The time is ripe for lay ministry, Audrey Turner tells us
"SAINTS". "People of God". "A Royal Priesthood". "The Faithful" — all titles of groups in the Church? No — just synonyms for all those who share a common Baptism — be they priest, laywoman, bishop, layman, Religious — which does indeed make us all one.
What does distinguish between the members of the Church are their respective vocations, their distinctive styles of life relevant to these vocations.
We all have a ministerial vocation, but "the role of the clergy in the Church is welldelineated in history and in law. Less well understood is the role of the lay person." We hear numerous sermons aimed at increasing vocations to the priesthood and the religious life but not so many elucidating vocations in the lay ministry, thus emphasising a divisive elitism which is not concordant with the picture of the early Church as portrayed by St Paul in his epistles (cf. Ephesians 4:11-16, 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, Romans 12:12-30).
To St Paul, all the saints were equal members of the Church, which he portrayed, in his first letter to the church in Corinth (12:12-30) as analogous to a body, and "Christ is the head of the Church and saves the whole body" (Ephesians 5:23).
In the Church of to-day, the picture seems to have lost its clarity of focus, with the consequence that it is, sadly, necessary to have as the next Synod topic "The Vocation and Mission of the Laity in the World". The body of the Church has become rather like one of those puppet skeletons which disintegrate in all directions to the far end of their strings — all there, but not connected.
Will the Synod bring a return to our roots? If you don't prune a rose, in each succeeding year the blooms, as they grow farther from the rootstock, become smaller and less fruitful, and the stems become weak; insufficient pruning only postpones the weakening.
But — how will the laity respond?
While in some parishes there are people anxious to help in the ministry of this apostolic and evangelical Church of ours, it must be said that there are also parishes where the response of the laity to requests for lay ministers is disheartening for the parish priest in its paucity. One of the difficulties may be the dearth of definitive definitions of the term "lay minister": in one parish someone may be designated a lay minister while in the next parish someone else doing the same thing is not.
It is confusing that some of the formal ministries require commissioning, while others do not; that the requirements for selection of Special Ministers of the Eucharist differ between the dioceses; and that, because some of the ministries, such as Reader (Lector) are numbered among the preliminary Orders of the Priesthood, a man may be commissioned, a woman doing exactly the same thing may not.
We are most of us familiar with the ministers who assist in the liturgy, listed, with their job descriptions, in the chapter on Functions and Ministers in "The Parish Mass" (C.T.S. 1981). Here again, parishes vary, not always due to their differing requirements: prejudices exist among the clergy and laity, as some of the permitted duties are considered to be prerequisite of the clergy, and somehow invalid if undertaken by a non-clerical person.
It would seem that there has been insufficient education, explanation, which would enable acceptance and implementation. But it is not only the laity who do not understand; and it seems strange not to consult the laity who are after all, the experts at being the laity.
Ministerial Formation should not be thought of as only relevant to the clergy; if a layperson is a minister, then they should expect to have to give up some time to their formation, because Paul saw that "the saints together make a unity in the work of service . . . to come to unity in our faith and knowledge of the Son of God . . . until we become fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself."
Those engaged in the lay ministry of the parental apostolate, as they teach and train their children, learn this; those engaged in the ministry of prayer for the church as they lie sick, or are housebound, know this; those who live their vocation of marriage know this; those who are catechists . . .
We live in a missionary country; a country which in more recent history, demanded that its Catholics, if they cherished their Faith at all, should cherish it in either secrecy or privacy. Now the Spirit has blown away those cobwebs and revealed — what?
A Church with answers for a searching, needful world, but a Church whose body has members which have pins and needles and cramp and galloping atrophy through lack of use, who are, nevertheless, part of that body, and essential; for whom there is a place, and work.
To bring God to a soulstarving world the body must be
Seen to be whole and healthy if the seekers are to trust the hands which are held out to them. 'Many hands make light work' — and what else will the coming Synod be but a call to the laity to return to their rightful ministry, their apostolate in a world which is their milieu? For too long we have maintained our sin of omission, content to let our bishops, priests, and Religious struggle to support our resting Faith.
Well, we've had a good rest; it's time we took up our appointed place again, and supported the overworked parts. It won't always be easy; as any physiologist will tell us, if one part of a body doesn't work well, another part overdevelops, to compensate. And an underworked part needs to start again gently.
So next time Father asks for a lay minister, let us ask "Why not me?" instead of "Why me?": Christ would have stayed thirsty in Samaria if the woman there by the well had been reluctant.
St Paul went on to say that "so the body grows until it has built itself up, in love-. Christ, the Prince of Peace, left us a legacy, his Church, so it must grow in his essence; we must all of us, priest or lay, live our ministries with a caring sensitivity of the value of our companions — if one hand cuts the wrist of the other, the body loses life.