: the creation of minor orders such as porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte; the creation of the major order subdeacon; the subsequent suppression of porter, exorcist and subdeacon; and the preservation of lector and acolyte as installed ministries rather than as minor orders. Bishops should continue to be attentive to the needs of faith communities when considering desired ministries” (Conclusion 2).


Fostering Equity


Finally, structures of communion are needed to foster equity for lay ecclesial ministers. In this regard, Thomas O’Meara, in the work I cited previously, observes how “ministry other than presbyter (and deacon?) is not taken seriously in terms of incorporation into the diocese (this is less true of the parish) in terms of adequate salary, benefits, appreciation and spiritual life. Too many still leave in place a weak ecclesiology of ‘parish workers’; they are replacements for the absent clergy, employees with a job” (p. 196).


While our diocese has made good progress in paying all – including religious women – a fair and adequate salary and benefits, there remain many subtle inequities. For example, recently our priests’ council set about to revise a “ministry to priests” position to meet more adequately the needs of our priests. Suddenly, it dawned on some of our priest councilors that there is no comparable position for our many lay ecclesial ministers and, for the first time, they wondered why.


Another important area that will provide a structural framework for communion includes diocesan policies concerning the following items, also identified by the subcommittee: a) standard human resources practices (contracts, job descriptions, etc.); b) just compensation; c) grievance procedures; d) due process; e) portability of pension benefits and f) job stability. All of these will continue to require creative responses at the diocesan and not just the parish level. Comprehensive, integrated personnel systems and policies are needed that recognize different situations and that will treat the diocesan ministerium equitably.


A Spirituality of Communion


To conclude, I would like to say something about my fourth heading, “a spirituality of communion.” As Thomas O’Meara reminds us, “[M]inistry is never a ‘job.’ All those serving the presence of the Spirit are bound by a higher calling, a spiritual life” (p. 196). So we need more than a theology, however sound, and more than structures, however useful. We need a spirituality to sustain us. And while all I have said about the relationship between bishops and lay ecclesial ministers derives from the ecclesiology of communion that is the hallmark of the Second Vatican Council, this cannot remain at the level of doctrine, nor of merely practical directives. A spirituality must enliven the council’s vision of the church.


To this effect, Pope John Paul II, in his recent apostolic letter marking the conclusion of the jubilee year, spoke movingly of a “spirituality of communion” that should govern the church whose ministry is to be a sign and instrument of unity. Indeed, the Holy Father insists that “before making practical plans, we need to promote a spirituality of communion, making it the guiding principle of education wherever individuals and Christians are formed, wherever ministers of the altar, consecrated persons and pastoral workers are trained, wherever families and communities are being built up” (Novo Millennio Ineuente, Jan. 6, 2001, No. 43).


So by way of conclusion, I would like to share with you some of his thoughts in this document where the bishop of Rome develops a vision of his own for the church at the beginning of this new millennium.


In answering his question, “What does this spirituality of communion mean in practice?” the Holy Father responds that, among other things, “a spirituality of communion implies also the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a ‘gift for me.’ A spirituality of communion means, finally, to know how to ‘make room’ for our brothers and sisters, bearing ‘each other’s burdens’ (Gal. 6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy. Let us have no illusions: Unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, ‘masks’ of communion rather than its means of expression and growth” (No. 43).


The pope goes on to say, “Such a vision of communion is closely linked to the Christian community’s ability to make room for all the gifts of the Spirit. The unity of the church is not uniformity, but an organic blending of legitimate diversities. It is the reality of many members joined in a single body, the one body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12). Therefore the church of the third millennium will need to encourage all the baptized and confirmed to be aware of their active responsibility in the church’s life. Together with the ordained ministry, other ministries, whether formally instituted or simply recognized, can flourish for the good of the whole community, sustaining it in all its many needs: from catechesis to liturgy, from the education of the young to the widest array of charitable works” (No. 46).


And I believe this kind of spirituality, so strikingly and challengingly put forward by the Holy Father, is a vital necessity if a bishop is to serve as the reference point for the “communion in mission” of all members of his diocesan ministerium.

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