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Lay Catholics groomed for bigger church roles

Officially, Linda Downey is a pastoral associate at Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Williamsville. But she says she's a troubleshooter. "At least that's what it feels like a lot of time," said Downey, who oversees five faith-sharing groups and the liturgy committee, as well as advising the parish council and registering parishioners.

She's part of the escalating trend in the Catholic church that has educated lay people to fill a myriad of roles, unimagined a generation or two ago.

It started in the 1960s when more and more directors of religious education came from the lay ranks. And it has grown so significantly that, today, their numbers are in the majority. "At the present time, there are more ecclesial lay ministers on parish staffs in leadership roles than there are priests," said Zeni Fox, a national expert on the topic. "This is not like anything that was known before."

In November, they were given new credence when bishops issued "Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord," a document that took five years to create and signified a shift in ministry from a hierarchical system to one of collaboration.

It's creating a buzz in some circles.

"It's the first time that lay ecclesial ministry has really been affirmed and treated in a serious way," said Kathleen Heffern, director of the office of church ministry for the Buffalo Catholic Diocese. "It sheds light on the pastoral associate role, invites people to come forth, to be educated and then to be paid a just and living wage. It recognizes that this is a definite vocation, that lay people are called to service, to work in the church."

>Seminar is planned

Fox, an adviser to those who created the document, will discuss the implications for the Buffalo diocese during Parish Study Day on March 9 at Christ the King Seminary.

There will be plenty to talk about -- how educational requirements will be met, how people will be certified and how workplace policies will play out, for starters.

If the document is taken seriously, Heffern predicts that it could change the way parishes are run. "It will take some rethinking because when you are hiring laity, who have families to support, you have to think in terms of financial compensation, portability of benefits, credentials, whether one diocese will accept a lay minister coming in from another diocese," she said. "Or, let's say you have a new pastor coming in and he wants someone else -- how do you support the rights of the person already doing the job?"

And no one has answered how cash-strapped parishes will come up with funds to pay salaries.

"We aren't used to paying professional salaries," said Fox. "And I say 'we' collectively as the whole Catholic community. It may come from the fact that we paid our sisters so poorly. So we don't have a clear sense of what's right in this area."

Downey said parishioners were slow to accept her when she started 11 years ago, but since then she's worked under three pastors and has become one of the veteran staffers. "I think people see me as the glue that holds the place together," said Downey, who has a master's degree in pastoral ministry. "I don't say that in an arrogant way. It's just that I've become an old timer."

>A success story

Three national studies, the most recent in 2005, consistently show that lay people are well accepted and well regarded for their parish work, said Fox, a professor at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University and author of "New Ecclesial Ministry: Lay Professionals Serving the Church."

"It's a success story," she said. "That doesn't mean in every instance, all the time, but collectively. What contributes to the success is that the pastors have been one of the forces behind this happening, often by inviting people to become involved.

"Another is that the people who have come forth have a strong suit in the area of relationships and as they work with people, people come to accept them. Also, I think the spiritual grounding allows them to ride out the hard times and stay long enough to be accepted."

Downey said she hopes that attention to the document wakes up lay people to their obligation to care for their church and take responsibility for it.

"I've been telling people for years that this day was coming," she said. "Everyone wants the church to be one of their childhood memories, but it's not. Then the reality of the priest shortage doesn't sit well when an emergency arises and they are in desperate need.

"We need to take care of each other, by forming relationships with people in the church community, to help fill each other's spiritual and physical needs. I think we have to do more and more outreach to each other, as well as to the larger community."

For information on Parish Study Day at which Zeni Fox will appear, contact Kathleen Heffern at 847-5531. The event is co-sponsored by Christ the King Seminary and the Office of Church Ministry.


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