Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Lay ecclesial ministers flourishing throughout parishes

Sid Dumuk got Sunday Mass rolling, instructing worshipers to greet their neighbors before singing the entrance procession.

Then Steve Armatis read from the Old Testament, Mary Webb from the New Testament, and the Rev. Art Willie gave the Gospel according to Luke.

Later, 14 people in khakis and skirts fanned out across the church offering communion wafers and wine.

All told, about 20 people actively led Mass that crisp Sunday morning at St. Maria Goretti's parish in San Jose - and only one of them was a Roman Catholic priest.

Lay ecclesial ministers are flourishing throughout Catholic parishes, and the change is transforming the church. Where priests were once the unquestioned authority over nearly every aspect of parish life, today the laity plays an increasingly powerful role.

At St. Maria Goretti, lay leaders hold catechism weekday afternoons in the small classrooms lining the church grounds. They prep fiances for their marriage vows and adults for baptism.

They decide the Sunday worship music and visit the sick, bringing along consecrated wafers for communion. And once every month, a council of lay leaders gathers in the parish hall to set the congregation's agenda.

"It's our church, our church, " said Webb, who attends Mass six days a week. "I look at it this way: We're here. The priests move on."

Like so many changes to the Catholic Church, this one has its roots in the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

Catholics returned to the practices of the early church, where all the baptized - not just the clergy - were responsible for the life of the church.

Many priests and parishioners support the rise in lay leadership, said Zeni Fox, a pastoral theology professor at Seton Hall University's Immaculate Conception Seminary.

But, she said, there are times that people prefer to see a priest - for example, when they're in their hospital beds.

Still, some clergy members fear the trend could have unintentional ramifications.

"There are bishops who think the term 'ministry' should not be applied," said Fox, who had consulted U.S. bishops on lay leadership. "There are people who think honoring this ministry would further diminish people going into priesthood."

Currently there are about 42,300 priests in the United States - a decrease of 15 percent since the mid-1990s. In contrast, the number of lay ministers who work at least 20 hours a week has grown 5 percent since 1997, to 30,632. And tens of thousands more volunteer less time.

To accommodate the burgeoning ranks of lay leaders, the Diocese of San Jose created the Council of Lay Ecclesial Ministers in 2006 - a counterpart to the council of priests. And since lay leaders don't have the seminary training that priests enjoy, the diocese also created a program in 1997 to give them a foundation in scripture, ministry and social justice.

So far, 423 people have graduated from the three-year Institute for Leadership in Ministry in Santa Clara even though such training is not required to be a lay leader. In contrast, the diocese has only 100 active priests.

One of those graduates was Maureen Ickes. Now 56, Ickes remembers when nuns taught Catholic school and only priests served communion on Sundays. But when her own daughters were young, catechism wasn't taught at a convenient time for the working mom, so she hesitantly agreed to teach it herself Thursday nights.

"I didn't think I could do it," said Ickes, who worked as an accountant at the time. "I had no formal training, so I thought: How can I do this? I was far from being a saint."

Thus began her initiation into lay leadership. She relished the work and her deepening understanding of Catholicism. She kept volunteering more hours until she was eventually hired in 2005 as St. Maria Goretti's pastoral associate for English speakers.

Her colleagues are two nuns, Sister Virginia Herrera, who works with the Spanish parishioners, and Sister Catherine Phuong Dang, who focuses on the Vietnamese. (In the Catholic hierarchy, nuns are considered part of the laity.)

As part of her duties, Ickes helps oversee St. Maria Goretti's lay leaders, whom she calls "the silent heroes of this parish." It includes 75 catechists, 225 eucharistic ministers and 20 pastoral care ministers who bring communion to the sick.

Webb, a lifelong Catholic, said it's changed the church's dynamics. "We're neighbors, we're family, we're friends. We can interact that way," said Webb, who has attended St. Maria Goretti for three decades. "The priests and the nuns - in the old days - were second only to God."

The laity's role is so strong at St. Maria Goretti that representatives gather once a month to discuss everything from church maintenance to upcoming festivals to revamping baptism preparation class.

At one meeting, Hoa Tran of San Jose worried that parents of newly baptized children didn't truly appreciate the depth of the sacrament - and their responsibility to the child's religious life. That led to conversation about whether lay leaders should compare the curriculum for all three language groups - English, Spanish and Vietnamese - to make sure they're consistent.

Throughout the meeting, Father Steven Brown wandered around the parish hall, listening in on discussions and answering questions, but not steering the conversation. He let the laity take control.

Lay leaders are a necessity for today's parish, Brown said. Though priests must read the Gospel, hear confession or consecrate elements for communion, there are still too many duties for St. Maria Goretti's four priests to handle alone. About 7,000 families attend the parish, which celebrates Mass 22 times each week.

Brown's administrative duties have increased with the changes. Still, he eventually gets pulled in.

"Even if they make a decision," Brown said, "they want to make sure the priest says it's OK."


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