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Elizabeth SimcoeFebruary 18, 2021

The day begins with a beautiful sunrise: pinks, purples and blues that help dispel the heaviness of our continued slogging through a Covid-19 world. As we begin to assemble for Mass, everyone comments on what they had seen. Father F says he had reoriented his chair for morning prayer so he could watch the day unfolding. God will not be outdone in generosity.

I serve this community, the Church of St. Vincent de Paul, as a parish life director, a position also known as parish life coordinator, which is a lay leader of a parish under the norms of Canon 517.2: “The diocesan bishop [may decide] that participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish [may be] entrusted to a deacon, to another person who is not a priest or to a community of persons.”

After the first Mass of the day, Terrence and Davion, regulars at the parish, wait at the entrance to ask for help: a grocery store gift card for Terrence and the same, plus a one-day bus pass, for Davion. But Davion had an additional problem: a swollen face and an emergency room report with a prescription for antibiotics. “I don’t know how I am going to pay for this,” he says. “It costs $40.”

We are not exactly sure what Davion’s living arrangements are. I suspect that his one-day bus passes are used not so much to take him from one place to another as they are a way for him to stay safe and out of the cold.

I tell Davion I would think about how to deal with the prescription. I don’t like to give cash. I try to call the pharmacy to pay for it by credit card but become lost in a purgatory of voice mail prompts. I ask Davion to take the scrip to the pharmacy and tell him that I will go with him to pay for it after our next and last Mass.

People begin to gather again. The liturgical coordinator confesses that she feels very safe with our Covid-19 protocols but comes to church only when she has an assignment. “It’s just not the same without all the people.” I nod. I know what she means.

Is it possible that the Holy Spirit is inviting the church to expand the areas of ministry of those who belong to the priesthood of the baptized?

This Mass takes place without any untoward moments. Father F’s self-deprecating humor in the homily hits home with the assembly, bringing them into his faith journey and inviting them to deepen theirs. After Mass, he and I consult on how the news of his cancer diagnosis and impending surgery will be shared with the community. How do we encourage prayerful support without exposing too much personal information?

Father F is much appreciated by the community. Having retired from diocesan ministry and pastoring one of the largest parishes in our diocese, he brings a wealth of experience and insight into what it means to follow the disciple’s path. When the toilet is plugged up, the elevator stops working or only one altar server shows up, he turns to me and says, “This is why I am glad you are in charge.”

Bishop Howard J. Hubbard initiated the ministry of the parish life director in the Albany Diocese in the 1980s, providing particularly for rural communities. The first parish life directors were vowed religious. A neighboring priest would celebrate Mass and the sacraments.

Eventually, it came to be seen that urban and suburban parishes could be led through this model. Many priests were retiring from their roles as pastors but still wanted to serve in ministry. They did not want the headaches of administration nor did they want to be “road warriors,” traveling the highways of the diocese to assist in an ad hoc way with the sacramental life of communities. Parish life directors could lead parishes in collaboration with these retired priests or priests with a diocesan leadership assignment. Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, Bishop Hubbard’s successor, has continued to make these appointments.

The job description is included in the guidelines from the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators, which are used throughout the United States. In the Albany Diocese, a parish life director’s background is expected to include advanced theological education and parish administrative experience. Relevant experience might include having worked as a faith formation director, for example.

None of the aspects of ministry performed on this particular Sunday that I described—assisting the poor, supporting liturgical ministers, ensuring the smooth celebration of the liturgy and providing for the well-being of the congregation—require the faculties given through ordination, but they do require leadership abilities.

I see myself as an orchestra conductor, helping all these fine musicians create a beautiful symphonic piece, our parish, in service to the people of God.

When St. Paul traveled around the Mediterranean basin establishing faith communities—churches—he entrusted them to various leaders: Nympha, Stephanus, Aquila and Priscilla, for example. The notion of the priesthood as we see it today had not yet developed. With ever-declining numbers of ordained clergy to lead parishes, is it possible that the Holy Spirit is inviting the church to expand the areas of ministry of those who belong to the priesthood of the baptized?

During the week, I collaborate with staff members on plans for faith formation programs, communications to and with the parish, allocation of funds, preparations for future liturgical celebrations and maintaining our level of service to our elderly and homebound and the poor in our neighborhood. I meet with parishioners for spiritual counseling or just to chat. Periodically, I meet with the Pastoral and Stewardship Councils and attend Adult Faith Formation committee meetings,team meetings and sessions for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. It is a very full plate. Mostly, I see myself as an orchestra conductor, helping all these fine musicians create a beautiful symphonic piece, our parish, in service to the people of God.

Returning to that particular Sunday, when the last Mass had ended, Phillip wanted to talk with me about finding a place for his grandson to live. His grandson has a low-paying job and has been sleeping on friends’ couches. Phillip and his wife live in senior housing and cannot take him in. “Does Catholic Charities have anything?” he asks. I am not hopeful but say I will think about what might be available. I ask him to ask his grandson to give me a call.

Davion is waiting for me while I tidy up and confer with the parishioner who is leading a physically distanced art program about the plan for securing the building when they are done.

Davion and I drive to the pharmacy and walk together to the service counter. He starts to ask for his prescription and the clerk brushes him off, turning her attention to me. Davion is African-American; my ancestry is European. I explain to the clerk that I am paying for Davion’s prescription. Her focus returns to Davion to get his birthdate. Speaking again to me, she calls me “Hon” and “Dear.” There is so much work to be done in this world.

Getting into the car, I look down at the receipt I will turn in to our bookkeeper. I had not known what Davion’s last name was but now I see it on the prescription form: “Shepherd.” Matthew 25 comes to mind and I whisper a prayer.

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