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When I read Bishop Robert Barron’s Op-Ed last week entitled “Getting out of the Sacristy: A look at our pastoral priorities” a lot of questions immediately came to mind. I’ve read many of Bishop Barron’s books and I recently made sure that every member of our parish’s Evangelization Team, and both of our priests, got a copy of his book To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age co-authored with John L. Allen Jr. I agree both with his approach and largely his diagnosis of the problems facing the Church in the New Evangelization at this point in time, as well as the great need to fully implement Gaudium et Spes.
Even so, I thought that Bishop Barron should have gone further in his piece and looked to the laity. Especially in our time, the faithful Catholic laity are called to a particular vocation to evangelize in the secular world and are especially called to evangelize the culture. This is articulated in both Lumen Gentium and Christifideles Laici.
In no way do I think that Bishop Barron is calling for the ministerial priesthood to take up the laity’s role. However, I do think there is an issue that needs to be addressed, namely that the ministerial priesthood’s role within the Church is primarily to teach, to sanctify, and to govern the People of God and to make the Sacraments present to us. This is the primary mission of the priesthood. In so doing, the laity is equipped for their mission of evangelizing the world. The fact of the matter is, not only has Gaudium et Spes been greatly misinterpreted and poorly implemented in many corners, but Lumen Gentium and Christifideles Laici have been ignored in far too many parishes as well.
The ministerial priesthood is meant to help prepare those of us in the laity to go out into the world to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are sent forth at the end of Mass in order to bring people back to Christ. It’s much like the great sending forth when God speaks Creation into existence through the Word. It is the great exitus, as understood by St. Thomas Aquinas. Creation is then meant to return to God, reditus. We too as the Mystical Body are sent forth in order to bring all peoples to God through the Church. Our greatest desire should be to draw all peoples to Christ in the eucharistic banquet. Based on his previous works, Bishop Barron and I would probably agree that it is primarily the laity who are sent in that great movement (exitus) in order to bring others to the salvation extended to all peoples by Christ through His Church (reditus).
Practically speaking, the laity is not fully equipped to live it’s mission in the world. Bishop Barron rightly points out, the numbers of people leaving the Church are startling. Studies show that less than 20% of regular Church attendees are involved in ministry or donating to their parish on a given Sunday. Most of the time, the numbers are even lower than 20%. Yes, we need to evangelize the culture, but we also need to stop the hemorrhaging in our parishes. We should be drawing those who are already sacramentalized into a deeper encounter with Christ and, through the guidance of the ministerial priesthood, we must find ways to equip the laity to evangelize the world. How do we engage the people who are in the pews now, so they can go out to proclaim the Good News?
When I read Bishop Barron’s piece, the first thing I thought of was all of the priests that I know. They maintain schedules that allow for little, if any down time. A good many of them are exhausted, but seldom complain about it. They are not hiding in the Sacristy of their parish or isolating themselves from the world at large. Most of them are fulfilling the vast duties they have been given through not only their parish, but also their diocese. We have priests in our diocese with three parishes miles apart. They spend a good part of their week driving between those parishes in order to make the Sacraments present to the faithful. These are men who are over-extended and exhausted, but they continue to lay down their lives in service to Christ through their sacred office.
I agree that priests should be out in the culture as time allows. Wearing their clerics while out running errands is a simple way that priests can be a sign of Christ to the world. In doing so, a person may be brought back to the Sacraments and the Church through an opportunity to engage with the priest and seek the Sacrament of Confession. Being active in social media allows priests to engage with a wide range of people, and should be encouraged. They should also serve the larger community outside of the parish as much as time allows, but we also need to keep in mind that they may not be able to serve in that capacity as much as they would like. Plus, it is the laity that has a secular character by virtue of our vocation in the world.
My main question is: What are we doing to actively equip and engage the lay faithful in our mission? How are we encouraging the lay faithful to evangelize the wider culture? In my experience in ministry through various parishes, it is painfully obvious that the vast majority of people sitting in the pews do not realize that they are called to evangelize and bring the world to Christ through their daily lives. They do not know that their faith life is not meant to be separate from their secular life.
Both Lumen Gentium and Christifideles Laici clearly call the laity to engage the culture in every facet of our lives. We are meant to be witnesses to the saving message of Jesus Christ in our families, jobs, communities, politics, economics, clubs, sports, and the list goes on. Every moment of our lives is meant to be lived through our participation in the Divine Offices of Christ by virtue of our Baptism. In doing so, we are able to be examples of holiness to a broken and Fallen world. There is nothing in this life more contagious than holiness, which I know is something Bishop Barron would agree with me on based on his work.
As a member of the laity, my call to the ministerial priesthood is this: Help us to live our mission. Lead us in a way that we can confidently go out into the world proclaiming the Good News. This is accomplished by your examples of heroic virtue, holiness, the way in which you celebrate the Mass, being men of deep prayer, the challenge you put to us to spread the Gospel, programs within the parish setting, as well as a constant push outward towards the culture. The parish is our starting point for that outward motion, most especially in the Mass.
The fact of the matter is that it is not the ministerial priesthood that, by and large, is going to evangelize today’s culture. It is those of us with the passion, zeal, determination, and above all, great love of Our Lord, who are members of the laity that will be able to accomplish the mission of evangelization through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Priests absolutely should not be isolated from the culture, but the missions of the laity and the ministerial priesthood both differ and converge. There are specific religious orders that seek to evangelize and there is no denying how orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans have greatly impacted evangelization efforts down through the ages. That being said, diocesan priests largely do not have the time needed to engage the culture at large. Instead, they are meant to call those of us in the laity to evangelize.
By equipping the laity to evangelize the culture, the ministerial priesthood participates in that mission. As time allows, they should be out there with us, but not at the expense of their pressing duties, most especially the Sacraments. I know this is not what Bishop Barron is suggesting. His new series The Mass clearly shows the primacy of the Mass in his own thinking. In my view, however, we need to go a step further, and actually implement Lumen Gentium and Christifideles Laici fully. Let’s encourage and equip the laity to live the mission given to us by Christ and His Church, which is accomplished primarily through encouraging the faithful to proclaim the Good News by living holy lives in every moment of the day, which allows us to share our faith with all those we meet along the way.
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