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Laity called to ministry

The earliest books of the New Testament present a rich diversity of ministries for men and women that were not necessarily formalized by the laying on of hands. Paul, for one, describes his calling as a "leitourgeia," a public service. Our word "liturgy" takes on that meaning: a good work carried out publicly by us.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul cites the diversity of gifts used to build up the community. People stepped forward to apply their talents for the common good. Through these gifts, the Holy Spirit is manifested and experienced.

The first leaders of the Jerusalem community introduced flexible structures of ministry to serve the needs of all segments of the growing Church. Today, with our Church experiencing similar strains, the birthing and support of new ministries are vital to our survival.

The [Second Vatican Council's] Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy emphasized that there are different gifts, but one spirit requiring discernment; that liturgy is not a private act but the work of the whole Church; that members have an obligation to participate with the priest; and that there are different roles and offices.

That understanding of the Church would have an impact on other documents from the Vatican Council. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, for example, presented a new image of the Church, one not defined in strictly hierarchical terms. Other images were introduced: The Church is a mystery...there is a universal call to holiness...all baptized members are empowered by the Spirit to serve..."the people of God" is synonymous with "the mystical body of Christ."

Cardinal Avery Dulles, who teaches at Fordham University, said this year: "Prior to any mandate from the hierarchy, [the laity] already participate in the saving mission of the Church through Baptism and Confirmation. Through these sacraments, the Lord Himself commissions [the laity] to the apostolate. Far from being merely passive recipients of the ministrations of the hierarchy, all the lay faithful have a positive role to play; they are called to make their own contribution to the growth and sanctification of the Church."

John Paul II urged the faithful to "realize that, because of their common priesthood received in Baptism, they participate in the offering of the Eucharist."

Bishop Howard J. Hubbard wrote a pastoral letter in 2005 titled "The Mission of the Contemporary Parish." In it, he described how all of a parish's worship, faith formation and social services are related to the mission of Jesus; and he stressed new bywords for all of us to heed -- evangelical daring, ecumenical openness and social justice advocacy.

Our good experiences in the 40-50 years since the Second Vatican Council include these:

* More people being called to different ministries than ever before;

* a new appreciation for tradition -- the whole tradition, e.g., the early Church, not only the Middle Ages;

* a reform of rituals, language, music and spaces;

* laity taking advantage of continuing education opportunities;

* a revitalized interest in spirituality, prompted by learning more about mystics both in the east and west, and the availability of houses of prayer;

* liturgical reform being informed by history, archaeology, Scripture scholarship, inculturation and emerging theologies; and

* an understanding of the liturgy not as the premier devotional act delivered by a few to others but as a living memorial of the paschal event -- the life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ -- a memorial that we are all urged to embrace as our own.

But, as the rector of the school of theology I attended once said, "there are thorns in every rose bush." Mixed in with the joys and hopes of a post-conciliar Church, other matters challenge us:

* the abuse scandal, which will take a long time to heal;

* demographic shifts with people moving out of New York State and migration paths to the U.S.A. coming not just from the European Union;

* aging infrastructures and faith communities, that is, buildings costly to maintain and hard to fill on Sundays;

* a need to foster a collaborative concern about what is required to maintain a Catholic presence in the cities, suburbs and rural areas of our Diocese; and

* some evidence of a restoration effort underway to correct liturgical errors, which is okay, but not at the expense of the reform and renewal that has taken such a solid root.

In this time, all people of the Church have to remeasure their stature in the Church. Those who are ordained will have let go of privileged status. Those who are not ordained will have to rise up and recognize their baptismal status.

Vlacev Havel, a writer and former president of the Czech Republic, once remarked: "Today, many things indicate that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, is rising from the rubble."

On the first Pentecost, the old order was passing away for the Jews and Gentiles of the early Church community, but the new order was not yet in place. They were afraid. They huddled together. They found strength in their solidarity.

So, too, we are experiencing a time of transition in our Church. It is not a time of death; rather, it is a moment in the cosmic unfolding when we are being asked to renew our ourselves, restate our baptismal commitments, and work for reconciliation, justice and peace.

Accept your rightful role and take your place in the Church. In the words of our Bishop: "In so doing, you are truly beacons of light, anchors of hope, vessels of caring, and instruments of justice in a Church, society and world which desperately need such."

(These are portions of a talk given by Father Vosko in June to an assembly of lay liturgical ministers from parishes in Schenectady County. A priest of the Albany Diocese, he is an internationally known designer of churches and liturgical consultant.)



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