LEMs learn of rights of laity from canon lawyer

Friday, May. 26, 2023
LEMs learn of rights of laity from canon lawyer + Enlarge
Fr. Roger Keeler blesses those attending the May 13 lay ecclesial ministers formation class.
By Marie Mischel
Intermountain Catholic

SALT LAKE CITY — As the eight members of the current cohort of lay ecclesiastical ministers approach the end of their four-year formation, they heard a presentation on the role of the laity as outlined by the Code of Canon Law.

The presenter for the May 13 class at St. Vincent de Paul Parish’s Benvegnu Center was Father Roger Keeler, JCD, assistant professor of canon law at the Oblate School of Theology and former executive director of the Canon Law Society of America. Fr. Keeler is a familiar face in the Diocese of Salt Lake City; he has spoken to several of the LEM classes, and also gave the keynote address at the 2019 Pastoral Congress.

On May 13, Fr. Keeler began with an overview of the history of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, noting that it stems from several sources: Sacred Scripture, natural law, custom, the Church Councils, the Church Fathers, pontiffs, bishops, rules of religious orders, civil law and concordats. He then pointed out many of the sections of canon law that deal with the laity.

A constant theme throughout his presentation was that the Church calls the laity to a wide range of ministry. For example, they may, with permission of the local bishop and if they “possess the appropriate qualities,” administer some sacramentals. They also “can be called upon to cooperate with the bishop and presbyters in the exercise of the ministry of the word,” according to Canon 759, because “by virtue of baptism and confirmation, lay members of the Christian faithful are witnesses of the gospel message by word and the example of a Christian life.”  

Canon law also allows the diocesan bishop, “where there is a lack of priests and deacons,” to obtain permission from the Vatican to delegate lay persons to assist at marriages. Fr. Keeler gave an example of a rural parish in Canada where a vowed religious woman had been delegated to do just that.

Although canon law prohibits a lay person from saying the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass or giving a homily, “lay persons can be permitted to preach in a church or oratory if necessity requires it in certain circumstances or it seems advantageous in particular cases,” Canon 766 states.

In addition to speaking about canon law, Fr. Keeler also emphasized the priesthood of the baptized. For example, he quoted Pope Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei (Mediator of God): “By the waters of baptism, as by common right, Christians are made members of the mystical Body of Christ the Priest, and by the ‘character’ which is imprinted on their souls, they are anointed to give worship to God; thus they participate, according to their condition, in the priesthood of Christ.”

In an interview after the class, Fr. Keeler said he discussed the priesthood of the baptized because he was trying to impress on those present that the Code of Canon Law “is a tool for pastoral action, and that when one looks at the code carefully, one comes to recognize that inherent in it is a notion of profound collaboration” between the clergy and the laity, and the need for them to be in dialogue.

Attending the May 13 presentation were several LEMs who already have been commissioned; they were there for continuing education, said Susan Northway, the diocese director of faith formation, who is in charge of the LEM program in English.

The topic of canon law is important, Northway said, because “the entire lay ministry … is in a state of discernment,” as LEMs are being commissioned and placed in various ministries in dioceses across the United States.

Also attending the presentation was Fr. Samuel Dinsdale, pastor of St. Vincent’s, who said he attended to learn more about canon law as it applies to lay ministry, which is important “in any parish.” At his parish, the laity is very important in visiting the sick; within his parish boundaries are at least 22 nursing homes and two major hospitals, and “without lay ministry we would be sunk,” he said.

In addition, the teachers at the parish school are laity, he pointed out. “The parish would not run without supporting lay ministry,” he said.

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