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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

October 30, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 141




Pat Marrin The burden of servant leadership

By Pat Marrin, editor of Celebration

Today's Gospel: Luke 13:31-35: No prophet should die outside of Jerusalem.

THE LINE above from St. Luke's gospel may be the thread that is keeping many good people in the Catholic church these days, especially women in ministry. And not just heroic women like Joan Chittister, who have long refused to be driven out of their own church, but countless others who toil anonymously in parish and diocesan offices. They are like the Irish women Elizabeth Johnson describes, whose solemn charge is to bank the fire in the hearth at night so it can be revived when dawn comes. Many of these faithful servants have suffered deeply for their decisions to remain inside the church, as have many others who have had to leave in order to survive personally.

Whether inadvertently or with calculation, recent official church directives and pronouncements have inflicted much pain and discouragement on many who still dare believe that Vatican II was authoritative, and that after 40 years, substructures of reform and renewal -- though not always visible -- are now in place and will emerge as the church we so desperately need.

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I have staked my editorial vision as editor of Celebration, NCR's worship resource, on the conviction that we are witnessing an unprecedented transfer of responsibility to the laity in the church. These are carefully chosen words. Clearly, a transfer of responsibility has occurred. As ranks of some remarkable clergy now march into retirement or to their eternal reward, the burden of servant leadership is falling, by design and by default, onto the shoulders of the laity.

The rub is that there has been little transfer of authority. The main stress point, to my mind, is that the hierarchy talks about the priesthood of the laity, but have not relinquished or delegated real power to the 99 percent of the church we call the laity. The charisms of the body of Christ, the indwelling of the Trinity in all the baptized, the freedom of the Holy Spirit to empower anyone, the right and duty of the laity to celebrate the liturgy, to take the gospel to the world, ought to be credential enough. The idea of an adult laity has gotten fulsome lip service from many bishops, but it is always disconnected from real decision making, full, active and conscious participation in the life of our church. A fully awakened Catholic laity? Too difficult, too dangerous, too Protestant.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM, pronounced "germ") is the latest example of this incremental assault on the spirit of Vatican II. The GIRM, now hitting many parishes like a big marshmallow concealing a small neutron bomb (hurts people, preserves existing structures), is a subtle but substantive reassertion of the old hierarchical, centralized, clerical ecclesiology of Trent, with stage directions for worship that make it crystal clear that the only priesthood that really counts is not of baptism but of holy orders. The apostolic model is being defined by emphasis as the old power pyramid with God at the top and the laity at the bottom, and the holy ordained in between as brokers. All that is necessary for the church to exist and to fulfill her mission in the world is that there be one priest saying Mass somewhere. The laity benefit from this, but they are in no way essential to the spiritual mechanics and torque of it. This is Trent. This is Vatican I, but it is not Vatican II.

The GIRM also seems to presume that the laity lack faith in the Real Presence, an affront to the sensus fidelium that has always been the bedrock of faith, or that they have become overly familiar with sacred things only the ordained should handle, or that vocations will surge among boys if the priest is placed on some kind of ontological pedestal, isolated and elevated from the rest of us. If the role of the clergy needs special attention, and it does, will it help or harm priests to separate them even more from their people? And why does their enhancement have to be at the expense of the laity? Many fine lay persons, in almost 30 years of service as liturgical ministers, have come to prize full, conscious and active participation in worship as an appropriate and meaningful exercise of their baptismal priesthood. Proper roles for all, yes, but why this flurry of rubrics to treat our priest as though he were the Infant of Prague?

THE REAL question, I believe, is whether the institutional church, with over 40 years to get ready, will be present the next time a summit is convened to avert a global catastrophe. Will the church be there as an advocate for the poor, a witness for peace and justice, a model for human equality and dignity and a living embodiment of God's love for humanity when an exhausted and divided world sits down to negotiate the future. When the roll is called and the big decisions are made, will Catholics be off arguing about the difference between a bow and a profound bow, and if so, will the Spirit not grieve loudly over the holy city as Jesus once did:

how many times I yearned to gather you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were unwilling. Behold, your house will be abandoned. (Luke 13:34).

Where are the prophets we now need more than ever? They are those servant leaders, ordained and lay, priests, deacons, religious sisters and brothers who love the church in her hour of need. But especially those 30,000 lay ministers who are now carrying on the day-to-day operations of the working church in parishes and diocesan offices. This is the church I cannot leave. I will stake my faith and my future on God's fidelity to her.

Pat Marrin's email addres is Celebration, NCR's sister publication, is an ecumenical worship resource. To preview Celebration, follow this link: Celebration.
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