Much of the work to be done in the wake of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ new document on lay ecclesiastical ministry is on the practical and pastoral level. The National Association of Lay Ministry raised some tough questions about Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord (November 2005) when they gathered in Cleveland in June. In an era of bankrupt dioceses, how will the church finance the increased formation and training recommended in Co-Workers? How will this training be delivered in rural or remote areas? Should employment on a parish staff require formal certification? Can a system of portable benefits be designed for lay ecclesial ministers who change dioceses? How will the document affect standards already in place?
Co-Workers provides a solid theological foundation upon which to face these challenges. In his keynote address in Cleveland, Richard R. Gaillardetz called Co-Workers “the most mature and coherent ecclesiastical document ever produced on a theology of ministry.” He pointed out that Pope John Paul II had issued excellent separate documents on the theology of laity, priests and bishops, but “in no ecclesiastical document, papal or episcopal, has there been a successful theological integration of the various forms of ministry in the church. Until now.”
Co-Workers strives for a total theology of ministry. It locates lay ecclesial ministry in relationship to the triune God and the church community, placing this ministry in the context of a network of ministerial relationships. Drawing on the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the document avoids casting lay and ordained ministries in the competitive terms of a zero-sum game. On the whole, Co-Workers is both faithful to the church’s doctrinal tradition and responsive to the contemporary pastoral reality.
New Wine, Old Wineskins
But the bishops themselves admit that in the area of theology, there is one issue in particular that needs some work. “The preparation of Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord has already indicated a need for a more thorough study of our theology of vocation” (p. 67).
This concern for the theology of vocation can be traced back to some of the earliest consultations held by the bishops’ Subcommittee on Lay Ministry. At a forum sponsored by the subcommittee in 1996, several lay ministers spontaneously shared their experience of being called. The bishops, clearly moved by the testimony, spent time afterward discussing whether lay ecclesial ministry was a new vocation in the church. Their concern was articulated thus in the subcommittee’s 1999 report Lay Ecclesial Ministry: The State of the Question (p. 27):
Lay ministers speak often and reverently of their call or vocation to ministry, a call that finds its origin in the call of God and its confirmation in the appointment to a specific ministry within the Church.... We conclude that this call or vocation is worthy of respect and sustained attention.
Despite the clearly expressed experience of lay ecclesial ministers, the bishops still struggled with the language of vocation in Co-Workers. In the end, they had to drop the word itself, so problematic had it become. The bishops speak of the “call” to lay ecclesial ministry throughout their final document, but they do not use the word “vocation.”
Why this hesitation? Perhaps, in the minds of many bishops, the word “vocation” carried too much baggage, raised too many questions or seemed to formalize things too soon. Perhaps it was the difficulty that always comes with thinking through a new reality in old categories.
For Catholics, vocation has long been seen as a state of life. This view lies behind any number of Sunday homilies, popular articles and high school textbooks that recognize three kinds of vocation: to priesthood, religious life and marriage (with a few adding vocation to the single life). But lay ecclesial ministers come from among the married and the single, and women religious working in parishes are usually included too. While most lay ecclesial ministers say that they feel called to a lifetime of service (almost three-quarters in the latest study), their ministry is quite dynamic—certainly long-term, but not necessarily lifelong. Lay ecclesial ministry is a genuinely new thing in the church, and the older language does not quite fit. We are trying to put new wine into old wineskins.
The Internalization of Vocation
What seams in the wineskins are starting to give way under the fresh pressure of lay ecclesial ministry? What needs rethinking? What should we consider in a “more thorough study” of the theology of God’s call?
I propose lifting up one key element: the ecclesial dimension of vocation. In many ways, contemporary Roman Catholic thought on vocation is living out the dual legacy of two 16th-century reformers. When Martin Luther translated St. Paul’s admonition, “Let each of you remain in the klesis in which you were called” (1 Cor 7:20), he rendered the Greek klesis by the ordinary German word for an occupation, Beruf. This launched a theological trajectory that equated one’s calling with one’s job. Luther was reacting against the Catholic tendency to limit vocation to the religious and ordained. He argued that every Christian has a calling. The Roman church, in response, distanced itself from this all-inclusive notion. It took four centuries and three ecumenical councils for the church finally to admit the truth of Luther’s claim. When Vatican II stated that all believers, “whether they belong to the hierarchy or are cared for by it,” are called by God to holiness (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 39), the church officially ceded the point: Everyone has a vocation.
Postconciliar Catholicism was thus left with two distinct views of vocation: a narrow vision that equates God’s call with a static state of life and a vision of vocation so broad that it is practically equivalent to discipleship. The two sit alongside each other, and lay ecclesial ministers are caught in the middle. It was precisely the difficulty of negotiating this middle ground that caused the bishops so many problems.
What might have helped them speak more confidently about the vocation to lay ecclesial ministry is greater attention to the role of the community in the vocational process. What is needed is a more thoroughly ecclesial understanding of call. But getting there means confronting the legacy of that other Reformation giant, John Calvin.
In working out his views on predestination, Calvin distinguished between a “general calling,” which anyone could hear through the preaching of the church, and a “special calling,” heard only in the hearts of the elect. Calvin was the first to separate in a systematic way the inner call of God from the external call of the church. But he was far from the last to promote the interiorization of God’s call.
What Calvin judiciously articulated, the Catholic piety of the Baroque shamelessly celebrated. Vocation became an inward supernatural experience—one deeply felt, heroically embraced and subsequently channeled to some dramatic mission or ministry. The peculiarly modern distinction between internal and external vocation would take the form in papal teaching (particularly Pius XII’s 1956 apostolic constitution Sedes Sapientiae) that God moves first in the heart of an individual and only then through the church’s leadership, which verifies externally the internal call. The role of the church, and of other people in general, thus became secondary to the primary inner experience of the individual.
It is true that God’s call is radically personal. Vocation is, after all, God’s call to me. It is the presence and direction of God to my unique personality, my history and my life. But any experience of call, no matter how powerful in the life of an individual, always comes to that person through other people—parents and mentors, pastors and teachers, prophets and friends. Vocation is God’s call to me through others, and ultimately for others.
The Church Calls
The church does not simply confirm a call already received; the church itself does the calling. John Paul II described the church as a mystery of vocation (mysterium vocationis). Its very name, ecclesia, means the “assembly of those who have been called” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, No. 34). But this assembly is itself an agent of God’s call. John Paul lamented the tendency to view the bond between human beings and God in an individualistic and self-centered way, to imagine God’s call reaching the individual by a direct route, “without in any way passing through the community” (No. 37).
God calls through the church. But there lies the rub. What is meant here by “church”? Some church leaders reduce the ecclesial dimension of vocation to the role of the hierarchy in calling forth ministers. They argue that women expressing an attraction to and aptitude for diaconal ministries have no vocation because they have not been officially called by the church’s pastors. Or they claim that the director of religious education and the lay pastoral associate only truly become ministers when they are commissioned by the pastor or bishop. (As one bishop put it, “Men present themselves to me saying they have a vocation, but they don’t have a vocation until I call them to the priesthood.”) Such assertions of hierarchical authority become distorted when they are separated from a comprehensive ecclesiology that acknowledges the many agents of God’s call. It is here that the lived experiences of lay ecclesial ministers offer some insight.
Lay ecclesial ministers have been called by the church in the best sense. Theirs has not been the traditional vocation, that is, a call discerned in the soul, verified by appropriate hierarchical authority and directed to an established state of life or role in the church. While no particular life tells the whole story, the history of the rise of lay ecclesial ministry illustrates a complex process of call, one in which Christ’s Spirit has been active in various places within the community as a whole. This ecclesial call can be heard in the words of the Second Vatican Council affirming the baptismal dignity of the people of God; it can be heard in the lives of individuals responding to needs and seeking out ways to participate; it can be heard in colleges and schools developing programs for lay ministry formation; it can be heard in pastors and other leaders inviting and encouraging new roles on the parish staff; it can be heard in parishioners and whole communities welcoming lay ecclesial ministers into their midst; and it can be heard in the affirming words and the modest proposals of Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord.
The church in the United States is witnessing not just the birth of a new vocation in ministry. It is witnessing the emergence of a new process for calling people to ministry.
Once we recognize that God calls individuals through the community, we can see in the story of lay ecclesial ministry the community actively calling through the voices of many members. To move forward in our theology of vocation will require imagining a new and active ecclesiology, one in which the church is not just the assembly of those called but the company of those who call.