success stories

Posted April 15, 2003

Lay Ministers and New Priests: Is Conflict Inevitable?

By Father Eugene Hemrick

The article by John L. Allen Jr.'s in the National Catholic Reporter some time back, ``A Looming Clash Between Priests and Lay Ministers,'' touches a raw nerve in today's church.

Allen sees the growing corps of educated lay leaders as the ``avant-garde of church reform efforts.'' He also anticipates an impending clash between them and some newly ordained priests ``who act as if Vatican II never happened'' and want to return to a past they never knew.

What are we to make of this looming clash? Who are the culprits?

The biggest culprit, if you can call it that, is education -- the laity's education for church leadership.

It is of the nature of education to result in a certain restlessness with the status quo. Education is more than pouring ideas into a person's head. Rather, it is a process that produces critical thinkers seeking creative ideas. Whenever anyone pursues new ideas, some advocates of older ideas feel threatened; clashes may follow.

A big challenge facing the church is how to handle the conflicts that seem likely to arise between more educated laity and zealous new priests. Can this be approached in a way that doesn't dampen either party's apostolic zeal? How?

First, we must resist the fear that every clash of ideas is negative. Rather, when everyone agrees, look out! Often, a situation in which everyone agrees on everything is a situation where people are afraid of rocking the boat, or are clinging to the past, or have an enclave mentality.

As ominous as ideological clashes sound, they at least are the antithesis to the deadly sins of ignorance. A clash can become the spark needed to create church renewal.

Second, priests need to realize that although they have a leadership and honored role in the church, respect doesn't come their way automatically. An I-have-a-right-to-respect attitude is often at the heart of clashes that occur. To avoid a clash, this attitude needs to be replaced by the principle that respect must always be earned, no matter one's status.

Young priests must also learn that the best way to earn respect is to walk and suffer with their people before preaching to them or trying to lead them.

On the other hand, lay ministers need to realize that although they stand side by side with priests as church leaders, team work, not competition, is the first priority of ministry.

Lay leaders need to be aware that it is divisive to label all priests clerical and authoritarian or to think that all priests need to be put in their place. Although the strength of lay leadership is in knowledge and creativity, it thrives on the principle that in unity there is strength.

Most important, we need priests and laity who are well grounded spiritually and can get beyond differences to the real matter at hand.

Much of the church's future strength will depend on how well those in ministry realize that their job is bigger than any one of them can handle alone. Unity above all must reign if they are to be strong leaders.The stories of turf battles, eccentric egotism, rugged individualism, haughtiness and division we often hear must be replaced with success stories of collaboration.