In cartoons, the Roman Catholic Church is easy to symbolize: a clerical collar, an outdated nun’s habit, or one of those tall pointed bishop’s hats.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.
The trend toward an expanded role for the laity can be seen in other mainstream churches, too. In The Lutheran (June 1995) Lyn Klug and Stephen B. Bouman write that 11 synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America now run theological education programs that train laypeople to meet ministry needs that “simply can’t be met by pastors and other church workers.”
Among the lay ministers profiled in The Lutheran are a registered nurse who hopes to work as a nursing home chaplain, a lawyer who serves at a South Bronx shelter for homeless men, and a computer store employee who handles administration for her parish. Another lay trainee, Peter Rupp, is preparing for full-time church work when he retires. Rupp notes that his theological training has already deepened his spirituality. “I’ve become much more aware of God’s working in my life,” he says. He tells of a day when he “felt more and more uneasy” at his desk. “I finally got up and started walking around the plant. Three people needed to talk over some personal or health issues.”
An injection of spiritual sensitivity and compassion into the everyday worlds of work and family life could have an impact far beyond church institutions. Mary F. Rousseau, writing in The New Oxford Review (June 1995), sees that as the main reason to talk about a “millennium of the laity.” Rousseau takes many of her cues from Pope John Paul II’s 1991 statement titled The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People, and her essay includes more explication of the pope’s “Thomistic personalism” than the average reader, Catholic or not, is prepared to handle. Many will also find her traditional sexual morality off-putting. But Rousseau does illuminate in stirring terms the spiritual significance, and transforming potential, of our ordinary, everyday lives.
Calling for a “sanctification of the laity,” Rousseau writes that the unique vocation of the Christian laity is to bring “self-giving love” into “the realm of ‘worldly’ life.” It begins with love between marriage partners and enters society via the love parents give to their children. She points out that many of her students are cynical about love and altruism because they have seen no evidence in their young lives that love is real and dependable. If love is only an abstraction, she notes, then one is left with an ethic of “self-seeking” instead of “self-giving.”
On the other hand, Rousseau writes, “a single act of love for anyone—a grocery clerk, a newsboy, a customer—radiates outward like ripples of a stone tossed into a pond . . . The ripples of love could gradually turn this global village of ours into a civilization of love.”