Monday, June 23, 2003

Our baptismal call is not to "ministry." It is - for every one of us - to bind ourselves to Christ and follow Him. That's it.

Where and how we respond to that call varies as much as we do. Some might be vowed religious, but working in a "secular" field, like medicine. Some might be married laity following Jesus in their family lives and in their jobs within Church structure. Some might be ordained serving in parishes, or laity who come to Mass once a week and work at 7-11 for 60 of the remaining hours.

The great movement of the laity that we identify with the modern era evolved for many reasons. The laity were never quite seen as the preferably voiceless sheep that some would suggest. It's simply that before the modern era, most laity were not as educated theologically as were clerics and religioius, so even without ecclesiological considerations it was simply common sense to see the religious and lay as living in different spheres of influence, although, I would have to say, the boundary is often quite fluid. Plenty of women made their spiritual and charitable marks as lay women before moving into religious life. Catholic rulers had a definite and important role in the mission of the Church. Lay people from Thomas More to Frederic Ozanam worked intensely for the Gospel in their own ways.

But in the modern era (which we would date from the Enlightenment), the idea of a distinct and important role for the laity evolved out of the heightened sense of the dignity of the individual and an increasingly educated laity. Lay movements of all kinds, from devotional to charitable to political to evangelical have flourished over the past two centuries as the laity have found their voices, and joined with others attracted to particular charisms to live out the Gospel.

This is not an invention of Vatican II, believe me.

But what happened in the wake of Vatican II was something exceedingly strange. In this country, at least, as boundaries broke down, the emphasis in lay ministry came to be on ecclesial ministry. It did. Trust me. It wasn't that anyone told us we didn't have to continue living the Gospel in the world, it's simply that we got so excited about the possibility of actually be involved in parish and diocesan decision-making that the other, more fundamental call was pushed aside.

And I ask you to honestly consider this, as you've heard it articulated at your parish "ministry Sundays" and Stewardship appeals over the years. What is the emphasis? What is the hope for the parish? The hope is that the parish will be a more "active" one. Now, one could take this to mean that the parish would be more active in the community, would be a more forceful voice for compassion and hope to the suffering, and this sometimes is the case. Most of the time it is a hope that more people will come to meetings to plan things that are taking place on the parish property.

Now, as we have mentioned here before, this is not a situation that calls for one or the other. The parish exists to worship, to pass on the faith, to give comfort to its own parishioners, to minister to them in any way they need. But that is only the beginning. The ultimate goal is that all of that activity nourishes us so that we may be ennobled and strenghtened to follow Jesus in every aspect of our lives: at rush hour, when we sense our neighbor is suffering, when we read about a local community need, when our own children or parents need us.

A couple of stories:

I once sat at a meeting (yes) where a woman who had been active in church for a couple of decades was bemoaning her spiritual emptiness. "I've done everything in the parish," she said. "I've been on the liturgy committee, I've taken classes, I've helped with the social committee..but there's still something missing. I still can't connect with Jesus the way I want to."

Another time, in another parish, I sat in Mass and heard a priest say in reference to the Ministry Fair that was going on and that would be reached by exiting out the left-hand doors. "Those of you who avoid the Ministry Fair and exit from the doors on the right hand side of the church - I am here to tell you that if you do that, you may not consider yourself a Catholic Christian."

I. am. not. making. that. up.

And it is something I saw over and over in so many ways among parish and diocesan workers over twenty years, and it is natural. You get involved in an institution, and you get invested in that institution - as an institution. You judge the success of the place by how financially solvent it is and how busy the parking lot is on weeknights.

One more thing: you might be surprised at the number of people who immerse themselves in church work as a means of specifically avoiding problems in the rest of their lives or somehow seeking to redeem themselves by putting hours into church work without really changing anything about their lives. It happens. People spend long hours at church so they don't have to go home. People throw themselves into the choir or into religious ed as energetically as they throw themselves into sinful behavior outside of church, hoping it will all balance out in the end.

My point? That "lay ministry" is neither terrible or automatically saintly. It just is. It is done by flawed people who come to the rectory office with varied motives and understandings of what they are doing. Which is fine, because that's the way human beings are - read the gospels and check out the apostles, who rarely had a clue as to what they were doing and were never perfect as they did it.

But, back to my original train of thought here. What we need here is not, God forbid, another "program" designed to help lay people understand the apostolate of the laity in the world. That kind of thing always struck me as tragically amusing: Learn how to be a better parent by leaving your kids and coming to church for a six-week study program. Learn how to be a better Christian in the world by coming to church a few more nights a week.

No - it's tone and total message I'm talking about, and in the end, it seems to me to be all tied up with the de-emphasis on the sacramental and traditional devotional life of Catholics.

For you ask...okay...the parish exists, in part, to help Catholics live out their faith in the world. How does it do this? By providing support in times of need. By providing catechesis. And.....through being the place and source of our encounters with Jesus, who is the One who does the strengthening.

When your parish is rich with prayer and devotions of every kind, that will meet your needs no matter who you are and what your inclination - whether you are nourished by Eucharistic Adoration, time to study the Scriptures, rosaries, the Liturgy of the Hours, whatever....and when that parish's Eucharistic liturgies are imbued with a sense that the One we meet here is Jesus and that is the reason we are here, then what that says is that your parish is a place where Jesus can be found, that buzzes with Divine Energy, that bursts with the Love that has the power to change the world....and in your parish, you can be filled with this, at all times, whenever you can, and you can take it and...go out. Combine that with preaching that continually points to the truth of the Gospels, which are not about staying in, but sending forth (as we heard yesterday), combine that with parish committments to do what it can as a body (tithing as a parish, being responsible for various services and charities locally, nationally and abroad), then you have the power of the whole Church - not just the laity, but the whole Church - at work.

But what happened? Our parishes, to a startling degree, stopped being those fountains of prayer, and our Church as a whole, by rapidly and almost completely denuding its life of traditional devotions, left a vacuum. Oh, Catholics still do more than almost anyone else in terms of education and health care for the poor, but I don't think we look at the state of Church life in this country, at least, as say that we have an exactly vibrant sense of being the Jesus in the world...and all I'm suggesting is that might be because we're not being encouraged to meet Jesus in all of his life-changing glory - in the parish.