No Collar Needed

More churches welcome the laity to the pulpit

| November-December 1995

In cartoons, the Roman Catholic Church is easy to symbolize: a clerical collar, an outdated nun’s habit, or one of those tall pointed bishop’s hats. But in the real-life practice of Roman Catholic parishes, the trappings of clericalism are increasingly rare and irrelevant. Volunteers for the celibate male priesthood are fewer, and the number of religious sisters is dwindling.

The independent weekly National Catholic Reporter (June 2, 1995) notes in an editorial that the person in the pulpit or the church office today may be a trained, professional “lay minister.” According to the New York-based Pastoral Life Center, about 20,000 lay Catholics now do jobs that in the past were done by priests. “Laypeople now lead about 300 parishes where there are no priests,” NCR reports.

Lay ministry is a rapidly accelerating phenomenon. In 1986 there were 1,043 lay missionaries serving the Catholic Church. Five years later there were 7,029. And more lay ministers are in the pipeline, NCR says. A limited study by the New Orleans-based Loyola Institute of Ministries, released this spring, found 6,000 Catholic laypeople enrolled in graduate schools for ministry training. This is double the current number of seminarians training for the priesthood.

The NCR editors write that while the media, themselves included, judge church life by “the latest theological squabble [or] clergy scandal . . . the real measure of church life is the vitality of laypeople living out their faith.” They conclude that the shift toward the laity represents “a fundamental change in Catholic culture.”

The Jesuits agree. Initiatives (Summer 1995), the publication of the National Center for the Laity, reports that the Society of Jesus declared that “the church of the next millennium will be the church of the laity” in a document that emerged from the Jesuits’ 34th General Congregation, held in Rome earlier this year. According to Initiatives, the document was originally meant to examine how the laity could support and assist the Jesuits but ultimately urged “a genuine partnership” between the Jesuit priesthood and an empowered laity. As one Jesuit participant said, the final document encourages collaboration “so that the mission of the laity may be advanced.”

In recent decades the Jesuits have led the Catholic Church in adapting the Gospel to non-European cultures and in action for social justice. This prophetic history makes their acceptance of a declericalized vision of the church especially noteworthy.

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