Bishop pushes for greater lay leadership in Church

For the 30 years he has shepherded the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., Bishop Matthew Clark had been an advocate of lay ecclesial ministry. Now, in his new book, “Forward in Hope: Saying AMEN to Lay Ecclesial Ministry” (Ave Maria Press, $11.95), he shares his insights and shines a spotlight on the voices of lay ministers from his diocese. 

Bishop Clark spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about this growing movement, which includes more than 30,000 lay ecclesial ministers serving in the United States alone. 

Our Sunday Visitor: Do you think we Catholics need to expand our view of lay ecclesial ministry as we look toward a future with fewer priests?  

Bishop Matthew Clark: I do think we need to think about this very seriously. I think the Second Vatican Council and its emphasis on our common call to holiness, the power and force and invitation of our baptism and baptismal responsibility, quite aside from the number of ordained clergy we might have, invites all of us to think about using the gifts and talents of all the baptized in service to the Body of Christ and the mission that we share. … Even if we had an abundance of clergy, I think it would still be important to think it through and develop lay ministry in all the ways that would be appropriate. 

OSV: You make clear in your book that lay ecclesial ministry complements rather than competes with ordained ministry. Can you talk about that? 

Bishop Clark: Lay ministry is as developed as it is here because of the encouragement our ordained ministers offer to lay ministers. They encourage them to do training. They encourage them to exercise their gifts within parish communities, so it’s not as though this is some imposition on our clergy. They’re hungry for it. They’re thirsty for that kind of collaboration. Second, I believe that this expands the pastoral ministry that we can offer to our people. I have had so many people tell me how much they appreciate the ministry of people who are married in many circumstances, but in particular as they might relate to marital issues, healing of wounds, whatever it might be. That’s not to say that people will no longer consult with their clergy about marital issues, not at all. There’s a dimension, a breadth to pastoral ministry that I’m happy we have.  

OSV: What is one of the greatest lessons you’ve learned from working with lay ministers? 

Bishop Clark: My association for years now with lay ministers has really been a source of personal conversion and growth. Their example of faith, their trust in the Lord, their generosity and service, the depth of their commitment, I just find very heartening. They make me feel that I have the partnership and support and understanding not only of my brother priests, who are extremely important in the life of any diocese, but in that wider, fuller way. So many others now share the ministries. They are “co-workers in the vineyard,” and I find it enormously encouraging. I am inspired by the sacrifices they make financially, of energy, the way they balance out family life and their work responsibilities. 

OSV: What needs to happen to make lay ecclesial ministry more widely understood and accepted by people in the pews? 

Bishop Clark: Not all people are called to lay ecclesial ministry, but we are all called to build up the Body of Christ and to give witness and share the Good News with the world and transform the world in our daily workplaces, wherever those workplaces may be. Within the framework of the Church and service to the Church in formal ministry, I think our experience here has been very positive. … There have been very few instances where there has been positive resistance to laypeople having the pastoral responsibility for the operation of the parish. But there’s always a process. Sometimes people think, “We don’t have an ordained priest. What did we do wrong?” But, soon enough, by virtue of the fundamental goodness of our people and also the gifts and commitment of our pastoral leaders, that works out beautifully. On more than one occasion, after initial resistance, a person’s term will end and the parish will say, “We want somebody just like him or just like her.” 

So how do we plant these seeds deeper? Through the interaction that takes place between the pastoral lay leader and the community over the course of their relationship. I think it’s good for us to think of ways to create opportunities to have these conversations.  

OSV: The title of your book is one of hope. What is it that makes you so hopeful? 

Bishop Clark: Fundamentally because I think the burgeoning of lay ministry in our Church is the work of the Spirit. I think it’s reclaiming, re-realizing some of the reality of what the very earliest Church was — that people’s gifts were called forth and made available to the community in wonderful ways. For some years, for reasons I try to sketch out in the book, ministry became more and more identified with the ordained. I think this reclamation of ministry as a legitimate function of the baptized in coordination with the whole community is a renewal of a long-standing gift that lay dormant for some centuries. I’m convinced that in its renewal it was well founded in the documentation of Vatican II. I think its growth over these near 50 years is a real sign that the Spirit of Christ is behind it and animating it all. The reason for hope is in Christ’s promise that the Church will be guided in healthy ways by the Spirit and that we always be faithful.  

Mary DeTurris Poust writes from New York.