A prominent bishop told a gathering of more than 200 clergy, faculty and lay ministers that the ordained ministry needs to recognize the importance of Lay Ecclesial Ministry (LEM) within the Catholic Church.
“The church would not fulfill its mission if it were not for lay ecclesial ministers (LEMs) who make our mission of Christ more alive, more visible and more active,” said Bishop Gregory M. Aymond, of the Catholic Diocese of Austin, Texas. “The bishop, the priest and the deacon should be encouraged to see the need for lay ecclesial ministry and how it enhances who we are as a church. . . It should be part of their formation program.”
The bishop gave his remarks at “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Pastoral Convocation,” a one-day event on April 4 sponsored by the Graduate School of Religion and Religions Education (GRE) to deepen the discussion of the role of lay ministry within the Catholic Church. Lay ecclesial ministers are non-ordained, and often volunteer, pastoral ministers who do evangelical missionary work, teaching and other grassroots outreach alongside priests, deacons and theologians. Currently there are more lay ecclesial ministers in ministry than priests or deacons in the United States, and the number of LEMs continues to grow. According to the National Catholic Reporter, by 2010 the number of active diocesan clergy in the United States will be less than the number of U.S. parishes, leaving lay ministers to fill the gap.
In 2005, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a document, “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” to help guide the development of LEMs. The document, which Bishop Aymond helped create and which had as one of its key supporters Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., set guidelines for suitability, formation and practice of lay ministry.
Calling ‘Co-Workers’ a “wonderful beginning,” Bishop Aymond said that several other challenges of lay ministry need to be studied to ensure that LEM candidates are properly educated, trained and formed. These include deciding who discerns, authorizes and evaluates LEMs, what kind of curriculum should be required and what level of salaries and benefits LEMs should receive.
Rev. Anthony Ciorra, Ph.D., dean of GRE, noted that the school has strengthened its mission to help foster and prepare people who want to serve the lay ministry through an online 18-credit graduate certificate in faith formation. Coursework for the certificate covers the core elements recommended in the “Co-Workers” document—the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral development of the individual candidate.
“Fordham University is a leader in the conversation on the topic of lay ministry,” Father Ciorra said. “We hope to carry the legacy of this conference in what we do. . . to further deepen the dialogue and mission for lay ministry.”
Representatives of GRE, Father Ciorra added, were meeting with representatives from other Jesuit colleges to discuss how Jesuit institutions might “collaboratively respond to the vision and competencies of co-workers.”