Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Bishops on Lay Ministry: Behind the Curve
I hear a few bishops fussing about what to call lay ministers. Speaking of lay people as "ministers" "causes confusion" some say. Right. I've never been in a parish where there was any doubt about the lay, the ordained, who's doing meaningful service, who's not, and who's in charge at Mass. Certainly there are good and bad instances of sharing authority or just taking it. You don't need a salary, a ministry degree, or a title to be a terror in the parish. Lay people have a role in the mission of the Church. Vatican II said so. In the US, lay people have taught children for a century or more. Bishops and pastors relied on religious orders to provide for teachers' retirement, perhaps giving them an excuse to pay them scab wages as an embittered colleague of mine once remarked. So that's why we take a collection every December for religious retirement. There is an undercurrent of an understanding in American Catholicism: pay as little as possible to have the Church service you. I earn almost enough money to live within the boundaries of the parish I serve. So I don't think I'm overpaid by any stretch of the imagination. I enjoy what I do so I don't think working to my mid-70's will be a burden. But given the treatment of lay people cut loose after years of service with not so much as a thank you, I can't be completely sure. I do know that barring the most extreme sexual depravity, a priest has pretty much a guaranteed road to the end of life. I don't begrudge them that, nor their sponsored education, housing, servants, or cars. But. Don't presume to preach to the laity about a sense of sacrifice being lost. Because I'll just turn the page, click the back button, or run the day's music through my head while I look at the church windows. I have colleagues who sacrifice far beyond what they should have to to send their kids to Catholic schools. I knew one teacher who was the main breadwinner in his family who needed to supplement his income with farm work during the summers. When his pastor wanted to print a list of big-time donors in the bulletin, my friend suggested he consider the teachers he employed who worked at 60-70% of the wages their public school counterparts earned. My friend didn't really want the recognition. Simple gratitude would have been enough. And the recognition that the country club crowd skimming a few crumbs from the top of hefty incomes wasn't really that much of a gift, in comparison. Pastors have long been able to treat sisters like slaves, and teachers who were the second income in the family. The sisters supposedly had retirement taken care of. Ditto school teachers, unless their husbands had benefits with Enron or some such outfit. I suspect that more lay people employed by the Church will be wanting and needing retirement benefits. The Church should give them, and give gladly. In situations where they are not given and given gladly, it will be a clear instance of the Church falling to the moral level of the culture: getting as much as possible for as little investment as possible. Maximizing returns, in other words. Personally, I couldn't care less about titles, certificates, and the like. I treasure my grad school diploma because it was an academic achievement and for the experiences and education that lie behind it. I serve the Church because I was called to do so. A hundred years ago I might have been a priest. (More likely, I would never have had the opportunity to go to Catholic school before I was baptized, and therefore never become a Catholic to begin with.) When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I knew I hardly had the maturity to go that route. There was a gap of about seven years between my graduation and my engagement in which I might well have been recruited by a priest or religious order. But guess what? Nobody ever asked. Not one. Bishops and priests can't even get their own tradition straightened out, and they presume to have some answers on lay ministers? Well, maybe they do. I could be surprised. But unless they start looking at the bigger picture, I have a sense there's going to be lots more groping around in the dark before they get a clue. I will read their document with interest when it comes out. But I will have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a first baby step, and far from a settled issue.

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