The Spirituality of the Lay Ecclesial Minister – Part 3

Daniel Whitehouse

MDiv. Candidate, University of Notre Dame

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This series of articles is geared toward developing an understanding of the lay ecclesial minister in terms of spirituality. The first article discussed the participation of the lay faithful in the threefold mission of Christ as priest, prophet, and king; the second clarified the secular nature of the vocation to lay ministry. This final installment will build on the foundations laid in the first two articles, exploring what comprises the spirituality of one called to the vocation of lay ecclesial minister.

Previous articles in this series:
The Spirituality of the Lay Ecclesial Minister – Part 1
The Spirituality of the Lay Ecclesial Minister – Part 2

According to United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), those called to serve the Church in a lay ministerial capacity are 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; [and] preparation and formation appropriate to the level of responsibilities that are assigned to them.”[1] While a hard and fast definition is difficult—if not impossible—to set forth at this time, these four indicators help to shape our perception of which particular positions belong to this broader category of lay ecclesial ministry. The USCCB speaks of the spirituality of the lay ecclesial minister thus: “by their baptismal incorporation in to the Body of Christ, lay persons are also equipped with gifts and graces to build up the Church from within, in cooperation with the hierarchy and under its direction.”[2] But this expression of the lay faithful’s ministry within the Church is not to the detriment of ordained ministry, in fact, the two do not and cannot conflict. The ecclesial documents continually demonstrate the legitimacy of lay ministry in the Church, rooted in the baptismal incorporation into Christ’s threefold mission. Even when a layperson is doing ministry in the Church, it is ordered to the one mission of Christ and expressed in the secular ministry of the laity to allow Christ’s light to illumine and transform all of society. This being the case, can we speak of anything unique to the lay ecclesial minister? Are there any aspects of spirituality distinct to this role?

Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord, a document on lay ecclesial ministry released by the USCCB, provides a laundry list of elements for the spiritual formation of the lay ecclesial minister including: discipleship and intimacy with Christ, reverence for the Word of God, liturgical and sacramental grounding, an incarnational spirituality of presence, a paschal spirituality of love, an awareness of sin, a willingness to suffer, Marian devotion, affection for the Church, Eucharistic devotion, and an ecumenical spirit.[3] However, the document also affirms “lay ecclesial ministry has no single spirituality; … there are as many paths of prayer as there are persons who pray.”[4] All this to say that nothing listed above is essentially unique to the lay ecclesial minister beyond what is hoped for all the lay faithful. The specific gift of lay ecclesial ministers to the Church is that they share a similar place in the world with those to whom they minister. As Sr. Janet Ruffing affirms, lay ecclesial ministers, “in their public role of ministry … exert a certain exemplary role in the community that in turn helps others to recognize their callings and gifts and live them more deeply both at home and in the community to which they are called.”[5] Therefore, we have seen that in the categories of lay and ecclesial the lay ecclesial minister does not differ from the mature adult Christian properly understood. To a very large degree, the spirituality of the lay ecclesial minister is based upon his or her own personality, particular vocation, and progress in the spiritual life; but is there more to say about the qualifier ‘ministry’?

Sr. Juliana Casey, reflecting on lay ecclesial ministry, suggests that there is a certain appropriation of ministerial identity that will occur for the lay ecclesial minister. She posits a transition, namely, “a job becomes ministry … ministry demands a great deal more from a person … the perspective of ministry changes everything.”[6] The ‘perspective of ministry’ is radically different than that of a ‘perspective of occupation.’ Ministry is a lived-reality or lifestyle, while an occupation is more restricted in terms of both time and commitment. The difficulty for the lay ecclesial minister is that ministerial identity is not ontological as it is in the ordained ministry.  William Johnston reinforces this point and notes that “Co-Workers [in the Vineyard] intentionally does not develop a spirituality specific for lay ecclesial ministers; the other formation documents, in contrast, call for cultivation of a distinctively priestly or diaconal spirituality, grounded first in baptism and then further in sacramental ordination.”[7] Why could this be? Because the type of ministry to which the layperson is called is different from the ordained ministry, the lay ecclesial minister has to live into the reality of ministry in a uniquely lay manner. Sr. Ruffing states, “[a]s ministers grow in grace, they begin to recognize that they represent God, mediate God’s grace, love, and compassion.”[8] The lived experience testifies, “ministers become ministers over a lifetime.”[9] The disposition of ministry and the appropriation of a ministerial identity is a process that takes time and, at this time, remains unclear—as some authors have affirmed.[10]

It is also important to bear in mind that the call to ministry is, for the layperson, a tertiary call, a reality that must be reckoned.  While holiness is the “prime and fundamental vocation of all the faithful,”[11] the state of one’s life, or particular vocation, is second. For the ordained minister, this means that the state of life and ministerial identity are held in unity by the ontological change effected by the sacrament of orders. Therefore, it is appropriate to speak about a priestly or diaconal identity. For the layperson, holiness can be lived out in single or married states but there is no ontological ‘ministerial’ change occurring in these expressions of vocation. The call to lay ecclesial ministry comes as a tertiary vocation in terms of priority, even if it is not so in temporal sequence, and it could be for any period of time. As Christifideles Laici affirms, “lay spirituality should take its particular character from the circumstances of one’s state in life (married and family life, celibacy, widowhood), from one’s state of health and from one’s professional and social activity.”[12] This seems to be an unavoidably ordered list: first particular vocation, then ability (health), then professional and social activity. This aspect of lay spirituality makes the ministerial identity of the lay ecclesial minister somewhat ambiguous and, as a matter of necessity, more fluid than ordained ministry. As Bishop Howard J. Hubbard states, “just as it took several centuries for the order of bishop, presbyter, and deacon to become defined fully, it would seem that the present effort to define ecclesial lay ministry, while needed and appropriate, should remain tentative.”[13]

This series of articles has demonstrated that lay ecclesial ministry is not the abandonment of the proper lay character for something other, but rather “a manifestation of the dignity and responsibility of the laity who are called to be full sharers in the life and mission of the Church.”[14] Lay ecclesial ministry is a genuine manifestation of the lay spirituality and apostolate applied to the inner life of the Church for the purpose of fulfilling her one mission: to orient the world to Christ. For this reason, the spirituality of lay ecclesial ministers is dependent first and foremost on the personal spirituality of those laypersons based in their baptismal incorporation into Christ’s threefold mission as well as their particular state in life; however, the extent to which the ‘ministerial identity’ is integrated into the life and work of the layperson will inevitably color in their spirituality. This integration of a ministerial identity with the lay apostolate, while not objectively definable, is the unique witness and gift of lay ecclesial ministry in and to the Church. As Co-Workers in the Vineyard affirms, “the multiple demands of family and community responsibility may occasionally challenge some lay ecclesial ministers … however, when daily life is lived intentionally and reflectively in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it is a school of holiness.”[15]

[1] USCCB, Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry (CWVL) (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2006), 10.

[2] Ibid, 12.

[3] Ibid, 39-41.

[4] Ibid, 39.

[5] Janet K. Ruffing RSM. “Formation of Lay Ecclesial Ministers: Rooted in a Genuine Lay and Ecclesial Spirituality,” Reflections on Renewal: Lay Ecclesial Ministry and the Church. Ed. D. M. Eschenauer and H. D. Horell, 139-150 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), 143.

[6] Juliana Casey, IHM, “Formation for Lay Ministry: Learnings from Religious Life,” Lay Ecclesial Ministry: Pathways Toward the Future. Ed. Z. Fox, 143-155 (New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2010), 149. [Emphasis added.]

[7] William H. Johnston, “Lay Ecclesial Ministry in Theological and Relational Context: A Study of Ministry Formation Documents” Catholic Identity and the Laity. Ed. T. Muldoon, 220-238 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 223.

[8] Ruffing, 144.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Johnston, 224, and Howard J. Hubbard, “Reflections on the Experience of Lay Ecclesial Ministry,” Together in God’s Service: Toward a Theology of Lay Ecclesial Ministry, 168-183 (Washington, DC: USCCB, 1998), 181-2.

[11] Pope John Paul II, “Christifideles Laici” (CL). 30 December 1988, Papal Archive, The Holy See. <>, 16.

[12] Ibid, 56.

[13] Hubbard, “Reflections on the Experience of Lay Ecclesial Ministry,” 182.

[14] Hagstrom, “The Secular Character of the Vocation and Mission of the Laity,” 172.

[15] CWVL, 38.

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