success stories

The Moment of the Laity

By Father Eugene Hemrick
Catholic News Service

Despite the inferno created by the recent scandals in the church, something positive is arising: the moment of the laity.

Not only are we experiencing oversight boards solely composed of laypersons for the purpose of maintaining the church's honor, but an unimaginable surge in lay participation is surfacing.

Who would have thought we would learn of bishops training laypersons for preaching? Who would have imagined laypersons being put in charge of parishes, or being trained to lead a Communion service, or even a Sunday celebration in the absence of a priest? Who would have envisioned institutions such as our Catholic schools, once the sole responsibility of priests, sisters and brothers, taken over entirely by lay administrators and staff?

A recent study conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that 19 percent of lay ecclesial ministers and 34 percent of pastoral administrators (many of whom are laity) entrusted with the pastoral care of a parish where no pastor resides say that preaching is part of their ministry. Forty-one percent of lay ecclesial ministers and 92 percent of pastoral administrators report having been trained to lead a Communion service or Sunday celebration in the absence of a priest.

Although this is not business as usual for many Catholics who remember when it was different, they need not be shaken by a stronger presence of lay leadership in the midst of a church crisis. Historically, lay leadership has saved the church more than once.

Three centuries ago it saved the church in Ireland, and despite a ruthless persecution in 1660 that destroyed the priesthood in Japan, when missionary priest Bernard Petitjean set foot on its shores in 1865 he found the Catholic faith stronger than ever, thanks to a secretive, faithful laity.

Dominican Father Yves Congar, the renowned theologian, once wrote that when lay people are kept in tutelage and treated more or less as children they become indifferent to the church's faith and to her life.

Today it cannot be said that the laity are in tutelage, and as difficult as the present scandals are to comprehend, the laity have not become indifferent.

On the contrary, a church brought to her knees is being lifted up by its own bootstraps -- a deeply concerned laity upon which she stands.

Make no doubt, there are many angry laypersons, some of whom have divorced themselves from parish activities and some who, unfortunately, have left the church. Their picture of what the church should be has been shattered, their faith shaken and their hope turned to despair. With little or no historical perspective, they are unable to comprehend that the church is a human as well as divine institution that always has had its scandals.

A new, revitalized church awaits those who understand that the church is not only bishops and priests, but the mystical body of Christ composed of all believers; those who refuse to fall by the wayside and who forever are nurturing hope.

The moment of the laity is the present moment when we will experience their heart -- the heart of the church -- beating stronger than ever.