A young woman reads during Mass at St. Anne Church in Garden City, New York, in this Jan. 28, 2018, file photo. On Jan. 11, 2021, Pope Francis ordered a change to the Code of Canon Law so that women may be formally instituted as lectors and acolytes. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Co-responsibility in Action

How to empower the laity to spread the Gospel

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“Dinner on Friday?” was the email subject line between Father Andy and the parishioner who volunteered as the website and social media coordinator. They were looking forward to sharing a meal and talking about the parish communication plans. Unfortunately, this dinner never happened as just three short days later, a new email was sent with the subject line, “Immediate Update for our Website and Facebook.” It was a memo from the bishop stating that all church services were canceled until further notice. The COVID-19 pandemic had officially reached the diocese, and, as we now know, everything was going to change.

Like many churches around the world that were resiliently navigating the pandemic, the parish rapidly and successfully leaped into the digital space.

Much of this success can be attributed to Father Andy’s gift of collaborating with the laity. Father Andy moved quickly to identify and personally assemble a volunteer team with a clear task and goal — to ensure that church services were accessible to the community by Holy Week — which was less than three weeks away. Within those pivotal three weeks, there was ongoing communication between Father Andy and the team, made up of parishioners with various professional backgrounds, including communication, technology and audio.

Father Andy could bring out the best skills and expertise of the group by asking important questions like, “What do you think is the best way to do this?” and “Can you take the lead on this part?” The fruits of this collaboration were felt immediately, as the parish successfully launched a very welcomed and well-received virtual Holy Week. Despite Father Andy being transferred to a new parish, this ministry continues today.

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Examen for Collaborating with the Laity

1. Do I believe that the baptized are co-responsible for the Church’s mission? What examples in my ministry reflect this value?

2. How have I defined the role of lay ministry to lay ministers within my parish/ministry?

3. How have I defined the role of lay ministry outwardly within my community? (example: public commissioning, promoting and investing in lay formation)

4. When have I identified a unique gift of the laity and invited them into a specific project or task?

5. When have I walked with the laity in a shared ministry? What were the fruits?

6. When have I been comfortable not leading a ministry, and instead empowering a lay minister to lead instead?

7. When have I facilitated clear, timely and transparent communication with lay ministers about a shared ministry/project?

8. When have I left a ministry and it continued without my presence because of a lay minister? What helped lead to that success or failure?

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The Call of Co-responsibility

In May 2009, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the Diocese of Rome and used an interesting term. He said that the People of God are co-responsible for the mission of the Church. At the time, this word — co-responsible — sounded somewhat groundbreaking. He said that the laity and clergy are equally responsible for spreading the Gospel.

But this was not an original concept of Pope Benedict. Indeed, one just has to look at the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church from the Second Vatican Council to see that all of us, by virtue of our baptism — by virtue of our being anointed as priest, prophet and king — are called to holiness, to the prophetic mission of the Church and to act in love.

What is interesting is that the Church seems to be just now discovering this. We have heard more of this theme in the past 10 years than ever before. Pope Francis has carried on this theme in a big way, calling all to be missionary disciples.

acolyte
An acolyte holds a crucifix as he waits for the opening procession during a Mass of Ordination at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay, Wisconsin, May 21, 2017. Six men were ordained to the diaconate by Bishop David L. Ricken during the service. CNS photo/Sam Lucero, The Compass

The theme of co-responsibility is evident in his opening of the installed ministries of lector and acolyte to all the laity. It is also evident in his establishment of the newly installed ministry of catechist. While the ministries of lector and acolyte have long been steps toward ordination, now they are clearly “stand-alone” ministries of the laity with full authorization to minister in the name of the Church.

The latest effort by Pope Francis to expand the notion of co-responsibility through the synodal process is very encouraging. For the first time, the entire Church is being consulted to shape our future. Coming out of the pandemic, this couldn’t have been more timely. A great upheaval in our society and the Church has occurred these past two-and-a-half years and it is important to consider in what direction we must go to fulfill our mission.

But how has this co-responsibility played out at the local level? We have not seen a stampede of dioceses implementing the newly installed ministries. The synodal process, while less than a third of the way completed, has had an uneven response. Some dioceses seem to have embraced it fully while others gave it little notice. Even in dioceses that put processes in place to comply with the synod, some parishes seem to have completely ignored it.

Co-responsibility is not easy. It is a major change in the way the Church sees itself and requires a conscious effort on the part of Church leadership. It requires a new sense of ministerial identity for both clergy and laity.

Before Vatican II, ministry was largely the responsibility of the clergy and, to some extent, vowed religious. However, all ministerial authority and decision-making were reserved for pastors and bishops. The council changed this paradigm, and for the past 50 years the Church has been trying to figure out how to adapt. As was said, this has not been easy. How does someone cede power and authority?

In the United States, tremendous changes in how we minister have occurred. Almost 50,000 people currently serve as lay ecclesial ministers, serving in various capacities such as youth ministers, catechists, business managers, liturgists, musicians, chaplains and many other critical roles.

At the same time, the Church has witnessed tremendous growth of permanent deacons. Almost 20,000 are currently serving in the United States alone. While the vast majority of these men do not serve even half-time in their parishes, they are increasingly taking on important ministerial roles.

But the Church has also seen a steep decline in priestly vocations and vocations as vowed religious.

So, change is happening, and these new realities are impacting co-responsibility.

One way to look at how lay and ordained ministers interact as missionary disciples is to consider how they collaborate. About 20 years ago, Brother Laughlin Schofield and Sister Carroll Juliano, SHJC, attempted to address this issue. Their work on collaboration was groundbreaking. But, as they clearly pointed out, collaboration is not easy.

The reason that both co-responsibility and collaboration are difficult is manifold. First of all, one cannot collaborate if one does not know what collaboration is or how to do it. Though we have been struggling to do this for 50 years, there is not a unanimous opinion as to what constitutes collaboration (or co-responsibility for that matter). Second, it takes the willingness of people to actually do this. It takes the willingness of the clergy to share their authority and power with the laity. And it takes the laity who are willing to follow the call of Christ and take on the responsibility for the Church’s mission.

In other words, before we can truly have a Church that acts the way that the fathers of the Second Vatican Council envisioned for the Church, there has to be an acceptance of a new identity by both clergy and laity leading to a new understanding of ministry.

Thanks be to God that many priests, like Father Andy, have learned to develop the gift of collaboration. Despite its challenges, there are many practical and helpful tools to continue to develop and strengthen this skill. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you in the brief examen below to see the tools that are most comfortable to you, and which provide an area of opportunity for growth.

DEACON KEITH DAVIS is the director of deacon formation for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and serves on the board of directors of the National Association for Lay Ministry. ALEXANDRIA RICH is the chair of the communications committee of the National Association for Lay Ministry.

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NALM as an Example of Co-responsibility

The National Association for Lay Ministry was founded over 40 years ago as an organization devoted to collaboration among laity and clergy. To this day, its members have included laity, clergy and vowed religious, all working to foster ministry that is based on our baptismal call.

A couple of the current projects of NALM give insight into this effort. In 2019, the association began looking at how seminarians were formed in an understanding of the baptismal call to ministry and the role of the laity in the mission of the Church. Just this last year, NALM began a collaboration with several seminaries to develop formation plans for seminarians serving in parishes, including plans to help parish staff in their work with seminarians.

NALM is also working with the USCCB in developing materials related to the installed ministries of acolyte, lector and catechist. Though it is just in the beginning phase, this promises to be fruitful.

For more information and resources on enabling collaboration with lay ministers, visit www.nalm.org.

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Pope Benedict on Co-responsibility

Pope Benedict XVI addressed priests, religious and the faithful of the Diocese of Rome on May 26, 2009, on the topic of Church membership and pastoral co-responsibility. He said: “To what extent is the pastoral co-responsibility of all, and particularly of the laity, recognized and encouraged? In past centuries, thanks to the generous witness of all the baptized who spent their life educating the new generations in the faith, healing the sick and going to the aid of the poor, the Christian community proclaimed the Gospel to the inhabitants of Rome. The self-same mission is entrusted to us today, in different situations, in a city in which many of the baptized have strayed from the path of the Church and those who are Christian are unacquainted with beauty of our faith.”

Pope Benedict offered this encouragement: “We must renew our efforts for a formation which is more attentive and focused on the vision of the Church, of which I spoke, and this should be both on the part of priests as well as of religious and laypeople to understand ever better what this Church is, this People of God in the Body of Christ. At the same time, it is necessary to improve pastoral structures in such a way that the co-responsibility of all the members of the People of God in their entirety is gradually promoted, with respect for vocations and for the respective roles of the consecrated and of laypeople. This demands a change in mindset, particularly concerning laypeople. They must no longer be viewed as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy but truly recognized as ‘co-responsible,’ for the Church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity.”

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