Pastoral associates encouraged at annual gathering

BRIGHTON -- At their annual gathering Sept. 20, pastoral associates in the archdiocese were affirmed in their ministry and encouraged to seek ongoing formation by Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley and Sister Amy Hoey, RSM, project coordinator of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Family, Laity, Women and Youth.

Sister Amy coordinated the USCCB subcommittee that last year produced the document “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” a guideline for the formation of lay ecclesial ministers.

Documents for the formation of priests and deacons already exist, and while “Co-Workers” does not have the “force of law,” the document does provide important goals for the growing worldwide ministry, she said to those gathered at St. John’s Seminary.

Sister Amy, an East Boston native who studied at Emmanuel College and received her master’s from Boston College, said the theological foundations of the document, the first section, received the most attention from writers because it is the most important part.

“The document attempts to ensure that this development [of lay ecclesial ministers] will occur in ways that are faithful to the Church’s theological and doctrinal tradition,” Sister Amy said.

The theme of “Co-Workers” is that the Church is a communion called to a mission, which is carried out through ministries. All of those ministries are relational and spring from the relational aspect of God in the Trinity, she said.

“There are other Church documents which look specifically at one group or another who minister to the Church, but this is the first to successfully integrate the various forms of ministry within the Church,” she said.

The second principal section of the document addresses pastoral applications such as discernment and suitability, authorization and formation.

The document challenges pastoral associates to seek ongoing human, intellectual, pastoral and spiritual formation, which is “critically important.” They must receive proper formation so that they can serve the Church with fidelity and spread authentic Church teaching, she said.

“Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” was developed in a series of drafts and with the input of many different groups including priests, religious and lay Catholics -- both young and old.

“Sometimes when my desk was flooded with responses from bishops, advisors, theologians, canonists, human resource people, attorneys, I began to wish it was a little dialogical,” she said. “It was like writing a dissertation with a staff of 40. It was challenging.”

One struggle the group faced was the definition of a lay ecclesial minister. After much discussion, they agreed that a lay minister is one whose ecclesial service is characterized by authorization of the hierarchy to serve publicly in the local Church, leadership in a particular area of ministry, close mutual collaboration with the pastoral ministry of bishops, priests and deacons as well as preparation and formation appropriate to the level of responsibilities that are assigned to them, she added.

That definition purposely encompasses multiple roles, including lay pastoral associates, directors of religious education, youth ministers, outreach ministers, directors of music and directors of liturgy. The document is not meant to be the final word on lay ecclesial ministry. In the document, the bishops cite a goal of revisiting the subject sometime in the next five years, she said.

Sister Amy also noted that many lay ministers see their work as a vocation that they are called to. While the document never uses the term vocation, it refers many times to the call that lay ministers receive from God and the discernment necessary to work in such positions.

Cardinal O’Malley responded to Sister Amy’s comments by emphasizing the importance of calling in the lives of all Catholics.

“I believe that a big challenge today is to communicate to our people, all Catholics, a sense of personal vocation and a sense of communal mission,” he said.

Cardinal O’Malley said he hopes that the ministries of pastoral associates will help to further a sense of personal vocation and communal mission in the Catholic faith.

“So often we get the impression that we’re all in competition with one another. It’s so silly,” he added. “It’s the body of Christ in the beautiful language of Paul about those gifts, the gifts that are given, not for the individual but so the individual can put them at the service of the body of Christ.”

Cardinal O’Malley also encouraged the lay ministers, saying that their personal vocations are important for the life of the Church.

Sister Dorothea Masuret, CSJ, director of the Office for Lay Ecclesial Ministries, said that “Co-Workers” is both a challenge and a great resource.

“Lay Ecclesial Ministers have been growing and being formed for Church ministry for at least the last 30 years but there were no guiding principles,” she said.

The archdiocese is fortunate to have so many educational resources, including three schools that are involved in forming a person for ministry -- St. John’s Seminary, Boston College, and Weston Jesuit School of Theology, she added.

The greatest challenge in the document lies in the communal nature of ministry, Sister Dorothy said.

“While we are called personally, we share in a communal mission,” she said. “How we work together, appreciate the giftedness of each calling and collaborate with one another will be a great testimony to our Trinitarian God whose essence is communal.”