During one of her frequent trips to the United States, Mother Teresa of Calcutta granted an interview to a well-known American talk show host. The host began with a friendly tribute, lauding her heralded reputation for caring for the poorest of the poor, even calling her “extraordinary” and “saintly.” It was a trap. His words of acclaim were designed to tee up his first question, a whack at the church: “Now Mother, aren’t you just a little bit angry that the church isn’t with you on this? After all, aren’t you doing this work with the poor almost single-handedly?” With characteristic serenity and poise she replied, “Oh, but you see, when I do it, the church does it.” Her response left the interviewer speechless, as though the petite founder of the Missionaries of Charity had just answered him in an alien tongue.
Of course, any of us familiar with the work of religious women and men in schools, hospitals, orphanages and social services understand what Mother Teresa meant. Their work was never a personal project, nor even just an undertaking of their particular religious communities. Rather, they were the church in action, putting the church’s best foot forward, joining in the work of Christ. And in all of this, they were schooling the rest of us in what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and introducing us to a language, the language of the church, with which to speak about our lives. It was that language that left the interviewer perplexed.
Co-workers in the Vineyard
The memory of that incident flashed through my mind as I sifted through a massive amount of new data on the growth of lay ministry in the Catholic Church collected by a project called Emerging Models of Ministry. This multiyear project, funded by the Lilly Endowment, invited lay and ordained leaders to reflect on and describe the impact of what the bishops, in their document Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord (2005), call “the new realities of lay participation in Christ’s ministry.” There they note that all the baptized are called to work for the transformation of the world, and that most do so in the secular realm. Yet “lay persons are also equipped with gifts and graces to build up the church from within, in cooperation with the hierarchy and under its direction.”
Through a series of symposia, surveys and focus groups, lay women and men, as well as bishops, priests, religious, deacons and diocesan personnel, participated in a national conversation about parish life. The result is a fresh view of the new and ever-changing landscape of pastoral life in our church today. It includes both the fertile growth that comes from groundbreaking and creative approaches by gifted people, and the rugged terrain of daunting uncertainties and shifting challenges.
And yet—within this impressive panorama of new and diverse talents, innovative organizational models and developing forms of leadership—another feature of the landscape grabbed my attention that should not be overlooked if we want a complete picture of this new reality in the church. It is the new self-awareness about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus that lay ministers have gained as a result of their ministry, and the almost instinctive way these lay women and men turn to the language of the church to describe their ministry and their faith lives. This is something we have never seen before.
The Legacy of Lay Ministry
A conversation I had with an elderly grandmother illustrates my point. Mary Alice has been a commissioned lay minister for some years. I asked her to tell me in her own words what lay ministry means to her. She prefaced her remarks by noting how our belief in the resurrection of the body has been a constant source of comfort to her. The prospect of eternal life heartens her in the face of life’s trials. Yet now as she considers how lay ministry has so enriched the church, to the point that future generations will benefit from the works she and others are doing, she has come to believe with equal conviction that “something of me,” as she put it, “will also continue to live on in the church after I die, because this is Christ’s work and we believe nothing of his is ever lost. In many ways that is even more consoling, since I can see that lasting reality now.”
Mary Alice’s response is typical of the way lay men and women today are speaking about their involvement in church ministry and leadership. With unfailing consistency they unhesitatingly frame what their ministry means to them in a theological context, using the language of the church. I think this merits close attention for the insights it has to offer for understanding lay ecclesial ministry and its future development. Three are worth noting.
First, the fact that participants in the study quite naturally turned to theological language to describe what is happening in the church today should not be taken for granted. After all, there are alternatives, particularly for us who live in a culture dominated by the corporate and the political worlds. It would not be surprising, given this environment, for some to interpret the greater involvement of lay men and women in church leadership as but an adjustment by an organization lacking a sufficient number of ordained ministers. Lay ministry in such a view is the church’s fallback position, its way of filling in the gaps created by a shortage. Others might claim that this new reality is about laypeople finally asserting their rights. They would frame the new reality of lay ministry as a sociological development in which the democratic tendencies in the broader culture have finally been accepted by, or have seeped into, the church. Yet that is not what we are hearing. Instead, those involved in lay ministry repeatedly demonstrate a positive predisposition to start with the language of our faith tradition. This is significant and should be encouraged, for it can only benefit the church’s efforts to ensure, as the bishops urge in Co-Workers, that the development of lay ecclesial ministry will continue in ways that are faithful to the church’s doctrinal and theological tradition, while responding to contemporary pastoral needs and situations.
Second, lay ministers like Mary Alice are not only giving a theological framework to their ministry but also to their lives. I was struck by Mary Alice’s ability to express her awareness of the integration between her call to holiness as a disciple and her ministry of participating in the work of Christ in building up the body for the salvation of the world. Her comment that “something of me” will live on in the church because she is doing Christ’s work is remarkably close to the language we find in Paul, for instance in Gal 2:19: “The life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me. I still live my human life, but it is a life in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” It suggests that while the formation of lay ministers must begin with sound theological instruction, it does not end there. Attention must be given to helping these lay leaders develop the skills for the kind of theological reflection needed for integrating life and ministry.
Witnesses to the Faith
Finally, all of this requires us to value the contributions of lay ministers beyond the tasks they accomplish by sharing their unique talents and experiences. If part of the new reality is their ability to witness to it in the language of our faith, then we should not be surprised if in time lay ministers will complement the work of religious women and men in presenting to all the baptized what it means to be a disciple. Edward Hahnenberg of Xavier University in Cincinnati recently observed that lay ecclesial ministry is the fourth great ministerial wave in the church, following in the tradition of the monastic movement, the mendicant orders and the founding of women’s religious communities in the 19th century. It may be too early to come to a firm judgment about the historical significance of lay ecclesial ministers for the life of the church. The fact that these lay men and women describe themselves as responding to a call, however, is a hopeful sign that the Spirit of Christ is at work in this new reality.
Something new is happening here. We have not seen this before. Lay men and women are seeing their service in building the ecclesial communion as a true ministry. And they are seeing their ministry as a living, ecclesial witness. They know and experience that “when I do it, the church is doing it.”