Preparing for the Synod on the Laity

The cynic might say that the typical diocese is headed by a bishop and has various operations which are run by priests, staffed by religious, and paid for by the laity. This checkbook approach to the apostolate of the laity certainly exists, even flourishes, in certain parts, but it has severe dangers for those on both sides of the hierarchical fence.

In such schema, secular laity and religious laity are viewed as employees of the secular clerics who form the officer ranks of whatever diocesan institution is at hand. They make enormous contributions, often through personal sacrifice, but have no “power” within the “structure,” and, consequently, no say in the policy of the organization, either as a micro- or macro-organism. Many women, particularly, are beginning to view the Church in this we/they schema, and find themselves allied, secular and religious alike, in what they see as a power struggle for a redefinition of Christianity. Oddly enough, those most interested in such power most often find “powerlessness” to be the mark of the true Christian community. Unfortunately, too often such “powerlessness” devolves into simple lack of leadership — every opinion holds equal weight and an intellectual oatmeal results.

Secular clerics, on the other hand, find parish leadership as it is traditionally lived on the associate pastor level too restrictive of their talents. They find other activities to fill their weeks — they teach high school, work in diocesan offices, run programs — and make personal appearances in their parishes only on the altar or in the confessional. Whereas the president at all sacraments ought logically to be a central person from the parish community, one involved in the life of the parish and representative of it, the commuter- priest becomes a visiting functionary. His associate pastorate is characterized by sacramental service totally divorced from the life of the parish, removing from the laity the ability clearly to see him both as a leader and a man apart. At the same time, his own identity begins to suffer, as he becomes little different from the others who commute during the week and who go to Church on Sunday. While there have been many arguments for worker-priests, the fact of the matter is that the priest holds a particular place in the community and must maintain that place in order for there to be any logic at all to his sacramental office.

Similarly, secular and religious laity who are also part of the worshipping community find their roles in the communal celebration of sacraments most satisfying when they flow naturally from lives in the parish. The laity who serve or lead the community in other ways become the most symbolically appropriate people to assist with the celebration of sacraments, although not so visibly or so often that they begin to maintain a kind of junior cleric status, divorced from the pews by the invisible aura of the “insider” to clerical circles. Unless the lay lector or lay acolyte has other leadership or service roles in the parish, he or she too becomes a commuter functionary divorced from the life of the community. Laic ex machina makes as little sense as cleric ex machina, and it is potentially more dangerous.

We expect our clerics to be in our midst and yet apart. First through training and then by living the life, a priest finds his own identity often through the parish. It is the laity who set him apart and help develop that charism which is necessary for his work. He is trustworthy. He is even tempered. He is honest. He is available. The wound of openness becomes his shield, and it is the parish community which protects him from reduction to functionary, if he will allow it.

Similarly, we expect our laity to be just that. Some are more involved in spiritual matters, some more in temporal matters. The special rubbing of personalities, one upon another, helps create Christians of us all if we allow it to. We may know each other first via our professional functions, as teacher, postman, doctor, or cop. Or we may know each other as neighbors, friends, religious brothers, or sisters. Yet as laity we most often gather with the worshiping community simply to worship. We are rarely presiders, more often assistants at communal celebrations. In either case, on the altar we are representatives of the worshipping community, there not so much to assist the function of the priest as to represent the community’s participation in the celebration. Special clothing or ornaments to recognize this representation can cloud the symbolism they attempt, and further confuse the laity on both sides of the altar rail.

Too often the friction in the parish or in the diocese comes about because people demand definition of themselves by function. So clerics expect to exercise de facto leadership. So laity box themselves into a quasi-clerical status, and find themselves restricted by the very power they seek. While it is perhaps simplistic to argue that the Church would run very smoothly, thank you, if we’d all go back to our proper places and do that to which we are called, there is ultimate logic to clerics being clerics and laity being laity.

There are not enough priests, you say? The Church is a bureaucratic power structure, you complain? The Church will do just as it always has? Well, it just might be the answer. In fact, the solution to this knot could well be twofold: we must more clearly separate the juridical and sacramental powers of the Church one from another, and we must be more willing to recognize the possibilities of the deaconate as a clerical state. If we educate ourselves to understand the relationship between the juridical and the sacramental, and first better educate and then better use our deacons (secular and religious), we may begin to build the kind of community which serves itself well. And if we stop seeing the Church as a living wire-diagram and begin to understand that we are all truly members of the body of Christ, we might begin to build communities which have the right to call themselves Christian.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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