Knowing Who’s Who in Sacred Ministry

“Can Catholic lay ministers get married?”

If this question posted on a Catholic message board by a sincere young Protestant man is any indication, the image of sacred ministry in the Church as viewed from without has apparently grown a little bit hazy.

As troubling as that thought may be, more disturbing still is the underlying cause; the clerical crisis of identity that is dwelling within.

I would submit that many of the difficulties we face in the Church today are either directly traceable to, or are at the very least greatly exacerbated by, the fact that far too many members of the sacred hierarchy — bishops, priests, and deacons alike — don’t seem to know who they are.

I would include in this category bishops who see themselves primarily as administrators, peacekeepers and consensus builders; priests who wish to be looked upon as just another member of the team; and deacons who generally behave like laymen fearful of appearing “too clerical.”

At the root of the problem is a certain false humility in which some clerics allow their self-image to rest far too much on what they do and far too little on who they are .

When a cleric knows his true identity, by contrast, the “what he does” takes care of itself.

This kind of clerical self-awareness is evident in bishops who fearlessly yet lovingly rule with authority; priests who naturally assume the lead in caring for souls; and deacons who confidently assert their rights and duties all for one simple reason; they are sacramentally configured to Christ in a way that the layperson is not.

The unique identity of those consecrated by Holy Orders was underscored by the Council Fathers at Vatican II.

“It is clear that, by means of the imposition of hands and the words of consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is so conferred, and the sacred character so impressed, that bishops in an eminent and visible way sustain the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest, and that they act in His person (Lumen Gentium – 21).

Concerning priests, the Council said, “The same Lord has established ministers among his faithful to unite them together in one body in which, ‘not all the members have the same function’ (Rom 12:4). These ministers in the society of the faithful are able to act in the name of Christ by the sacred power of orders” (cf Presbyterorum Ordinis – 2).

“At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God. It is the duty of the deacon to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people” (cf Lumen Gentium – 29).

“The common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood differ from one another in essence and not only in degree” (cf Lumen Gentium 10).

Since the Council closed, in spite of this very clear teaching, “the distinction which the Lord made between sacred ministers and the rest of the People of God,” (LG 32) has been diluted in many places to the point where just about every individual who serves the Church in some fashion or another is labeled a “minister.”

Where once we had organists and cantors, we now have “music ministers;” lectors are now commonly called “ministers of the word,” and last but certainly not least, the ushers have taken on the lofty title of “ministers of hospitality.” With so many ministers running around the parish, is it any wonder the lines of distinction between laity and hierarchy are getting blurry?

Yes, the call for lay participation and lay service, along with the universal call to holiness are legitimate fruits of the Council, but the terms “lay minister” and “lay ministry” do not appear anywhere in the conciliar documents for a reason. As the question that opened this column indicates, titles matter. They should communicate the identity of those who carry them in a clear and unambiguous fashion. When the titles we use create more confusion than clarity, we should probably rethink the way in which we use them.

Still not so sure it matters? OK. Imagine suffering a medical emergency in a public place; say for example, a restaurant. The maître d’ recognizes your distress and cries out for help, “Is there a doctor in the house?!” Now, do you really want the guy with a Ph.D. in political science answering the call? Of course not. Sure, he’s a “doctor,” just like technically speaking all of the baptized are called to engage in “ministry,” but there’s a reason the political science guy’s Mom doesn’t brag about “my son the doctor” like the woman who raised a physician does.

Silly example, perhaps, but you get the point; titles matter, and they should communicate identity with clarity.

I’ll close with yet another question, one that you can ponder and answer for yourself. Is it simply a coincidence that the number of priestly vocations in the Church began to dwindle just as our recognition of the unique presence of Christ in His ordained ministers also diminished?  

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  • oneelbk

    This is very timely, Louie, although I wished you had referenced the 1997 Instruction regarding the collaboration of lay faithful in the ministry of the priest issued by eight dicasteries and signed by John Paul II. I work for a Catholic company, and this past week, I came upon the website of a parish in Wisconsin where the woman pastoral associate is basically, for all intents and purposes, listed as the pastor. The priest who provides so-called “sacramental services” is basically listed as an afterthought. Additionally, she calls herself a chaplain at local Catholic hospitals, a title clearly allowed to no layman as per the 1997 instruction. Then there was a missive on one diocesan website from “Bishop Jim.” At first I thought, well, maybe Jim is really his last name. Nope. And I regularly run across parish website where the priest is just listed as one of many “staffers” at the church. Now is this universal? By all means no. It is not even the majority. It is, however, common, and that’s what’s sad.

  • laurak

    This is the first time I’ve ever heard that the term “ministry” was being misused in the church. It’s always been used to describe the various ways that the laity serve in the church. Eucharistic ministers, ministers of hospitality, music ministry, etc. I am a volunteer in prison ministry. Ministry has always been used to describe the act of serving others in a certain capacity within the church. It describes the group of people who perform the same service or function within the church. The bishops, pastors, priests and deacons all have their own seperate, titles of respect that is not used by the laity.

    What do you suggest these groups be called?

    It’s possible that the church hasn’t come up with a better title to describe the function of these groups. If you look up the word “ministry” in a thesaurus, there is no alternate word with a similar meaning.

  • rakeys

    “Is it simply a coincidence that the number of priestly vocations in the Church began to dwindle just as our recognition of the unique presence of Christ in His ordained ministers also diminished?”
    I was not aware that “the unique presence of Christ in His ordained ministers also diminished.” I have always considered the priest to have a unique presence of Christ.
    The number of priestly vocations has diminished for various reasons.
    1. An increased role of the laity in Church activities. Not needing to be a priest in order to serve in the Church.
    2. An increase in material well-being. The need to serve God in a special way in order to increase our spiritual welfare is not as important. As a general rule, many people feel they don’t need God in their lives. We can do it alone. Vocations in poor countries have not decreased, but in some areas have increased.
    3. Only 30% of Catholics even go to Mass in the US. 10% in Europe. (see #2)

    The unique presence of Christ has not diminished in priests, but has increased in the laity who choose to serve Him.

  • liturgylover

    I’m so glad someone else has said this! The proper term for lay involvement in the Church is ‘apostolate’. Ministry has always been delineated as a function of authentic ministers, namely deacons, priests and bishops. For this reason, lay people “distributing” Holy Communion are rightly called “Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist” since that is the only true “Ministry” used at Mass. The Servers, Ushers, Musicians, etc. are not Ministers at all. And in some dioceses, the line has been further blurred by diocesan efforts to educate (rightly so) the laity serving as DREs, catechists and anyone else serving the Church in areas of doctrine. These dioceses have put together educational/formational programs under the term Lay Ecclesial Ministry or Ecclesial Lay Ministry and have those who’ve completed them calling themselves Ecclesial Lay Ministers or Lay Ecclesial Ministers as formal titles. These folks have learned a boatload of theology, liturgy, people skills and prayer information, and have worked very hard, but have been labeled “Minister” and now feel that they have fit into some sort of hierarchical strata which doesn’t exist. What to do?

  • Mary Kochan

    I think the answer really is simple. Change the terminology. Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion should be called Extraordinary Servers of Holy Communion. Ushers should be called Hospitality Servants. Catechists can be called Catechism Servants. The only people who get to be called “ministers” are the ordained. Musicians can be called Liturgical Servants. If it is good enough for altar servers, it is good enough for the rest of them.

  • goral

    That’s fine, just leave the ministers of custodial duties alone.