A friend conducted a thriving Bible study at her parish until a new priest became the pastor. The next Tuesday night at the study’s regular meeting she was surprised but delighted to see him in attendance. She asked the priest to pray at the start of the meeting and then took the small group through two chapters of the book of Acts, providing historical and theological context and asking questions that initiated a lively discussion.
As the discussion was winding down, she asked the priest for his thoughts. He did not respond to anything that had been said. Instead, he led the group back through the two chapters as if no one had spoken to that point—he had only been biding his time, it seemed, waiting to deliver the “real” lesson.
The next week my friend asked for the priest’s comments earlier in the evening, and he set forth once more into prepared remarks.
After a little more than a month of this, the once-thriving Bible study was dead. Former members of the study told my friend privately that if they wanted to hear the priest, they could attend Mass. They had been coming to the study for her teaching and the group discussion.
Every time I tell this story to a Catholic group someone chimes in, saying, “The same thing happened to me!”
My life has been blessed by so many dedicated priests that I recount this story with regret and apologies in advance if it’s misconstrued as applying universally to the Catholic priesthood. There are many fine priests—and more all the time—who know how to identify the spiritual giftedness of lay leaders and encourage their gifts to flourish.
The story is still instructive, however, because the pastors of too many Catholic parishes don’t know how to do this, and in some instances, wouldn’t want to even if they did. There are still priests who, by virtue of training or temperament or both, believe that the teaching ministry of a parish belongs primarily if not exclusively to them, at least when it comes to anyone over the age of seven.
As a former evangelical, I have always been baffled by this phenomenon. The reason that Protestant churches often have outstanding education programs for every age group lies in marshalling the considerable teaching talents of the laity. Sadly and even tragically, the reluctance or inability of Catholic priests to make use of the lay teaching talent in their parishes is an important factor in cradle Catholics stuffing the pews of evangelical mega-churches.
If you don’t think so, you should read the mail I’ve been getting the last two weeks as I’ve written about Catholics’ need for more Bible study. People are hungry for it! And often they end up in Protestant precincts as a result.
To help clear up the confusion as to why priests and the laity don’t cooperate often enough in putting on outstanding religious educational programs for every age group, I spoke with Peter Herbeck of Renewal Ministries.
For the last three decades, Peter Herbeck and the other two principals at Renewal Ministries, President Ralph Martin and Sr. Ann Shields, have been at the forefront of the new evangelization. I’d urge any among the Catholic Exchange community who do not know their TV and radio programs and their books to connect with them.
When we spoke, Peter Herbeck pointed out that while this is a tremendous time of pruning in the Catholic Church, a time of disciplining and judgment, it’s also a time when buds are bursting with new life around the world. His work in the U.S. and in 27 other countries brings him into contact with bishops, priests, and lay people who have a profound understanding of the role of Scripture and a Christian worldview.
At the same time, he pointed out that seminary training remains, by and large, devoted to academics and personal formation. Very little is done to encourage future-priests to disciple the lay people in their parishes. “Watch me do this, you do it with me, and then you go do it on your own. It [the discipleship model] is just not there—it’s not built into our formation process,” Herbeck says. Those priests who know how to release the spiritual giftedness of lay leaders, according to Herbeck, either have an instinct for doing so or acquire the knack through association with ecclesial movements.
While I can understand this, it still is a strange state of affairs. Not only did Jesus teach and send out the 12 disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God, but he also sent out a much larger contingent of 72 witnesses. Jesus devoted much of this time to nurturing the faith of those in his company, and he commissioned them to begin witnessing before they understood his mission very well. Right before Christ’s ascension, the disciples were still asking, “Will you now restore the Kingdom of Israel,” still believing that Jesus might become the temporal King of Israel.
Jesus gave the Great Commission—to go into all the world and preach the Gospel—to all his followers. This calling belongs to all Catholics by virtue of our baptism and confirmation, not any special appointment by church authorities.
Jesus’ “calculus” goes like this: 12 disciples plus 72 witnesses plus all those who will follow through the ages = the one Church he came to found, his bride, his body in the world. And it didn’t matter to Jesus whether those witnessing were former madmen like Legion, “half-breeds” like the Samaritan woman at the well, betrayers like Peter, or murderers like Paul. To all alike, he said and still says today, “You too go now into the vineyard.”
That’s not to say that the Church isn’t maintained through apostolic succession and the sacraments Jesus entrusted to his closes followers and their successors. It is to say that the clergy must learn how to mentor and collaborate with the laity in teaching and witness.
On one of his return trips to Poland, John Paul the Great raised his index finger and said that the hour of the laity has struck. He admonished them not to stand in the laity’s way but rather to lead them forward as good shepherds.
This is what faithful Catholics are hoping and praying for around the world.
Again, thank you to all those who have sent me notes over the past two weeks. Catholic Exchange community members can always reach me at Harold@catholicexchange.com
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