Share this article

print logo

VATICAN LIMITS ON LAITY PLAYED DOWN

A Vatican instruction that draws clear lines between the ministry of priests and deacons and the things that lay people may do has attracted minimal attention in the United States.

If it had, there might be rioting in the pews.

But Bishop Henry J. Mansell of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo suggests that the document's bark may be a lot worse than its bite.

The instruction, released in November, implies that too many lay Eucharistic ministers are distributing Holy Communion in too many parishes and stresses that only priests and deacons may preach.

It also says that lay people should not assume clerical-sounding titles such as chaplain, wear clerical garb, use clerical gestures or perform any anointing with oil.

A source of considerable controversy in Europe, the instruction also makes it clear that parish councils have no power except to advise "Father" and states that bishops do not have to let priests retire at age 75, the common practice now in the United States.

Bishop Mansell, who recently visited the Vatican, said he and other bishops in New York State have been assured the instruction was not intended to discourage lay people from involvement in ministry but to underline the duties of priests.

"They said there were some things -- like the anointing of the sick -- which really belongs to priests, happening in some places," he said.

But an initial reading of the instruction left Sister Jean Becker, pastoral associate at St. Leo the Great parish in Amherst, with the impression that it represented "real back-pedaling" from Vatican II.

"This is the age of the laity," she said. "They are doing many things traditionally done by priests. Today, if it had to be done by a priest, it would not get done."

Monsignor Frederick D. Leising, pastor of St. Mary's parish in Lancaster, found less cause for concern.

"My impression is that it does not affect us very much in our day-to-day parish life," he said. "From the comments I've read, some of the bishops in this country don't see it as that relevant."

The instruction, issued by eight Vatican offices with the approval of Pope John Paul II, actually contains nothing new but restates principles from earlier Vatican documents and church law.

While acknowledging a worldwide shortage of priests, the instruction makes it clear that lay people and nonordained religious sisters and brothers are "called to assist" the ordained clergy.

But it stresses that performing functions to assist a pastor "does not make pastors of the lay faithful." In fact, too much lay incursion into priestly ministry might discourage vocations to the priesthood, the instruction warns.

James Likoudis, a leading conservative voice in the U.S. Catholic Church, sees the document as "an attempt by the Vatican to tighten up on liturgical abuses that devalued the priesthood."

It was prepared in response to "hordes of complaints from Catholics in the United States and Canada," said Likoudis, director of research for Catholics United for the Faith.

Michael Toner, co-founder of the Buffalo Call to Action group, a liberal, church-reform organization, said the instruction struck him as not in touch with the real world.

"It really kind of reinforces the old feeling of 'us and them' -- the clergy and those of us who are expected to pay, pray and obey," he said.

The extent of the instruction's impact on the Catholic Church in the United States is being determined by an ad hoc committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a report is expected in about a year.

One of 13 areas of concern addressed in the instruction is the role of the "extraordinary minister of Holy Communion." The ministers are lay men and women who help a priest distribute Communion at Mass, conduct Communion services when there is no priest available and take Communion to sick people in their homes or institutions.

The instruction says lay Eucharistic ministers may be used when there are particularly large numbers attending Mass that would make the liturgy excessively long because there were too few priests to distribute Communion.

The document also says Eucharistic ministers should not give Communion to themselves or receive Communion "as though they were concelebrants."

"In this part of Western New York, our liturgies are all big. Eucharistic ministers help us to keep our liturgical celebrations within a proper time frame so we can accommodate multiple liturgies," said Monsignor Frederick D. Leising, pastor of St. Mary's parish in Lancaster.

Bishop Mansell said he encourages the use of lay Eucharist ministers when there is only one priest at a Mass and added he is unaware of any abuses.

In most parishes, the use of Eucharistic ministers is "well-accepted," said the Rev. Ronald J. Pecci, pastor of Buffalo's SS. Rita and Patrick parish.

"It's a reality now. We need them," he said.

Likoudis, the spokesman for Catholics United for the Faith, vehemently disagrees.

"Extraordinary ministers have become ordinary ministers," he complains. "They are supposed to be used in emergency situations, but you've got them at weekday Masses attended by 20 or 30 people."

Yet, to Monsignor Leising, having lay people in the sanctuary functioning as Eucharistic ministers, lectors and altar servers "gives us a sense of who we are as church."

"We are not just clerics. We are men and women, young and old," he said. "It is important that we get a sense of the universality of the church. That is one of the values of these diverse ministries."

Bishop Mansell said he has made it clear to pastors in the Buffalo diocese that only priests and deacons may deliver homilies.

"Other people can speak and give reports after Communion," he said.

However, the use of the title "chaplain" might be a problem because traditionally a Catholic chaplain was a cleric.

"We all have to look more closely at that particular title," said Bishop Mansell.

People who have gone through extensive training to qualify to work as chaplains "are very upset" about the Vatican's position on titles, said Rev. Richard H. Augustyn, head of pastoral Care at Buffalo General Hospital.

Although some hospital chaplains serve as Eucharistic ministers, Father Augustyn said their primary function is to comfort and counsel seriously ill patients, their families and sometimes hospital staff members in crisis situations.

Jean Frederick is not a chaplain, but she leads a grief support group at St. Leo the Great parish in Amherst and formerly served as coordinator of the parish's Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the process of receiving new members into the Catholic Church.

"In a great majority of places, lay ministry has become a necessity. It is part of who we are as baptized Christians," said Mrs. Frederick, who completed a two-year Foundations in Ministry program at D'Youville College.

There are no comments - be the first to comment