Working with the laity and enjoying it

Some years ago, I was at a meeting of priests and one priest, whom I admire, proposed that we write to Rome and recommend the ordination of suitable married men especially for small rural communities. I felt ambivalent about the motion.

I am not against the ordination of married men but it seemed to be a “male and priestly” solution. I thought it revealed a blindness to the leadership that women and men, were already showing in many communities and that we might be better off recognising, training and celebrating the leadership that was already there. Too often we send in a priest and he, perhaps unconsciously but certainly effectively, squashes the existing lay leadership.

Photo: © of Pope Francis’ priorities is to end clericalism and empower the laity. Clericalism is often understood as we clergy taking too many privileges to ourselves but I suspect the more dangerous form of clericalism is taking too much responsibility to ourselves. Many of us clerics have “messianic complexes”. We tend to do everything and implicitly show little faith in the laity. We fail to notice the talents and competencies of our people. I know of several priests who are working too hard and so are tired and demoralised. And the future promises to be worse unless we and the bishops come to realise that we do not have to do it all on our own and that more priests is not the only solution, realistically or theologically.

This year I will celebrate my 48th anniversary of ordination and these are three things I have learnt:

1. Lay ministry comes from baptism. It does not derive from the approval of the bishop or the priest.

2. Despite my “natural male” intelligence and “priestly” powers of leadership I cannot and should not do everything.

3. Women have insights, sensitivities, imagination and skills (I just don’t have) that are wonderful and we cannot do without them.

We, priests, have a role in discerning, fostering, encouraging, coordinating gifts discovered among the laity and maintaining unity but we should not do everything. If we do, we will dominate and no new ministries will grow or new leadership emerge. Possibly it is time that we work less and exercise a new ministry of “creative absence” and see what happens when we are not around. It might create space for others to flourish.

It seems clear that the future of the church cannot depend on priests alone. That type of church is coming to an end and we should be preparing for the new one which will emerge. We need to put more energy and money into training lay leadership. It is not just a question of numbers. It is theologically desirable that the ministry of the laity be encouraged and celebrated. It is also administratively necessary. Ministry today requires a great range of skills which no one group has. We need one another. No longer can one group be set apart and take all the responsibility. That is also the clear lesson of the Royal Commission. In future, we are going to need more lay and female involvement in the governance of the church in Australia on a national, diocesan and parish level. And psychologically it is necessary to live healthy and creative lives.

I was very lucky that early in my years as a priest I was made Rector of St Columban’s Turramurra. At the time, there were approximately 40 Sisters studying mission in the seminary as well as our seminarians and priests. I was the leader of a community of almost seventy men and women, lay, religious and ordained but all on mission. I slowly learnt that it was the mission we shared that united and governed us and that mixed teams are more effective, satisfying, healthy and enjoyable.

Columban Fr Noel Connolly is a member of the Columban Mission Institute in North Sydney and a lecturer in Missiology at both the Broken Bay Institute and the Catholic Institute of Sydney.

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