Blast from the past? Lay ministry in the Catholic tradition

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Zeni Fox says that calling lay Catholics to ministry has its roots in the early church.

Where in the tradition do we find lay ministry?

According to the New Testament there were various people—in addition to the Twelve—who exercised leadership in the early church. Paul mentions more than a hundred people by name associated with him and his ministry. But it gets fuzzy because the priesthood as we understand it now is not in the New Testament. The only place it is mentioned is Hebrews, and it’s Christ who’s the high priest.

Even after ordained priesthood began to be seen as a central dimension in the life of the church, there were others who exercised leadership. Kings had significant governance within the church, and saintly queens led ministries of service to their people with food and clothing.

When active religious orders emerged, it wasn’t as we know them now. There were lay women who served poor, such as St. Angela Merici, who taught religious education to poor children. She was joined by others who lived in their homes, did not wear habits, and didn’t take vows. But because women working out in the world in that way were frowned upon, they were gradually drawn into convents. We tend to draw things into the patterns that we know already, and that’s what happened with many groups of women who were doing ministry just as Catholic Christians.

What would be the most surprising and challenging for a person transported from a hundred years ago into a parish today?

The experience most Catholics have of church is that of Sunday liturgy, and that would be a very different experience today. Starting with the procession, they’d see boys and girls as acolytes and men and women who are lectors and extraordinary ministers of communion, which they wouldn’t have experienced back then. Then there’s the parish bulletin with a list of parish staff with the sister who’s the director of social concerns, the young man who’s the youth minister, and the married woman who’s the DRE. I think they would miss a lot of statues, devotions, and the kinds of social spiritual groups that they knew—the ladies’ sodality and the men’s Holy Name Society and groups like that. They would also be surprised by the emphasis on social-justice ministries, with youth trips going to Appalachia or to build homes in New Orleans.

These are all significant changes. In all, there’s a different tone in the church. The importance and centrality of the role of the whole community is much more apparent now than in the past.

This article accompanies Follow the laity, a complete interview with Zeni Fox, which appeared in the January 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 1, pages 18-22).