Celebrating decade of lay ecclesial ministers

By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the document “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” a resource book published by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) for guiding the development of lay ecclesial ministry in the United States. Moreover, this document highlighted the ongoing evolution of the laity in the Church’s mission in the world that the Lord Jesus entrusted to us.
Bishop William Houck appointed the first Lay Ecclesial Minister in the Diocese of Jackson in 1987, and currently there are 15 LEMs serving in our midst.  Their ministry is parish-based in collaboration with the ordained clergy, with those in consecrated life, and with many other paid staff and volunteers.
In the modern era the development of lay ministry surfaced in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. (1961-1965) In reality, much that was promulgated in the 16 documents of the Council could track its roots to at least a half century earlier in “Lumen Gentium.”
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church set the course for the growth of lay ministry during the past 50 years. “All Christians in whatever state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity, and this holiness is conducive to a more human way of living… “All of the baptized are called to work toward the transformation of the world.  Most do so by working in the secular realm; some do so by working in the Church and focusing on the building of ecclesial communion.”
The 1983 Code of Canon Law that transported the 1917 Code into the modern era solidified the development of lay ministry into the universal law of the Church. (Canons 23-24) The term “lay ecclesial ministry” does not imply that the ministries in question are distinctive to lay persons alone.
What is distinctive to the laity is engagement in the world with the intent of bringing the secular order into conformity with God’s plan. However, by their baptismal incorporation into the Body of Christ, lay persons are also equipped with gifts and graces to build up the Church from within, in cooperation with the hierarchy and under its direction.
In the United States Catholic Conference’s 1995 statement, “Called and Gifted for the New Millennium,” we read that “the new evangelization will become a reality only if ordained and lay members of Christ’s faithful understand their roles and ministries as complimentary and their purposes joined to the one mission and ministry of Jesus Christ.”
At a significant point on this journey of faith, Saint John Paul II in his encyclical “At the Close of the Great Jubilee (2000),” provided the Church with a vision for the new millennium. “The unity of the Church is not uniformity, but an organic blending of legitimate diversities. It is the reality of many members joined in a single body, the one Body of Christ. (1Cor, 12,12) Therefore the Church of the new millennium will need to encourage all the baptized and confirmed to be aware of their active responsibility in the Church’s life. Together with the ordained ministry, other ministries, whether formally instituted or simply recognized, can flourish for the good of the whole community, sustaining it in all its many needs.”
Many dioceses across the United States have formally instituted lay ecclesial ministry, and the Diocese of Jackson may well have been the first. This ministry finds its inspiration and reality in God’s call, and the generous response of those who have received the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. As noted there are 14 LEMs currently serving and their number is comprised of seven lay women, four laymen, two women religious, and one religious deacon.  The ecclesial ministry of these men and women is characterized by:
s Authorization of the hierarchy to serve publically in the local church;
s Leadership in a particular area of ministry;
s Close and mutual collaboration with the pastoral ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons;
sPreparation and formation appropriate to the level of responsibilities that are assigned to them.
Throughout my 36 and a half years as a priest in the Diocese of Scranton, Pa., the formal assigning of lay ecclesial ministers did not exist. As I have travelled around the Diocese of Jackson it has been enlightening and inspiring for me to encounter our LEMs, to experience the parishes where they serve at the weekend Mass or liturgy, and to learn about the strength and limitations of each community. We are blessed to have a collaborative and cooperative relationship among our LEMs, Sacramental Ministers, and Canonical Pastors around the diocese.
As I look ahead to the semi-annual conference of bishops in Saint Louis next week, I will participate in a pre-Conference gathering of bishops to mark the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the co-workers document, and my next column will be based on the current reality of LEMs in the United States, and the future direction for their ministry, here and in other parts of the nation.
On average in the United States each year, 1500 priests depart from active ministry, attributable to retirement, death, or departure, and 500 are ordained.  This is not a bleak picture, but it sure creates a lean environment with respect to active clergy.
In this light for the foreseeable future, LEMs will continue to be a vital part of the landscape of active ministry in the Catholic Church in collaboration with the ordained, religious, and the legions of active volunteers who generously give of their time and talent to serve the Lord in his Body, the Church for the salvation of all.  After all, the Church exists to give glory to God and to continue Christ’s work of salvation a labor that will continue until Jesus Christ comes again.