12 + 72 = 1

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.

Community Notes

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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  • Andy0

    The laity if properly formed and in communion with their Bishop make wonderful leaders in Bible studies. All to many times I have experience laity with mis-guided agendas or incorrect church teaching proclaimed as church teaching cause more harm than good creating disillusionment. Catechists must be properly catechized in the teachings and the methods of teaching in the church prior to proclaiming to the future of our Church our youth. Because improperly catechized persons can create generations of confusion and resentment that will require generations to correct. Proclaiming the Word is a Life and Death ministry, please contact your local Diocese for classes of faith formation. There are over 1 billion Catholics in the world we need everyone to be formed in the Body of Christ and proclaiming the Truth!

  • laurak

    Andy, I agree with you 100%. What exactly are catechists teaching if they haven’t been properly instructed and gone through a formation process themselves in the Catholic church? There are “catechists” that teach things that absolutely contradict our Catholic beliefs and do much more harm than good, with long term consequences.

    ‘God doesn’t call the trained, He trains the called’, and that’s the point. If we are going to teach, then we need to be educated just like any other role we have in life. We can’t even drive a car without instruction, so what makes us think we can teach something as important as our Catholic faith, a truly more serious matter than driving a car, without any instruction ourselves. The role the pastor or bishop should have is to institute a formation program for catechists and require them to have continuing education in order to keep teaching. At the very least, the pastor should make sure there is good materials for catechists to use in class and meet with them to ensure they only teach what the Catholic church teaches, even if you personally disagree with what the church teaches in certain areas.

  • willh

    Could not agree more with Mr. Fickett. Having been raised Southern Baptist and attending that church for over 20 years and then converting to Catholicism almost a decade ago I have longed for adult religious education classes and felt a deep sorrow over the lack of youth in the CCD. It’s outright ridiculous.

    Want to know something LauraK and Andy0? I learned more in my RCIA class than my contemporaries that I attended Mass with, who had been born in the Catholic church, knew. That, once again, is ridiculous. I can easily point out who is Catholic and who is Protestant based solely on knowledge of the Bible when out with a group of friends.

    Could not disagree more with Andy0. Keep watching people leave Andy.

  • laurak, I have found that the more “formed” people are by certain diocesan programs, the less able they seem to be to explain the Catholic faith — if fact the less they seem even to believe it.

    I have seen almost the reverse problem of what Harold says, which is Catholic lay people balking at the idea of being taught by another lay person. first they want to know if the class is approved by the priest. If yes, then they want to know if the peist will be there. If yes, then they want to know why he isn’t teaching instead. That’s clericalism.

  • jgstang9

    As a lay teacher in a Catholic school, I have to say that there is no excuse for any teacher of the faith to teach error with the resources that we have available to us. We are blessed in Jesus’ Church to have all the answers in writing for us in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. If a person is going to teach the faith it is more important for that person to have a deep prayer life and frequent the sacraments. It is through prayer and the sacraments that the catechist is formed and his teaching is no longer his teaching, but Christ teaching through him. Teaching the Faith is not like teaching mathematics or science, etc. It is something that you must live before you can give it to others.

  • liturgylover

    Many many good points. In my diocese, there is a catechist formation program and it has taught errors, arrogance and division–with the Bishop’s approval. There are also many gifted lay people who are not allowed to contribute unless certified in that program. But just as true, I left bible studies behind because they were either run by folks with an agenda or run by consensus (yes, we all agree that there can be no hell if we have an all-merciful God, don’t we?????) by well meaning but clueless table leaders. If I want a mix of doctrine and opinion, I’d belong to a Protestant church. But for a Catholic, the buck stops at the Pastor. As far as that goes, however, there is a happy medium in which he can share the podium!

  • Over the past several months I have been “test driving” a podcast reflection on the Sunday Mass readings. I recently launched it at http://PurelyCatholic.com. I am fortunate to have a pastor that unlike your friends encourages the laity.

    I shared some of my test programs with a priest friend of mine who emailed me back some valuable feedback. He also included the following: “Are you doing this ministry under the covering/approval of a parish, a priest or the Archdiocese?” He expressed to me his concern that I be held accountable and do not lead people astray.

    I am seeking out a spiritual director which will be good for the project and me too, but I am also hesitant. I don’t want to allow the hierarchy to subject me to roadblocks that unnecessary hamper me in my calling to inspire the less inpired and help us all grow in our Catholic faith.

  • alvinal

    In our parish the RCIA program extends an invitation to adult cradle Catholics to attend the classes. It’s been a successful way to share parish resources. The RCIA leader and our parish priest share in teaching the class every week.

    Our parish offers Catholic Scripture Study Internation program. This Catholic Bible Study includes a 30-min. DVD lecture given by a priest. Awesome!

  • consecrata

    I wonder why that teacher kept asking the Priest to comment? Did she speak with him privately? And clergy don’t collaborate with the laity – the laity collaborate with the clergy. Yes, the laity have a mission to witness to Christ, but are under the authority of the Bishop…too many lay organizations try to take over the role of the priest – try to work in opposition to the local Bishop. So this is a two way street – I know a Nun who is teaching the diocesan bible class and is not teaching in conformity with the Catholic Church – people are walking away but those who have problems with the Church remain and this nun is forming them to work against the Church, to make up their own rules, etc…so we have to be careful, humble and true to the teaching authority of the Church whether we are lay people or consecrated…and I think truth and humility are key here.