Recently, a young man considering the priesthood told me that he thought the rise of lay ministry in the Church was threatening the role of the ordained priest.
What our conversation brought home to me was the ongoing confusion regarding the specific identity of and relationship between lay and ordained ministries.
Many factors prevent clarity in this area. Chief among them is a failure to observe that while ordained ministry is general and comprehensive, lay ministry is always specific and limited. The ministry of the bishop, for instance, is not focused on any particular area of the life of his diocese. Rather it ranges widely over the whole spectrum of diocesan activities. In the same way, the parish priest is called to carry on a comprehensive and wide-ranging ministry of oversight in his parish. His focus is not on any particular ministry area, but on the right ordering (think “holy orders”) of the parish.
The role of the layperson, on the other hand, is more specific, even if the same person carries on a number of ministerial activities at the same time. In the liturgy, the layperson is a reader or an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion or a musician. In the parish at large, men and women may be participants in one of the many ministries that build up the parish community: a catechist, a servant of charity, a visitor to the sick.
For this reason, a generalized lay ministry should be regarded as extraordinary. This is not to say that a layperson may not perform the more general task of coordinating and directing a group of lay ministers. A director of religious education is a good example here.
Yet even then there remains a clear focus on a definite grouping of ecclesial ministries. When, however, the function of lay coordination and direction loses it focus, it becomes blurred and begins to take on the character proper to the ordained.
In this perspective, we can see that, properly defined, lay ministry is no threat to the ministry of the ordained. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Each type of ministry is directed to the other. Without the existence of ordained ministry, the ministerial role of laypersons would never come to be.
By the same token, the vocation of the ordained is to generate and promote the ministries of all the baptized. Indeed, one can say that the measure of effective ordained ministry is the extent to which it brings forth and activates the gifts and particular vocations of the laity.
This explanation satisfied my friend, to some extent. However, he thought that this casts the role of the ordained priest into no more that a purely functional manager or moderator of parish ministries.
Accordingly, I had to expand my explanation by pointing out that the priest is more than a managerial functionary. He is, in fact, called to the vocation of “ordering” the sacramental life of the parish. This is expressed most fully in the priest’s unique role in the celebration of the Eucharist, where he acts “in the person of Christ” in an irreplaceable manner signified by priestly ordination.
But, my friend asked again, do not all Christians act “in the person of Christ” in carrying out their baptismal vocations? Indeed, they do – but within the specific ministries to which they are assigned.
This explanation satisfied my friend – “for the moment,” he added.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.