Embracing the laity as the ‘hands’ and ‘feet’ of the Church
When it comes to vibrant parishes, there is an essential and fundamental element – the laity.
“Without the laity, what is a church?” asked Holy Cross Father Robert Wiseman, pastor of Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Parish in Bennington. “Priests would stand in an empty church with no one responding,” he said.
“It is this wonderful, great variety of people” who enrich the life of the Church and evangelize others, Father Wiseman stressed.
“It is the laity who are called to bring the Gospel to the world, to their communities, to their workplaces, to their organizations, to their families,” said Deacon Phil Lawson, executive director of evangelization, catechesis, divine worship, marriage and family and respect life for the Diocese of Burlington. “How often is it that the laity are the ‘hands’ and ‘feet’ of Christ and the Church. A vibrant community is made up of men and women who joyfully embrace that opportunity,” he said.
Edmundite Father David Cray, pastor of St. Jude Parish in Hinesburg and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Charlotte, said: “Vatican II defines the Church as ‘The People of God.’ Conversely, the people of God are the Church, and the ordained ministers are at their service (“Lumen Gentium,” II, 9-10). So, the laity are essential to creating and being a parish. I often observe that while pastors come and pastors go, parish communities go on forever, sometimes including several generations of the same families.”
He has observed that every parish has a character, or personality, that endures regardless of who the pastors are. “As an Edmundite, I have served in parishes in several different countries and cultures. It was always the people who helped me to understand and situate myself in the different locations where I have found myself,” he said.
Speaking from the perspective of parish director of Catholic formation for Mater Dei Parish in Newport, Ann Gonyaw pointed out, “The laity play an essential role in creating vibrant parishes because they provide a link between what happens at the altar and what happens in the home. A parish is only as vibrant as its individual families. The pastor, representing Christ, is the head, but can only be effective with a healthy, functioning body, the laity.”
Gonyaw believes there are two ways “the body of the parish can be healthy and strong,” the first being when “the gifts and talents of each member are appreciated and brought into the light.” The second is through “concerted efforts to reach individual families in their needs, by personally getting to know each family, rather than just seeing the parish as a mass collective.”
Father Wiseman, who makes it a point to be present to the laity at parish functions and ministries, finds wisdom in the words of Holy Cross Father Charles Sheedy, who said, “’Half of life is showing up.”
“I show up,” said Father Wiseman, “not only for parish events but for important times in their lives, as well,” sharing that it is important for the laity to know they are valued.
The vibrancy of every parish, said Dr. Kevin Parizo, organist/music director at Assumption of the Blessed Virgiin Mary Parish in Middlebury, depends on the “involvement of the laity,” who embody a wide variety of skills and talents. “No one person, or clergy, possesses all the skills needed to run a parish,” he said.
The music ministry of a parish “adds vitality and a sense of community. Choir members serve the musical and spiritual needs of the community. Their participation leads parishioners to relate to God through music; a catalyst to emotions that live interiorly. Music reaches places the spoken word cannot tap into,” Parizo explained.
In addition, he said, “tapping into the fortes of parishioners” helps strengthen parish life. He offered examples of those with a financial background being vital to a parish “which has to pay its bills” or someone with the ability to read clearly and with feeling who can help to express the Word of God as a lector. Then there is the unique ministry of those who have the ability to welcome, respond to questions and offer directions who may serve as ushers.
Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion are also essential roles for the laity in these times when there is only one priest in a parish, making it difficult to offer Communion to several hundred people at a time, Parizo stressed.
Father Cray noted that in both of the parishes where he serves as pastor “the parish pastoral councils are structured in such a way that each member has responsibility for tracking and providing leadership in some aspect of parish life: liturgy, youth ministry, communications, religious education, finances, buildings and grounds, social outreach, etc.”
The same is true with the membership of the finance councils, Father Cray said: “Our two finance chairs are a bank vice president and an entrepreneurial businessman: Obviously, I am neither. Volunteers take care of cleaning the church and providing spotless altar linens, as well as other church and grounds maintenance, saving a lot of money that would otherwise go to outside companies. In both parishes, lay persons take the initiative in serving the elderly and disadvantaged through visitation and various forms of service, including Communion calls.”
Deacon Lawson underscored that “a vibrant community is made up of men and women who genuinely want to be there, are grateful to be with their brothers and sisters in Christ, are grateful for the Bread of Life and genuinely seeking to follow Christ, even amidst our struggles. Every person in the parish is a living billboard or advertisement for your church. That is both a privilege and a tremendous responsibility.”
Looking forward, Father Cray added, “With fewer priests and greater administrative and pastoral challenges in the near-term future, we will be looking to the laity to keep a lot of the day-to-day operations of the Church going.”
— Mary Morrell