Ministry in a changing Church

Feature October 2013 Joe Green and Debbie Matheson More than ever before the Church is encouraging lay people to exercise the kingly, prophetic and priestly roles that are ours through…


October 2013

Joe Green and Debbie Matheson

More than ever before the Church is encouraging lay people to exercise the kingly, prophetic and priestly roles that are ours through baptism alongside and complementary to the unique and essential role of the priest.

The role of the laity in the Catholic Church has changed dramatically since Vatican II 1962-1965. This is mainly due to a changed emphasis in what it means to be ‘Church’ rather than to dwindling numbers of priests and religious. The focus has shifted from the Church as a hierarchical institution to Church as community (‘communio’ in Latin).

Viewing Church as ‘communio’ is to see the Church as, in the words of Pope John Paul II, a Community of Disciples. Were it not for this community of disciples, reaching back in time, we would have no scripture, no sacraments, nor any other means of access to Jesus himself. This understanding of Church expresses both the sharing of believers in Christ and the bond that unites people within Christian communities.

Cardinal Tom Williams describes the essential nature of the Church as parish, prayer group or organisation, as ‘mission, to be God’s loving outreach to the world’. Being ‘Church’ therefore is our call to participate in God’s mission, in bringing about God’s reign.

Authentic ministry, ordained or lay, will be a public action on behalf of a Christian community, gifted by the Holy Spirit and offering diverse services for the Kingdom of God. Jesus calls us to be servants to one another (Mt 23:11). This means hearing our call to mission alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Given the change in understanding of what it means to be ‘Church’, it is important to identify the different roles of ordained and lay ministry in the Church’s one mission.

Each is based on ‘giftedness’ and all come together in a collaborative effort to accomplish the mission of Jesus Christ. Archbishop John Dew’s recent use of the term ‘co-responsible’ in place of ‘collaboration’ strengthens the requirement for lay and ordained ministries to work together. ‘The apostolate of the laity and the pastoral (ordained) ministry are mutually complementary’ (Vatican II, Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem #6).

Vatican II places lay ministry within both the Church (spiritual) and the temporal, secular world. Renewal of the secular world is the special obligation of the laity. The lay apostolate encompasses myriad ministries within small groups, the parish, diocese, wider Church and the world. The apostolate of the laity is almost without boundaries as long as it is for the common good of the Church and within doctrine and order. Canon Law empowers the bishop to entrust to the laity certain functions which are more closely connected with what have historically been considered pastoral duties assigned to a priest – the formation that prepares lay people for this in the archdiocese is Launch Out. However, lay pastoral leaders do not replace priests.

Apostolicam Actuositatem identifies the central functions of the ordained ministry as to proclaim the Gospel, administer the sacraments, pray the Divine Office, exercise the authority of the bishop, build up the Church community, be pastor – care for the Christian community and encourage other ordained ministers. So the priest feeds and nourishes the spirituality of the faith community, encouraging and empowering us to share our gifts and talents for the common good. This enables the church to serve and speak the grace of the kingdom of God – to bring about God’s reign.

Vatican II charges lay people with helping the priests by prayer and work so that they might be able to fulfil their duties more fruitfully. ‘In this way the whole Church, strengthened by each of its members, may more effectively fulfil its mission for the life of the world’.

Co-responsible with each other and with our priests to bring about the Reign of God, we must identify our gifts and talents asking ourselves, ‘what of my time, talent and treasure do I make available to build the body of Christ?’

Joe Green and Debbie Matheson are in the Launch Out leadership formation programme.