Church needs laity

Some 200 attended the launch of the new Centre for Christian Engagement at St. Mark’s College in Vancouver, to hear presentations about "The Role of the Laity."

Speakers at Centre for Catholic Engagement inaugural event include Michael Higgins, Sr. Sue Mosteller, and Fr. Ron Rolheiser

By Agnieszka Ruck, BC Catholic

[VANCOUVER – Canadian Catholic News (CCN)] – Abuse victims have suffered, priests have been found guilty, and faithful Catholics have seriously questioned their faith in the wake of recent clerical sex scandals.

Amid this crisis, the people who can do the most to help the Church are the laity, says Michael Higgins, a professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University, Conn.

Higgins was invited to Vancouver to speak at the launch of the new Centre for Christian Engagement at St. Mark’s College, formed to encourage dialogue on various emerging Church issues. Some 200 attended the first event about “The Role of the Laity.”

“How often we want, as Catholics, to simply think: will the media stop this? …But it doesn’t happen, and it won’t happen, because the issue hasn’t been addressed in any way that goes beyond simply the symptoms, the immediate crisis, the negotiating, the litigation, the containment of the scandals,” said Higgins at the St. Mark’s College event May 27, 2019 in Vancouver.

The “malaise” that has invaded the Church won’t go away without an immediate, serious, and transparent effort to change the way things are, he said, and those efforts belong in the hands of the laity.

Michael Higgins, professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut, USA.

Higgins said members of the Church’s hierarchy tasked with “judging their own” are too close to the issue. “You might think: isn’t this something that should come from the governing structure of the Church? My argument would be no, it is almost impossible to come from them.”

“When you’re at the heart of it and you’re dealing with a crisis on a daily basis, and you’re worried about canonical issues, and you’re worried about other matters that have a specific clerical intonation, you can’t actually begin to see how to move forward, partly because you’re in the midst of it.” Instead of asking priests to judge priests, “we need the laity.”

Higgins suggested that for the Church to move forward, it should “create a new model of effective presbyteral ministry.”

“What does the laity want from the priesthood? How can priests serve the laity in ways that are credible, meaningful, and effective? Because quite frankly, in many cases, it ain’t working,” he said.

He proposed a new model following the example of clerics like Fr. Henri Nouwen, who before his death in 1996 lived a life of accompaniment and empathy.

“No matter who sought him or how close the friendship, how distant the connection, how arbitrary the contact, Nouwen responded with compassionate intensity,” said Higgins, pointing out the priest’s unlikely friendships with trapeze artists and deep love for a married couple grieving the death of a child.

“He is a model for the diocesan priesthood in particular. He was drawn to the margins, not to the centre. He built bridges that united people, not walls that contained them in their fears and prejudices. He knew that perhaps the greatest gift a priest possesses is the gift of blessing.”

Higgins suggested revisiting France’s worker-priest movement, which saw ordained priests putting on overalls and working in factories side by side with people of the working class (and celebrating Mass and other priestly functions outside their full-time jobs). It was designed to help them evangelize and relate to the struggle of the average labourer but became controversial after some priests married fellow workers. It was put to a stop in 1954 by Pope Pius XII.

A priest “has the capacity to be a genuine alter Christus – another Christ – not above or beyond the laity, but in their very midst as one of them,” Higgins said.

A panel of speakers addressed “The Role of the Laity” at the recent event at St. Mark’s College, Vancouver, BC.

A panel of other speakers and experts also shared opinions on The Role of the Laity at the event, including canon lawyer and St. Mark’s College dean of theology Lynda Robitaille.

Robitaille pointed out that Canon Law makes it clear the role of the laity is not just to “pray, pay, and obey,” and while some Church offices require ordination, others only require baptism.

“Made sharers in their own way in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and royal function, they are called to exercise the mission which God has entrusted to the Church to fulfill in the world, in accord with the condition proper to each,” she said, quoting Canon Law.

Perhaps what’s needed in this time of crisis is another look at the mission of lay people and concrete ideas of how they can live out their baptismal roles in the Church, she said. “With baptism, you can exercise decision-making roles in the Church. However, there are not as many of those roles as I would like,” she said.

“This discussion of what is the role of ordination and what is the role of baptism is ongoing and, I think, we’re at a crucial point.”

Robitaille is not alone; according to a new survey by the Angus Reid Institute, 40 per cent of Catholics believe there is not enough room for lay involvement in their parishes.

“We are at a very troubled time in the Catholic Church,” said pollster and sociologist Angus Reid, who conducted a recent survey that found 80 per cent of respondents give the Church poor marks for how it handles sexual abuse by clergy.

Just over half (55 per cent) said their view of the Church was weakened in the midst of the crisis, and 17 per cent said their view of the Church was ruined.

“The views of ordinary Canadians toward the Catholic Church are at a crisis and breaking point,” he said. “Obviously the way out of that is going to require some fairly dramatic and timely efforts.”

Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas, offered a dramatic suggestion to the audience.

“We need to change Canon Law. If we don’t, we’ll be having this conversation again 50 years from now,” he said. “Right now, Canon Law is set up in such a way that if you have a good bishop, it really works. If you have a good pastor, it really works. If you don’t, it doesn’t work … Priests, we have the administrative hammer, and we can share it or not.”

Rolheiser said abuse cases were covered up in part because “we don’t have a shared system of (Church) governance” in which lay people, including women, have “shared decision-making power.”

“I’m not naïve: to change Canon Law would have massive implications … but if we stay this way, things will stay the same.”

Higgins agreed with Rolheiser on this point. “Canon Law is our creation. Canon Law isn’t the Gospel. We codified the law in 1917 and we changed it in 1983,” he said. “The law serves the faith. It serves the tradition. It’s not the other way around. I’m not so frightened of the stranglehold of Canon Law as some are, because I think Canon Law is about to change.”

Whether or not a change in Canon Law is imminent, Sr. Sue Mosteller, CSJ, shared some powerful ways the laity can make a difference right now.

A former leader of the International Federation of L’Arche, Mosteller has known many lay people who poured significant amounts of time and compassion into people with intellectual disabilities.

“We need to work for the Church, and we need to push for changes, there’s no question about that, but I think we can make a big excuse and put all of the blame apart from us, because we can’t do it, because we don’t have the power. But I want to say all of us have a lot of power,” she said.

One of those powers is one of blessing. She recounted a story of crisis within the L’Arche community, where a member had been hit by a car and was in critical condition. His father was encouraged to bless the man, touching his head, hands, and feet, and telling him about how much he loved him. The disabled, extremely injured man eventually recovered.

“We’re all called to be ministers. We’re all baptized,” Mosteller said. “We can love one another, and we can love those who are different. We can learn to trust ourselves to say: ‘This is my brother or my sister. I don’t know what to do or how to do it, but I’ll just reach out and in my humility and vulnerability. I care about you and I’m happy to listen.’”

The Centre for Christian Engagement was founded to “address the challenges associated with the disengaged Christians from the Church and from the life of faith,” said St. Mark’s president Peter Meehan, “by emphasizing the importance of listening, reflecting, learning, discussing, and praying.”

The centre has support from Reid, the Archdiocese of Vancouver, philanthropist Andy Szocs, and businessman Peter Bull, a member of the Providence Health Care Board.