As parishes in the archdiocese seek to recognise fresh ways to use their resources to better reveal Christ in their communities, the spotlight is starting to fall on lay leadership in the church.
Recent combined parish meetings have dwelt on concern for the priests’ workload and its impact on the health of those priests who are elderly and frail. This has broadened the question of how the mission can be shared more widely – co-responsibly.
The low number of priestly vocations is less a driver of increased lay leadership than Vatican II’s affirmation of St Paul and other early church leaders calling people to the priesthood of all the baptised.
As US theologian Zeni Fox said in Australia last year, lay people started taking leadership roles in the church in the mid-1960s, well before the numbers of priests started to decline.
‘The first lay directors of religious studies, youth ministers, and directors of liturgy in parishes emerged in the 1960s.
Apart from the fact of the laity’s full engagement in the life of the early church, the Second Vatican Council changed ‘our religious imaginations – the way we think about the church and ourselves in relation to it’.
Fox says the move from being passive to active workers in the life of the church is of great significance.
‘What I’ve seen since the council is this deep sense of “we are the church”.’ Fox speaks of people’s desire to mirror Jesus’ care for the poor, the sick and those otherwise afflicted as being a priority. Indeed the healing that Jesus did in the community and his feeding the multitudes were signs of what the reign of God would be like.
In choosing 12 apostles (the 12 tribes of Israel) and the disciples including women – unusual because people usually chose their rabbis rather than the other way around and women were excluded – Jesus also seemed intent on building a community structure within Judaism.
From the gospels we sense the volume of discussion that would have taken place about the sorts of communities that would comprise Church in the reign of God and how different this would be from the temporal structures in the society of the day. Fox says such discussions need to continue in today’s Church between bishops, and lay people in a spirit of mutual trust.
As well as focusing on how we can bring in more priests or encourage priestly vocations among the young, perhaps the question is ‘how can lay people be more co-responsible – take a more active share in parish and diocesan leadership?’