Conference looks at role of laity in changing Church

The conference attendees engage in small group discussions. Pilot photo/ Gregory L. Tracy

WESTON -- Lay pastoral leaders and priests from parishes across the Archdiocese of Boston heard and shared insight recently on their roles in a changing Church.

About 250 clergy and lay ecclesial ministers, and parish staff members gathered at the Campion Renewal Center on April 16 for the third annual Co-Workers in the Vineyard Conference. The day-long event, titled “Co-Workers in Mission,” was sponsored by the Master of Arts in Ministry program at St. John’s Seminary and the archdiocese’s Office of Clergy Support and Ongoing Formation.

The conference was also co-sponsored by other offices of the archdiocese, including the offices of New Evangelization of Youth and Young Adults, Permanent Diaconate Formation, Cultural Diversity, Delegate for Religious, Religious Education, and Worship and Spiritual Life. The conference was underwritten by Our Sunday Visitor.

The day opened with Eucharistic adoration, and also included talks and small group discussions.

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley delivered the keynote address and Father David Couturier, OFM, Cap., director of the archdiocese’s Office of Pastoral Planning, delivered an afternoon address.

Attendees also attended a breakout session of their choice. Father John Piderit, SJ and Melanie Morey led a session on forming a parish culture, Father Richard Lennan, professor of systematic theology at Boston College, led a breakout on parish collaboration, and Father Paul Ritt, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Chelmsford, led a session on working with parish councils.

“It gets into what we are doing, as much as why,” said Father Bill Kelly, director of the clergy support office.

Cardinal O’Malley’s keynote set the context for the conference. He said modern times require a culture of pastoral planning, and explained the importance of pastoral planning in the Church today.

“We are at a turning point in bringing the mission of the Gospel of the people of God,” he said. “We must move from maintenance to mission conscientiously and consciously preparing for our future.”

He also encouraged pastoral leaders to be strong Christian disciples, and to prepare others to be disciples of Christ as well.

“As pastoral leaders, we must prepare others to be good and virtuous people,” Cardinal O’Malley said. “We must strive to form the whole person and let them know how to be a part of (God’s) plan.”

The cardinal spoke of the need for one-on-one mentoring and adult faith formation as ways pastoral leaders can form today’s Catholics.

John Beagan, a member of the pastoral council at St. Patrick Parish in Watertown, agreed with Cardinal O’Malley’s proposals.

Regarding mentoring, he said, “When you think about it, it’s personal evangelization, one on one,” said Beagan. “It’s not mass marketing.”

For Beagan, adult faith formation is also important.

“We can’t form the children unless we form the parents,” he said. “If we get the parents locked in, we will get a huge percentage of the children.”

Cardinal O’Malley also addressed how pastoral leaders can work in a culture that can be hostile to Catholic beliefs.

“Today we must joyfully and boldly proclaim the same truths about Christ, and the human person,” he said. “True freedom points us on the path to holiness and on the path to a civilization of love.”

Following his talk, Cardinal O’Malley recognized Lynn Kenn for her 25 years of leading the Parish Baby Shower project.

This project began when Kenn, a parishioner at Holy Ghost Parish in Whitman, hosted a baby shower in her home. However, instead of bringing a gift for an expectant mother, guests brought items to be donated to the archdiocese’s Pregnancy Help Center for pregnant women in need.

Today, over 100 parishes host showers, according to Kenn, providing vital resources to help women dealing with a crisis pregnancy.

Marianne Luthin, director of the archdiocese’s Pro-Life Office, said the showers allow her office to not only provide counseling to pregnant women in crisis, but material assistance as well.

“It’s building a culture of life,” Luthin said.

Kenn said she is launching a new pro-life project -- birthday cards for mothers. On one’s birthday, a person could send a card to his mother thanking her for the gift of life.

In the afternoon session, Father Couturier echoed Cardinal O’Malley’s sentiment that the Church is at a turning point in its history.

“This is one of those incredibly exciting times in the history of the Church -- one of those where we are moving from one paradigm to the other,” he said.

Father Couturier’s talk encouraged pastoral leaders to strive for excellence as increasing demands on staff time and decreasing resources challenge their work.

He cautioned that increasing cultural secularism has resulted in doubt entering the mindset of the faithful, and polarization has resulted.

“If a congregation is not led properly through that polarizing doubt, it leads to apathy or paralysis,” he said. “They do their duty but there is no passion.”

Father Couturier suggested that Catholic leaders must live by Gospel values and foster relations within and between parishes.

“We need to get beyond parochialism and talk to one another and plan with one another among our parishes,” Father Couturier said.

He also spoke to the decreasing resources today’s parishes face, noting that 17 percent of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston attend Mass weekly, down from 70 percent in the 1970’s.

He encouraged Church leaders to practice values of excellence in church management such as transparency, equity, accountability, solidarity, simplicity, and collaboration.

“It’s all about excellence -- excellence for God,” Father Couturier said.

In a breakout session on pastoral councils, Father Ritt spoke of the groups’ importance in helping pastors administer their respective churches. To illustrate his points, Father Ritt cited recent situations from his own parish -- St. John’s in Chelmsford.

He said parish councils can be helpful in drafting a mission statement that must be at the center of all parish activities, and using data in evaluating the vibrancy of a parish. Father Ritt also said parish councils can promote continuing contact with the wider Church, offering new approaches to enhancing the mission, and faith formation.

“We have to be a whole lot more imaginative and take a lot more risks if we are going to be successful in our work and mission,” he said.

Aldona Lingertat, director of the archdiocese’s Master of Arts in Ministry program, which provides advanced degrees for aspiring lay ecclesial ministers, said a USCCB document on lay ecclesial ministry, “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” was an inspiration for the conference.

Judy LoGerfo, a parishioner at St. Paul Parish in Cambridge who currently works in retreat ministry, connected the conference with the document.

“This particular conference makes this come alive or enfleshes the idea of growing together as a Church and that everybody has a place in the body of Christ,” she said.

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