We shouldn’t underestimate laypeople’s gifts
For the last five years I have been fortunate enough to have served in a parish where there is good lay involvement and parishioners take responsibility for the common life of the community. One thing I feel is key is the regular parish meeting. Each meeting is open to all parishioners and gives everyone the opportunity to help plan parish life and become more involved.
Over the last five years I have found our deliberations to be largely constructive and helpful. As in any parish, issues and personality differences emerge from time to time. But the meetings are a wonderful way of mobilising the community to get things done. From this forum new initiatives have been developed and life has grown.
When I first came to the parish I was surprised that there were very few other parishes locally where such meetings took place. Some clergy shared with me their negative experiences and stories of how councils had fostered divisions in communities and become platforms for overbearing and bossy people. In a Catholic parish, a council is not obligatory and when one does exist it has the role only to advise and assist the parish priest.
I am a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, and people often ask me questions about the distinctive nature of the ordinariate. Lay involvement always features highly in my answer. Anglican laity are heavily engaged in the life of the Church of England at a local and national level. It was having the opportunity to be involved in the life of my local parish and deanery that helped to form my own sense of vocation, which has been brought to fruition within the Catholic Church. For this I am grateful.
A unique aspect of the ordinariate is the requirement to constitute a pastoral council at a national level to advise the Ordinary regarding the pastoral activity of the ordinariate. This structure has been in place now for almost one year and is already bearing much fruit. A council gives lay members of the ordinariate a strong voice and recognises their important place.
A few years ago I helped out in a parish for several months after the previous parish priest had retired following nearly 30 years serving the same parish. He was a faithful and much-loved pastor. On the first Sunday after his departure, I was astounded to be asked for permission to turn on the heating when the air in church was colder than outside. I also had to help to set up for Mass because the people did not know where all the things were kept. It was clear that they had not been engaged in the parish. Here were able people who, given the right encouragement and support, could offer a great deal. Yet their skills and talents were completely unrecognised and undeveloped.
In a world with fewer priests, people need to be encouraged to grasp their responsibility as primary evangelists. Clergy are central to this in their role as enablers and encouragers.
But one aspect of lay involvement where I am always a little cautious is that of accountability. A priest is accountable to his bishop for all that he does, especially in relation to his teaching and lifestyle. Laity are much freer.
Where there is a reduction of clergy numbers, lay leaders can emerge who have very little accountability. I am sometimes astounded when I discover people running RCIA programmes, leading youth groups or having other significant roles, whose personal opinions and life choices are at odds with Church teaching. We should have higher standards and expectations of our lay leaders and be prepared to act when there is a drifting from orthodoxy or leaders become too dominant at the expense of others.
The Church expends valuable time and resources to train priests. Yet a fraction is spent on catechesis and formation for those involved in various lay ministries in our parishes. As clergy, we have an important task to help raise up leaders in our communities and to ensure that they have the resources, knowledge and abilities needed to serve faithfully.
Christ entrusted the work of the Gospel to all people. We will only fulfil this vocation when all people’s gifts are recognised, developed and put to use.
Pastor Iuventus is away
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