Friday, February 26, 2010

Lay ministry & vocations: food for thought

Russell Shaw (Pontifical University of the Holy Cross) writes provocatively in "Lay Ministry, Lay Apostolate, and Vocation" (Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, 32, No. 4 (Winter 2009):
People have sometimes said of me that I'm opposed to lay ministries, but that isn't true. I support lay ministries, and I have great admiration for all those wonderful lay people who are involved in ministries of various kinds.

But I do see a problem.

In recent years, there's been a disproportionate emphasis on lay ministries, at the expense of what used to be called lay apostolate or simply "the Apostolate." And that disproportionate emphasis contributes to something very unhealthy in Catholic life.
Here Shaw illustrates with a story based on his experience, a couple of years ago, of teaching an online course about the laity to a class of adult Catholics. Some weeks after the course ended, one of his students sent him an email sharing an experience she'd had. She wrote:
Last week I gave a lecture to a group of women, and as an opening exercise I asked them to write on one side of the page all the everyday things they do in the course of a day or two. Then I asked them to write on the other side all the things they do in the same time frame that they consider to be holy.

Without exception, they made up two entirely different lists -- on the one hand, daily chores and activities, and on the other hand things associated with what they considered to be "ministry" -- serving as minister of communion or lector, attending Mass, things like that.
Point taken. Gaudium et Spes addresses the matter thus:
One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives.... Let there ... be no such pernicious opposition between professional and social activity on the one hand and the religious life on the other.... It is [the task of the Catholic laity] to cultivate a properly informed conscience and to impress the divine law on the affairs of the earthly city (GS, 43).
As Shaw points out, that was over 40 years ago, and little if anything has changed in that pervasive attitude, which divides up our experiences and activities into two distinct compartments or regions, one holy and the other secular. "Fortunately there's a solution, if only we choose to make use of it," says Shaw. "Its name is vocation. Every baptized person has one." But in order to put the solution to work, we need a much clearer understanding of vocation than most Catholics appear to have.

Shaw distinguishes three different dimensions to the idea of "vocation," which he pictures in three concentric rings. (1) "At the center is the common Christian vocation, which comes to us in baptism and is shared by all menbers of the Church." This consists in the commitment of faith and what follows from it, loving and serving God, and one's neighbor as oneself, and so forth. (2) "The next vocational circle, spreading out from this central point, is vocation in the sense of a state in life." Here he has in mind the clerical state, the consecrated life, the state of marriage, and the single lay state in the world. (3) "the outer circle -- and the third meaning of Christian vocation -- is personal vocation." Here he means the particular unique "combination of commitments, relationships, opportunities, disadvantages, weaknesses, and strengths" that God asks us to put to use in serving Him and His Church (this idea can be found in St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis de Sales, Cardinal Newman, etc., he says).

Clearing up our understanding of vocational discernment is the key, says Shaw, to resolving much of the confusion over lay ministry. It involves, first, setting aside the false idea that vocational discernment is done only by those considering the priesthood or religious life; and second, the idea that vocational discernment is a one time thing. The question one seeks to answer is not "What do I want from life?" but "What does God want from me?" It isn't subjective, but guided by Christian morality. "Conscience formation comes first. A person with a well formed conscience is equipped to engage in fruitful discernment. But when someone whose conscience is not well formed tries it, the result is likely to be self-serving and not God's will."

Shaw continues:
Lay ministries, as they are called -- service roles and functions performed by lay people in church settings, especially parishes -- undoubtedly do have their place, and an important one. But their place is subordinate to the priority of apostolate carried on in and to the secular order....

I'm sorry to say that in recent years we seem to have gotten it just the other way around, assigning de facto primacy to lay ministries and downgrading lay apostolate. And although the intentions have been good, that is a bad mistake which has contributed a lot to the current problems in the Church....

I repeat: lay ecclesial ministry can reasonably be seen as one part of [the] larger picture. but to speak of lay ministry as if it were the very apex of it, the peak of the pyramid, so to speak, is an instance of the tail wagging the dog -- that is to say, it's a painfully narrow-minded view of a much larger development in Catholic life extending over the last century and a half and still taking place.
Shaw goes on to relate a hunch he has about how this is related to the sacrament of confirmation -- "a sacrament in crisis if there ever was one." The problem with confirmation, he says, is that basically "nobody really knows what it is." His idea, which he believes is both theologically and pastorally valid, is to present confirmation as a sacrament of vocational discernment -- a subject about which he hopes to produce a book someday.

With that, Shaw offers a bold assertion: "There is no shortage of vocations in the Catholic Church" -- either in the Church as a whole or the U.S. or anywhere. "As a matter of fact, a true shortage of vocations is an absolute impossibility, since every baptized individual has a vocation."

What we have instead, he says, is a shortage of vocational discernment That also is a problem, even a serious one; but it's a problem of a quite different sort. Shaw writes:
You see, if there were a shortage of vocations -- which isn't possible, but let's suppose for a moment that it was -- then the shortage of vocations would be from God. And in that case, there would be nothing we could do about it except ask God to send the vocations he'd been withholding.

But because what we have is a shortage of vocational discernment, we can be quite sure that the shortage of vocations of whatever kind comes from us. Prayer is still needed, of course, but there are a lot of other things that we can and should be doing.

And the first and most important of them is to educate every Catholic to the fact that he or she has a vocation, and that the most important thing he or she will ever do is to discern what that vocation is, accept it, and then continue discerning it and living it for the rest of his or her life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An excellent post. Shaw is right on, as he so often is. My colleague at the Catherine of Siena Institute and I just gave a parish mission on this topic at a parish in California. We also included ideas of how one can explicitly discern one's personal vocation - a discernment process that is ongoing, as it unfolds step by step.

That's the way personal vocation unfolds. God doesn't show us the whole journey, only the next step. It's only when we do that next, seemingly obvious thing that we're in a position to see the second step, and then the third, and so on.