Thursday, 23 August 2012

Collaborative Ministry: Leaven and Sacrifice

Collaboration with the people of God has many benefits: not only does it help the people ‘own’ the Faith, but Pastoral Council’s can discern and respond to local pastoral needs; Finance Committees can help the priest make informed decisions; Catechists can relieve his workload with Marriage, Baptism and First Communion preparation, and a Secretary, a Bookkeeper and Gift Aid Organiser can relieve the burdens of administration. I personally could not manage without such collaborators.  But collaboration is not a new idea and we are wrong if we think it is: for years the SVP was the charitable arm of the Church among the local poor; the Legion of Mary a sound evangelical and pastoral arm in their door-to-door and street contact work; meanwhile, choirs and servers made the laity present in the liturgy –almost indispensably so. Today’s collaboration seems to be more a proliferation of Committees and meetings, and when this happens, at least three dangers threaten. First, the priest can lose his identity as father and shepherd; second, the people of God can be distracted from their proper vocation of being the leaven in the world, and third, we can empower the few at the expense of the many (with teachers used as Catechists; Bank workers and Business people placed on Finance Committees, and musical groups replacing large choirs). There can be little or no room left for Mr and Mrs Joe Bloggs.

I think we need to recover two core things. First, Vatican II’s clarification of the authentic lay vocation as the leaven in the world, which is reiterated in the Catechism:

940 “The characteristic of the lay state being a life led in the midst of the world and of secular affairs, lay people are called by God to make of their apostolate, through the vigour of their Christian spirit, a leaven in the world" (AA 2 § 2).
942 By virtue of their prophetic mission, lay people "are called . . . to be witnesses to Christ in all circumstances and at the very heart of the community of mankind" (GS 43 § 4).

Surprising as it may be to some, Vatican II always spoke of lay mission and never of lay ministry, this latter term being, I suggest, linked to the misimplementation of Vatican II. The Council’s vision of lay involvement is authentically re-iterated by Pope John-Paul II in Christifidelis laici 23:

exercise of such tasks does not make Pastors of the lay faithful: in fact, a person is not a minister simply in performing a task, but through sacramental ordination.....”.  

Apostolicam Actuositatem 24 is relevant here:

the hierarchy entrusts to the laity certain functions which are more closely connected with pastoral duties, such as the teaching of Christian doctrine, certain liturgical actions, and the care of souls. By virtue of this mission, the laity are fully subject to higher ecclesiastical control in the performance of this work.” 

There is a great need today to have well-informed Catholics influencing the worlds of the media, education, health care and politics. The vocation to lay mission must surely, therefore, be swiftly recovered.

Second, and essentially, we have to recover an authentic priestly identity. When a priest becomes primarily a co-ordinator of teams his self-awareness as shepherd of souls can be lost, along with his self-identification with Christ and the Mass which oblige him to be a man of self-sacrifice and pastoral action. It is all too easy to collaborate to the point he becomes more a Team Leader or religious Social Worker than a priest, and this can set up a conflict within him.

My own experience was that having set up hospital lay-ministry teams in two different assignments I began to focus on ‘facilitating and empowering’, becoming all-but a ‘parish manager’. Then, by opening the presbytery door at all hours of the day and night to the most troubled of people (in the attempt to be the ‘ever-approachable pal priest’ who was frequently seen in biker gear rather than Roman collar) I lost my self-identity as ‘priest’ –and very nearly my vocation. It was time with another priest who asked me to offer his twice-weekly Traditional Mass when he was on holiday that brought me to realise what I am, rather than simply who I am. I recovered a sense that I was not presiding at a community meal among friends when celebrating Mass, but offering up the “holy and unspotted Sacrifice” to the Merciful Father “through, with and in Christ” for “the redemption of souls and in hope of health and well-being” (Roman Canon).

Perhaps it is time for us to re-focus on what collaboration truly is: forming the people for their authentic vocation of leavening the world while assigning practical tasks within the parish, yet avoiding giving the impression that the Church is a democratic entity. It is certainly time to get back to seeing the priest as the man of Sacrifice and shepherd of souls, rather than Co-ordinator and facilitator. We must still have our lay activity, first because it is their Divine Commission, second because priests are all but impotent without them since we do not function as first-line troops in the world. Certainly the image of the priest as father for the family of God and man of sacrifice must be recovered. It is, I think, the loss of such a priestly identity that eases priests out of the priesthood, and what is left when sacrifice and fatherhood are gone is not attractive to young men who are called to be fathers and fighters for country or Faith –after all, who would give up the joys of marriage and family life to be little more that a celibate Team Leader or religious social worker..?

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