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Lay Ecclesial Ministry and the Vatican II Generation

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 30, 2007

The Second Vatican Council is said to have ushered in the age of the laity, and the post-conciliar period has certainly seen an increase in lay ministry in the Church. However, critics have suggested that so far the age of the laity has resulted mainly in the clericalization of the laity, and even the feminization of the laity. How are we to sort this out?

Lay Ecclesial Ministry

Earlier this month, the USCCB’s Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth co-sponsored a national symposium on lay ecclesial ministry at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. There were eighteen co-sponsoring organizations in all. One of the key speeches was given by Xavier University (Cincinnati) theologian Edward Hahnenberg, who argued that “the emergence of lay ecclesial ministry over the past 40 years stands out as one of the top three or four most important ministerial shifts of the past 2,000 years.”

The context for Hahnenberg’s remarks was the USCCB’s 2005 document Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource For Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry. This document, which recognized the increase in lay ministry and wanted to make sure it developed in a way compatible with the Church’s mission, identified three kinds of lay ecclesial ministers:

  1. Simple volunteers serving a relatively small number of hours. These include extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, lectors, cantors, choir members, catechists, pastoral council members, visitors of the sick and needy, helpers in sacramental preparation, youth ministers, and participants in charity and justice programs.
  2. Those who must be authorized to minister by the bishop. These are generally in paid ecclesial positions. They must undergo formation and must be able to lead others and collaborate with ordained ministers. They include pastoral associates, parish catechetical leaders, youth ministry leaders, school principals, and directors of liturgy or pastoral music. In 2005, there were over 30,000 lay people in this category in paid positions working at least 20 hours per week.
  3. A subset of group 2 which actually participates in the exercise of the pastoral care of the parish according to Canon 517 § 2. The document states clearly that this group “exists simply because of the shortage of priests.”

It is the second group, including its subset, that is the focus of Co-Workers in the Vineyard and the subject of Hahnenberg’s speech. This is the group which Hahnenberg believes represents one of the key paradigm shifts in all of Church history.

Quantitative and Qualitative Shifts

Few would argue that there has been a shift, and that lay people are more heavily involved in direct parish and diocesan work than ever before. Given the enormous size of many parishes around the world, and the relative dearth of priests, sheer necessity would bring this about even if there were not a growing awareness of the potential spiritual contribution of lay people to the Church community. I would argue that most of this increased involvement represents a quantitative rather than a qualitative change. For example, surely lay people have been heavily involved in Church music, Catholic education, formal catechesis, and youth ministry in many ways and at many times in the history of the Church, both in established Christian cultures and in mission territory.

This does not make the change insignificant, and it can certainly create conflicts, but a quantitative change creates merely practical problems, not theoretical ones, and I seriously doubt that most people are concerned about it one way or the other. In Co-Workers, the bishops have set forth the conditions for suitability for lay people to be authorized for ecclesial ministry. They identify a deep prayer life, adherence to Church doctrine, respect for Tradition, regular participation in the sacraments (including Penance), chastity (whether single or married), the ability to form productive friendships, emotional balance, willingness to take on disciplined study, skill in the direction of others, and critical thinking. The major concerns here are quite simply the same as they are for the ordained. Where these conditions are not fulfilled (as has often been the case), we end up with precisely the trouble we would expect. Otherwise, there is no fundamental problem.

In other words, the so-called paradigm shift becomes significant only at a deeper level, only when something qualitative begins to happen—that is, when it seems like the distinction between priest and layman is eroding. For example, when the sacraments are undervalued and priests tend to be viewed as super-laity, or when lay people seem to take their identity from their role in the liturgy or their ability to direct souls, then we have a paradigm shift indeed, and one which needs to be questioned. In fact, Co-Workers itself questions it: “The application of ‘ministry’ to the laity is not something to be confused with ordained ministry nor in any way construed to compromise the specific nature of ordained ministry.”

The Influence of Vatican II?

Edward Hahnenberg does not address this deeper qualitative shift. His only allusion to it is his dismissal of the so-called Chicago Declaration of Christian Concern of 1977 in which a number of priests, religious and laity suggested that the emphasis on lay involvement in ecclesial ministry might be preventing the laity from focusing on its primary role in transforming the world outside church walls. This does not concern Hahnenberg, for whom ecclesial ministry is a direct product of Vatican II:

The reality of lay ecclesial ministry was shaped and is still sustained by the Vatican II generation, who have brought into their ministry a real enthusiasm for the council and the renewal it sought…. [O]ur story is one of liberation, of windows opening, of breaking out from the closed Catholicism of the past…. We need to find a way to pass on our story….

Here one begins to detect evidence of that deeper qualitative and problematic shift. Lay ecclesial ministry may be the product of the Vatican II generation, but it is not a product of Vatican II itself, as a reading of the documents makes abundantly clear. It is true that in two places the Council acknowledges the existence of lay ecclesial ministry. In the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem), where it sets forth the hierarchy’s support for the lay apostolate, the Council states:

Finally, the hierarchy entrusts to the laity certain functions which are more closely connected with pastoral duties, such as the teaching of Christian doctrine, certain liturgical actions, and the care of souls. By virtue of this mission, the laity are fully subject to higher ecclesiastical control in the performance of this work. (24)

And again in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium):

Besides this apostolate which certainly pertains to all Christians, the laity can also be called in various ways to a more direct form of cooperation in the apostolate of the Hierarchy. This was the way certain men and women assisted Paul the Apostle in the Gospel, laboring much in the Lord. Further, they have the capacity to assume from the Hierarchy certain ecclesiastical functions, which are to be performed for a spiritual purpose. (33)

But these brief statements come in both instances only in the context of extremely long passages—indeed, the entire thrust of the relevant portions of both documents—which explain in great depth that the special role of the laity consists precisely in transforming the secular order. Consider, for example, the definitive passage on the laity in Lumen Gentium 31:

What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature. It is true that those in holy orders can at times be engaged in secular activities, and even have a secular profession. But they are by reason of their particular vocation especially and professedly ordained to the sacred ministry. Similarly, by their state in life, religious give splendid and striking testimony that the world cannot be transformed and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes. But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.

Or consider the parallel pivotal passage in Apostolicam Actuositatem 7:

The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation. Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church and motivated by Christian charity, they must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere. As citizens they must cooperate with other citizens with their own particular skill and on their own responsibility. Everywhere and in all things they must seek the justice of God's kingdom. The temporal order must be renewed in such a way that, without detriment to its own proper laws, it may be brought into conformity with the higher principles of the Christian life and adapted to the shifting circumstances of time, place, and peoples. Preeminent among the works of this type of apostolate is that of Christian social action which the sacred synod desires to see extended to the whole temporal sphere, including culture.

I beg the reader’s pardon for these lengthy quotations, but they carry a critical message: According to Vatican II, if we are identifying as a great paradigm shift the increase of lay ministry within the Church, then we are certainly not identifying the shift envisioned and called for by the Council itself.

Final Thoughts

Edward Hahnenberg’s liberating enthusiasms notwithstanding, it is difficult and probably dangerous to dismiss those who suggest that this deeper, qualitative paradigm shift has confused many priests and even more lay people by eroding the distinctions between them. Nor can we ignore the very common assertion that the emergence of an underpaid and largely part-time lay ministerial corps has contributed to the feminization of the Church. After all, the reason is as simple as it is inevitable: Unless they are ordained, men in most cases simply cannot afford to serve. This visible feminization has also affected the volunteer ministers, because men are generally more preoccupied ad extra and also perhaps less prone to serve as volunteers in liturgical and nurturing roles.

Just before his insistence that “we need to find a way to pass on our story”, Hahnenberg reported that the median age for laypersons in parish ministry had risen from 45 to 52 between 1990 and 2005. This caused him concern. Despite the good accomplished by lay ecclesial ministers, and emphasizing that I do not wish to discourage lay people who are called to such roles, this statistic does not concern me at all. What concerns me is the deeper paradigm shift that Hahnenberg and so many others prefer to dismiss and ignore. In this context, the advancing age of the “Vatican II generation” may well be a most encouraging sign.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Athelstan - Mar. 16, 2019 3:27 PM ET USA

    Cogent analysis, worthy conclusion.