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Parish Ministry Today
We're All in It Together

adapted from Cardinal Roger Mahony's
pastoral letter on ministry

While the number of priests is declining and their average age rising, the number of Catholics is increasing. The gifts of the lay faithful have been flourishing in unprecedented numbers and in wondrous ways. As the priests continue to explore different understandings and models of ministry, there is a deepening awareness that even as we are faced with a shortage of priestly and religious vocations, we are being invited to a deeper understanding of the nature of the Christian vocation. We all are gaining a fuller appreciation of ministry, both ordained and nonordained. The Holy Spirit is leading us toward new horizons.

Given these circumstances, mere adjustment and small shifts in practice will not suffice. We need a major reorientation in our thinking about ministry as well as in our ministerial practice. We can start by making four important points.

First, we must recognize that lay ministry rooted in the priesthood of the baptized is not a stopgap measure. Even if seminaries were once again filled to overflowing and convents packed with sisters, our problems would not be solved. We would still need to cultivate, develop and sustain the full flourishing of ministries that we have witnessed in the Church since the Second Vatican Council. In the wake of the Council, we now have a clearer recognition that it is in the nature of the Church to be endowed with many gifts. These many gifts are the basis for the vocations to the priesthood, the diaconate and the religious life, as well as for the many ministries rooted in the call of Baptism.

Second, there is a pressing need for greater collaboration and inclusivity in ministry in the Church of the new millennium. While collaboration is to be a hallmark of the ministry shared among the priests themselves, as well as between the bishop and his priests, we need to develop a deeper understanding of collaboration between the ministries of the ordained and of the nonordained.

Third, there is a need for a clear understanding of the nature of lay ecclesial ministry on the part of both the baptized and those who have received the sacrament of Holy Orders.

Fourth, there is a need for a common foundational theology as the basis for formation of seminarians, deacons, religious and laypersons for ministry. Training in collaboration needs to become more a part of formation for ordination, so that one and all can exercise their ministry in a collaborative fashion.

During recent Priests' Assemblies in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, we priests and their archbishop together wrote a pastoral letter on ministry, articulating a clear vision of ministries, ordained and nonordained. We invited local communities, moreover, to begin to plan for the future of ministry in our archdiocese. We sought and received guidance from individuals, parishes and other constituencies throughout our archdiocese. We invite Catholics everywhere to share in our journey towards a more collaborative ministry.

Christ, the servant

The title of our pastoral letter, "As I Have Done for You," comes from the Gospel of John. After washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus tells them: "As I have done for you, you should do also" (John 13:15). It expresses the conviction that all ministry in the Church, ordained and nonordained, is rooted in Christ the Servant.

This pastoral letter appears in the course of an ongoing dialogue on ministry in tomorrow's Church. It is intended as a signpost along the way, as we move together to be and to build the Body of Christ. In spelling out this vision of ministries, ordained and nonordained, I call upon the whole Church of Los Angeles—indeed, Catholics everywhere—to think and to plan for appropriate ways to meet the changing needs of the Church.

This letter is intended, then, as a tool for reshaping the ministerial structures of the local Church in a way that is both more collaborative and more attentive to the diversity of cultures in our society. No less will do if we are to remain faithful to our vocation as a Catholic people: to be a sacrament of the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God, in our own time and place.

The Second Vatican Council reminded us in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) that it is in the nature of the Church to be a light to all nations. In responding to this gift and task, a clearer understanding of ministries ordained and nonordained in this new millennium is required, not merely desirable.

A share in one priesthood

The shortage of priestly and religious vocations has awakened in us an appreciation of a broadly based shared ministry. We realize more that it is in the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ to be endowed with many gifts, ministries and offices. What some refer to as a "vocations crisis" is, rather, one of the many fruits of the Second Vatican Council. It is a sign of God's deep love for the Church, and an invitation to a more creative and effective ordering of gifts and energy in the Body of Christ. This is a time of great challenge and opportunity in the Church, not least of all because the gifts of the lay faithful have been flourishing in unprecedented numbers and in unforeseen ways.

Following the Second Vatican Council there has been a rediscovery in Catholic theology of Baptism as the foundational sacrament of ministry. We now share a clearer recognition that ministry is not just for the ordained. The Council related the baptismal call, the ministry of the baptized and the office of the ordained to the mystery of Christ and found in each a reflection of the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest and king (see box on p. 4).

All ministry, be it the ministry of the baptized or of the ordained, is to be understood in relation to the community of the Church which expresses and receives its identity as the Body of Christ in word and sacrament. All ministry is for the service of the Church and the wider world, a participation in the ministry of Christ the Servant who, after washing the feet of his disciples urges them, and us, one and all: "As I have done for you, you should do also" (John 13:15).

The Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) calls us to an awareness of the one priesthood of Christ into which we are initiated through Baptism. Both ordained and baptismal priesthoods share in this one priesthood. The laity as well as the ordained participate in the threefold office of Christ the prophet, priest and king.

Vatican II's theology of the laity is rooted in an understanding of the Church as the People of God, in the universal call to holiness and in an appreciation of the diversity of the nature of the Church (Lumen Gentium #4).

The common priesthood of the faithful and the ordained priesthood are of different kinds. But because the ordained priesthood and the priesthood of the faithful are nonetheless interrelated (#10), clearly laypeople share in the Church's saving mission through Baptism, Confirmation and the ongoing celebration of the Eucharist. Thus with the Second Vatican Council there is a restoration of the baptismal dignity of the laity, an emerging recognition of Baptism as the basis and foundation of all ministry, and a fuller realization that ministry is not exercised only by the ordained.

Scripture tells us that ministry is rooted in the charisms given by the Spirit in Baptism: "There are different kinds of gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit" (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).

Lay ecclesial ministry

In our own day, in addition to the call to the office of bishop, presbyter or deacon, and the vocation to the consecrated religious life, some laypersons are called to "lay ecclesial ministry," a vocation of full-time Church service in response to the needs of each local community. This must be distinguished from the vocation of all the baptized to advance the Reign of God through their commitments to marriage and family, workplace and social responsibility.

It must also be distinguished from the many other lay ministries that flourish in the Church for the building up of the Church and the transformation of the world. Within the context of the common call to service which is given to all the baptized, "lay ecclesial ministry" refers to professionally trained or otherwise properly prepared women and men, including vowed religious, who are in positions of service and leadership in the Church.

This is a unique vocation in the Church, a call to service in the name of the Church. "Lay ecclesial ministry" does not describe one kind of service or work, but refers to the ministries of committed persons, women and men, married or single, which are exercised in a stable, public, recognized and authorized way.

This is Church ministry in the strict and formal sense. It emerges from a personal call, requires appropriate formation and is undertaken with both the support and the authorization of competent Church authority. Lay ecclesial ministers serve in such capacities as pastoral associate, parish business manager, director of religious education, catechist, director of the RCIA program, youth/young adult minister or coordinator of liturgy.

The vocation to lay ecclesial ministry calls for greater attention and support in the Church today, even as we recognize the inestimable value of the foundational vocation of the baptized in general.

Whatever the vocation or ministry, ordained or nonordained, each and every one is an expression of the threefold mission of every baptized Christian: prophet, priest and king. We do this according to the gifts, the charisms we have received in Baptism. These differ. But whatever we do, we do it in the name of the Lord in the power of the Spirit for the building of the Body of Christ and the transformation of the wider world.

Ordained priesthood

Priestly identity can only be discerned within priestly relationships—with Christ, with the priestly People of God, with the bishop and other priests. The purpose of priestly ordination is to call forth and serve the priesthood of the whole Church, the entire Body. The ordained priesthood is not only a ministry for the Church on behalf of Christ, but also a ministry done with a priestly people (LG #10). Although the notion of the priesthood of the community is older than the concept of an ordained ministerial priesthood (1 Peter 2:5-9), the Church very early recognized the consecrated ministry of those who are called uniquely to the service of God's priestly people.

The priest both engages the priesthood of the faithful and represents the priesthood of Christ to the priestly people. This the priest does principally through preparing the People of God to celebrate the Eucharist and by presiding over the eucharistic celebration. The priest also does this as one whose life, by a unique and permanent sacramental character, is ordered to prayer, witness and service in the name of and on behalf of the whole Church.

Diakonia is so central to the life of the Church that it is singled out and sacramentalized in diaconal ordination. The ordained deacon signifies in his person the unique charism of service in and for the Church. Deacons serve the Church by assisting bishops and priests. Through ordination deacons participate in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, but they do not share in the ministerial priesthood itself (LG #29). Nonetheless they express in a most visible way the character of the Church as servant.

Baptismal priesthood: an abundance of gifts

Ministry both ordained and nonordained, rooted in the gifts of the Spirit given in Baptism, is a share in the anointing of Christ as prophet, priest and king in the waters of the Jordan (Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22; Jn 1:29-34). Baptized at the hands of John the Baptist, Jesus the Christ is impelled by the Spirit into the wilderness to be a witness to the glory of God the Father. His whole life was given to worship of the Father through the service of self-sacrificial love.

Brought into being through Baptism, the Christian community is formed in and through the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). It becomes the Body of Christ who is priest, and it joins itself to Christ the priest in his return to the Father in his self-offering. Thereby it becomes a priestly community endowed with the flourishing of gifts. These gifts empower us to sanctify and evangelize the world (1 Peter 2:9).

All Christians are configured to Christ through Baptism. That is the sacrament by which the new People of God are incorporated into the Church, participate in Christ's death and resurrection, and assume the name "Christian." All Christians are called to a life of discipleship and have the obligation of extending his work and presence in the world today, advancing the Reign of God in our own time and place. All share in the one same vocation—to be and to build the Body of Christ, building up the Kingdom of God here and now.

It is in the Church, at this time and in this place, that the presence of Christ—the one who witnessed, worshiped and, above all, served—continues. And it is through witness, worship and service that the Church continually expresses and receives its identity as the Body of Christ.

Called in many ways

The baptized are called to share in the Church's mission through mutual service (diakonia), through a life of worship (leitourgia/koinonia), and through witness (marturia) to the gospel by holiness of life. These are the hallmarks of Christian living. The manner and degree of engagement in this common call differ, depending on the gifts and ministries given by the Spirit: "And the gifts are given so that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers" (Ephesians 4:11).

Most laypersons are called to transform the world by living out their baptismal vocation, being and becoming the Body of Christ in the world, advancing the Kingdom of God amidst the pressing demands of marriage, family, school and workplace.

The baptized also witness to the light and love of Christ through many ways. They witness through all forms of prophetic utterance, through teaching, through the ministry of catechesis, through theological reflection by which they seek to probe the riches of the Word and the Christian tradition. They witness also through participating in the Church's evangelical mission, sometimes being sent from home and country as heralds and servants of the Good News in other lands.

The baptized worship God in spirit and in truth through full, conscious and active participation in the Sunday liturgy. This participation is aided through the proclamation of the Word in word and in deed, through the liturgical ministries of lector, musician or eucharistic minister, through the many other ministries which serve to animate the community gathered for prayer.

The baptized serve God through administration, feeding the hungry, caring for the needs of the sick, working for justice, washing the feet of the homeless, safeguarding and protecting the rights of the last, the littlest and the least, giving the Body and Blood of Christ to those gathered at the Table of the Lord, and bringing this Holy Communion to those who are sick at home or in the hospital.

In all these ways and more, the gifts of the Christian people for witness, worship and service are being shared for the greater glory of God in a community of faith, hope and love.

This adaptation of "As I Have Done for You: A Pastoral Letter on Ministry," by Cardinal Roger Mahony and the priests of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is not meant to substitute for the entire bilingual (Spanish and English) document, which can be ordered in booklet form from Liturgy Training Publications, 1-800-933-1800, or found on the Internet at www.la-archdiocese.org. The document includes discussion exercises.


Prophet, Priest and King

In its teaching regarding the Church as a whole, the hierarchy and the laity, Vatican Council II frequently divides its considerations under three headings, according to what traditional theology has recognized as the threefold office of Christ. Christ, according to this conception, may be viewed as prophet, priest and king. Those who have authority in the Church must carry on his work by the three functions of teaching, sanctifying and governing the People of God.

The Church as a whole, including the laity, has a total task which may suitably be summarized under the three captions of witness, ministry and fellowship. These last three terms are strongly biblical; they appear in the Greek New Testament as martyrion, diakonia and koinonia.

from The Church, Introduction, by Avery Dulles, S.J., in The Documents of Vatican II, Walter M. Abbott, S.J., general editor (The American Press, 1966)


Next: In Search of the Real Mary (by Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J.)


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