Lay people should not replace priests, but discover their own place

By Baudouin Ardillier FSJ | France, 11 September 2022
The catechumens, their godparents, catechists and supporters with Fr Ephraim Lam (centre) following the Rite of Initiation of Adults at the Chinese Chaplaincy at St Monica's Parish, North Parramatta. Image: Diocese of Parramatta.

The denunciation of clericalism can no longer wait. And led by Pope Francis, the Catholic Church is reacting strongly.

There are two faces of clericalism. One is the authoritarian priest who decides and does everything on his own. The other is the clericalized laity.

These two major errors prevent the laity from developing the charisms that are called to be recognized as ministries by the Church. When the focus is on the priestly life as a problem to be solved, we fall into the trap.

Unfortunately for the Church in France, it is still possible to see some people railing against any mention of priests and the priesthood, as if it is an attack on the dignity of the laity.

The last few years have created an ideological struggle around the priesthood.

Avoiding the issue, the pope recognizes a ministry for catechists in the “motu proprio” Antiquum ministerium. Last year it was the ministries of readers and acolytes.

Ministry for the laity rooted in their charism

Ministry does not come from the function that one practices, but must be the Church’s recognition of a particular gift (“charism”) that the Holy Spirit bestows on a person for the good of all.

Among the talented catechists in my parish, one of them enjoys a special grace from the Holy Spirit for her mission with adults, which the community has witnessed.

Since she took charge of the catechumens, not only do their numbers increase every year, but the catechumens remain in the parish in edifying commitments to the service of their brothers and sisters and of the Church.

In other places, some 80% of the neophytes leave the Church within two years!

In order to involve them more in the life of the Church, lay people have been pushed into positions of “lay people in ecclesial mission”. Often this is done to make up for the lack of priests, rather to recognize and utilize a person’s special charism.

These Catholics are generous, and often combine competence with evangelical passion. But many have been defeated, pushed to being almost lay “ministers”, without having discerned their true charism.

They have been chosen only to fill a position, an error of discernment that has created many difficult human situations.

Some dioceses or movements have masked the absence of priestly vocations by hiring lay people to replace priests, justified by a certain laicist reading of the Second Vatican Council: lay people must from now on replace priests who, until now, took up too much space.

Isn’t this reading reductive? Pope Francis is finally making up for a considerable delay in the Church, which has done a lot of harm.

The female priesthood

If some have fought to have married priests or women priests as the sign of the Church’s openness to the laity, it is because the laity, in their respective charisms, have not received the importance they should have from the Church.

We have been rushing to clericalize the laity and secularize the clergy.

Priests must be priests, with their own gifts and recognized limitations. Likewise, the laity must have their charism recognized and emphasized by their own ministries.

In the fourth chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit who gave some people the charism to be apostles, others prophets, others evangelists, others pastors and doctors.

The Church has largely favored the priesthood and the sacraments to the detriment of the ministries of the baptized.

Not only have they been neglected, but they have been set in opposition to each other, forgetting the complementarity of the members of the body and in the diversification of our actions.

The goodwill of priests

Many people close to us carry within them an evangelizing fire, one with a zeal and competence for preaching, another a gift for praying for the sick, etc.

They take these missions as a calling from God, but are dependent upon the goodwill of some priests, who do not invite them to exercise their charism.

Ecclesial practice has limited Christian life to the celebration of the sacraments, instead of manifesting the greatness of God’s grace by giving the laity the opportunity to exercise their charism in recollections, prayer evenings, etc.

Recognized through a ministry and sent by the Church, they would nevertheless bring the long awaited new breath. This is the door that Pope Francis has just opened.

If we clericalize the laity, or if we secularize the clergy, we prevent the Spirit from manifesting the ministries upon which the Church must rely to bring the Good News.

On the contrary, we must discern in our local Churches the charisms given to us by the Holy Spirit, recognize them and validate them, if need be, through lay ministries that are sent on mission for the growth of the Kingdom.

We will then see as a matter of course the complementarity of priests who lead, sanctify and teach the flock and, on the other hand, lay people hired for positions, as well as lay people exercising a ministry in the world.

Baudouin Ardillier FSJ is a member of the Congregation Saint Jean who serves as parish priest and area dean in the Archdiocese of Avignon (France).

Reproduced with permission from La Croix International. 

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