Last week, the girls and I were at a Roman-rite parish because of Nutcracker craziness, but this past weekend was back to 'normal.' While both parishes had strong points, it really bothered me when the lay people were circling the tabernacle and opening it and divvying up the Precious Blood into different glass goblets at the Western church. I've been thinking of what I believe are the best ways that lay people can be vital members of the body of Christ and help the Church along her way. Please remember, these are my opinions; there are Church documents and theologians to give serious, drawn-out answers. We moms are pretty practical.
There is a difference between ordained men and the laity. For some, this statement is about as obvious as the sun setting in the West. All of us need to remember that there are roles for every baptized person in the Church. The priest should be consumed with life at the altar. The deacon has a role in proclaiming the Gospel as the priest does. Lectors and cantors should be receptive to the needs of the priest and the people while maintaining reverence and dignity worthy of God's house. The laity have important roles as members of the parish, but they should leave the altar to the priest.
How does the laity leave the altar to the priest? First of all, the priest preaches, celebrates the sacraments and distributes Eucharist to the faithful. Lay people do not preach- perhaps they give short talks on practical matters after the final blessing or at coffee time. They don't celebrate the sacraments and they don't confuse others by actions that could be perceived as a priest's job. They don't distribute the Eucharist; they prepare extra songs during distribution time. It will take longer to distribute the sacrament, so this is 'meditation' time- before and after a believer receives the Eucharist or a blessing. The priest does his duty when he prepares the people for this change, perhaps giving printed prayers for lay people to pray silently while they are waiting for the Eucharist distribution to finish. The priest does his duty when he asks the choir or cantor to prepare reverent songs during this time. The priest does his duty when he is available for the sacrament of confession before Liturgy (Mass) as well as a longer time on Saturday. And if he is available for confession before Mass, that means he has to leave a lot of the practical work to lay people...
How can the priest leave practical work to lay people? Some priests micro-manage everything from song selection to whether the faithful can kneel after receiving the Eucharist (I suppose that was bishops). It seems in today's modern world, people want to be what they aren't and they have a difficult time accepting their roles. A priest should never 'give' homily time to a lay person- it is not his time to give. Preaching on the Gospel is the priest's duty. But what is not necessarily his duty? If the priest has well-catechized, faithful lay people, he can relax and leave many of the day to day duties to them. Frequent (and short) meetings will verify that all is well for the priest is the bishop of his parish. Boys and men trained in the action of the altar can join the priest during the Liturgy (although it is possible in the Roman rite to have girls as altar servers, this leads to confusion as to why women cannot be ordained as Catholic priests). Girls and women can participate in traditionally feminine roles such as flower arranging, linens, meal organizing and caring for shut-in parish members. Girls and women can be bell-ringers and icon writers. All lay people can read the epistles and sing in the choir or as a cantor- while in the past these were minor orders because the roles are outside of the altar, it should not lead to confusion.
More Ideas on Lay Involvement
- Ask the priest how you can help. Maybe you are an accountant and can help with the books. Maybe the same 5 people have been on the pastoral council and new blood is needed. Maybe you can watch the little ones while the priest trains altar boys. Maybe you can drive an older parishioner to church. If your heart is open, the possibilities are endless- at least until the altar. :)
- Don't accept a job that is the priest's. Sometimes it's hard if the lay person knows better than the priest. Chalk it up to misguided pastoral notions. If he asks you to do a presentation on the newest fundraising, say you would be happy to do so after the final blessing. Defend your priest to the finance committee who has all power over the church money when he wants to know how much money is in the accounts. Both priest and lay people should be involved with the parish bookkeeping.
- Be creative with participation- especially when it comes to girls. Remember that Mary the Mother of God, Mary Magdalene and others sat at the feet of Jesus when he taught (a radical idea for that time) yet they weren't apostles. Women have a different role than men in the Catholic Church. Let's say you want your daughter to be involved in church beyond going to Mass, but you don't want her to be an altar girl. Perhaps she can volunteer as a bell ringer or a choir member. She could help the person in charge of the bulletin if she has a literary bent. If she is artistic, she could learn how to write (paint) icons- this would be a permanent gift to her parish that she would be very proud of. And of course, children can help with coffee hour and prepare songs to sing.
- Don't insist on always doing the same job. This is a tough one. Just because you have the best singing voice in the parish does not mean that you always get to sing "O Holy Night" on Christmas Eve. Just because your family always brings the coffee doesn't mean that another family cannot also give. The only person who is guaranteed a job at the parish is the priest with the altar. Even he should step aside humbly when another person wants to make his world-famous cabbage rolls. We should be open to new ideas.
- For Eastern Catholic parishes with a married priest- please don't assume that he and his family can do it all- or that we want to do it all. Yes, a married priest has assistants on-call 24/7, but he is the only one ordained. I homeschool my four children and also work part-time as a college instructor. One of my vocal chords is paralyzed. I am limited to what I can do. Our parish missions could use more help from lay people- the participation we do get is wonderful and welcome!
A parish should be a loving family; there's enough work to go around.