When we prepare for Communion as priests presiding over the Eucharist we first divide the consecrated host into two parts. The Body of Jesus, we explain this act, is broken so that it may be shared. So now, let me divide my reflection into two parts, so that I may better share with you my message. The first part would be on Pastoral Ministry itself. The second part would deal with how we might empower the laity.
Like it or not, there’s one thing we share with waiters and waitresses in restaurants. We feed people. But the food we serve is for people’s spirits while that by our counterparts in restaurants is for people’s bodies.
There’s another sharp difference. Waiters and waitresses are required to please us with their service. But they are not required to love us. On the other hand, priests are not only required to serve God’s people by feeding his flock with his Word and sacraments. They are also required to do so from a pastor’s love. This is the heart of what we call ‘pastoral ministry’, which essentially is really living out Jesus Christ’s ‘pastoral charity’. That is to say, a priest who is a pastor or shepherd of the Lord’s flock must, by definition, be a lover of God and his people first. A so-called ‘servant-leader” without love is a living contradiction. He is no better than a waiter.
That is why our pastoral ministry is based on our ‘configuration to Christ the head’ (Presbyterorum Ordinis, no. 2). It is Jesus who first loved us with the Father’s love. And the Father is the One who so “loves the world that he gave us his only Son so that those who believe in him may not perish but may have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16). Without this love of the Father, visible in Jesus the Son, our ministry becomes empty, at best technical, at worst mechanical.
Suppose I was the best sculptor in the whole of Leyte and Samar. And you asked me to carve out your whole figure to serve as a statue. Suppose I perfectly carved out your whole bodily figure including the measurements, your face’s warts and all. Still the resulting perfect figure is not your replacement. It’s the same thing with us. Ordination may have configured us into Christ the head. But we do not replace Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd. It’s not in our mission to do this. Our mission is not to be Christ’s substitutes but to be “signs and instruments of his presence and activity” (PCP II, 516). It’s not our love that we bring but the Father’s love visible in Jesus the Good Shepherd.
We need to ask: What does it mean for a ministerial priest to be a ‘sign and instrument’ of Christ’s presence and activity? It is here that Vatican II answers: “It is Christ himself who through their (priest’s) signal service preaches the Word of God, administers the sacraments, incorporates new members into his body and directs and guides his people on their journey to eternal salvation” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, no. 21). Suppose you write a letter by your pen, paint a face by your brush and stand by the sacristy in your cassock. Suppose further that your pen, your brush and your cassock claim to be you. That will draw the biggest laugh. They are just signs and instruments of your presence and activity. Neither can we ministerial priests therefore claim to be Christ or his replacements. We are just instruments of his presence and activity among God’s People and God’s world.
That is why our pastoral ministry must not only be characterized by charity but also by humility. When we say we are configured into Christ the head, we must understand Christ’s headship correctly. It’s not about lording over others. It’s about being a servant, a footwasher. We are leaders. But we lead by being servants. “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45).
Often we are embarrassed by the poverty and insignificance of our country. Add to that too the poverty and smallness of our people, the people that we serve. Add to that even further the poverty and smallness of the way our people see and feel about themselves. But, happily, in the perspective of the Scriptural God, poverty and insignificance characterize his favorite people. Figures such as the shepherd David, the prophets, Samson, Gideon, Ruth and others in the Old Testament as well as Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna and the fishermen apostles, not to say Jesus himself, were poor, insignificant people during their time. But God’s majesty and power completely shone in them. Their humility helped them greatly in their faith as well as in their love and service of the poor to whom they proclaimed God’s Word.
A Jesuit brother advised a newly-ordained priest: “Forget your dignity. Assume your responsibility.” It’s very instructive how in the history of the Church, when we emphasized the priestly ordination as a reception of “sacred powers”, titles and priestly dignity were the most prized commodities. But when, as a result of Vatican II and PCP II, we started looking at the priesthood from the point of view of the Scriptures and Jesus’ own words and deeds, ministry, service and responsibility became the buzz words.
It has taken us a long complicated process to realize a simple interconnected network of truths. One, that our pastoral ministry is a service, a total giving of self to God and to his people. Two, we cannot truly serve without the love of God in us. Three, we cannot truly love without putting on the humility of the small and insignificant, the anawim, Jesus himself being the foremost among them, who are God’s favorites.
Now why do we need the humility of the anawim in our pastoral ministry?
The answer lies in the nature of our ‘ministerial priesthood’. It is so-called ‘ministerial’ because it is basically a service. Because a servant serves his master, the master realizes his identity as master. In the same way, while “the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace—a life of faith, hope and charity, a life according to the Spirit—the ministerial priest is precisely ministerial because he is a servant of the royal priesthood that it may fulfill and become itself, a priestly people called to offer prayers and gifts to God the Father. For this is how he becomes truly configured to Christ the Head” (Lumen Gentium, n.10; PO 2, 6).
How Do We Go About Empowering the Laity?
Before we answer this all-important question, we need to make some clarifications. First, how do we understand ‘empowering the laity’? Does this mean that ministerial priests give the lay faithful any sort or form of power? The Second Plenary Council itself admits that the new-found regularity of the term ‘empowerment’ was an offshoot of our Edsa People Power experience (PCP II 325-326). Millions of Filipinos, by their presence and shared convictions against the Marcos regime’s excesses, drove out the former strongman and installed peacefully a new government in a democratic way that awed the world. Out of ‘People Power’ came the popularity of the term ‘empowerment’ to mean promoting participation from formerly marginalized groups, such as the urban and rural poor etc. In other words, applying ‘people power’ through the word ‘empowerment’ on our laity appears to be related to encouraging their greater participation in the Church’s life and mission.
But let’s make some things clear. We priests do not give any power to our lay faithful. Whatever power they have as children of God comes directly from God himself through the Holy Spirit’s action in the sacrament of Baptism they had received. The Archbishop Emeritus of Palo, Archbishop Pedro R. Dean, once observed, and rightly so, that the term “lay empowerment” could be a “misnomer” because there is no power any human being can give the laity since that power is already theirs by means of their Baptism. In other words, all that we do as their pastors is to recognize and allow the realization of the power given to them to be sons and daughters of the Father (Jn 1:12).
How do we do this as their pastors? Let me cite some of the ways.
1. By our Witnessing
Let me illustrate the ‘empowering’ nature of witnessing. A priest was dismayed to see plenty of plastic wrappers scattered indiscriminately on the white-sand beach at Divinubo Island (still part of Borongan). Without thinking he started picking up the wrappers and putting them into trash cans. At one point, he looked around and was so surprised to see children and young people suddenly doing what he was doing. He reflected that just as doing wrong can be infectious, so is doing right. When the lay faithful see their priests praying, that can generate their own prayerfulness. When priests are seen as not too ‘money-conscious’, that edifies people into doing service that is also less concerned with monetary returns. When priests struggle to be faithful to the Lord in his ministry despite his weaknesses, that is a positive push for parishioners to also strive to be faithful to the Lord in their distinct responsibilities as Christians and as citizens of their country.
2. By a Greater Recognition of the Laity’s Christian Dignity as Catholics
We cannot deny a fact of history, namely, our laity’s being sidelined for a long time. Partly in reaction to the excesses of the Protestant Reformation, in which, for example, anybody could just read and interpret the Scriptures, lay men and women in the Catholic Church were often found passive. Henry Cardinal Newman once remarked humorously that, during his time, lay Catholics could only do three things: “to sit up, to pay up and to shut up”. One of the timely reforms of Vatican II was the emphasis on the equality of all the baptized in dignity and their participation in the life and mission of the Church.
Unfortunately Vatican II is taking a long, long time being received. Many lay Catholics still remain passive and sidelined. One big factor is their priest. Does he truly recognize their identity and dignity, rooted in their Baptism, in ways that go beyond mere words during homilies, talks and chats? Does he encourage them to live by their identity and dignity by actively and systematically forming them through adult catechesis to be Christian witnesses and missionaries? Let’s all ask ourselves these questions and not be contented by ‘no’ for an answer.
3. By Enhancing the Poor’s Sense of their Human and Christian Dignity
We minister to mostly poor people. Even our so-called rich parishes are still populated by the majority who are poor. It is a fact that our poor are also mostly sidelined in church life. Our BECs have wonderfully turned the tide in many places. But a lot more of our poor are not reached by the BEC. For reasons both legitimate and not, there is real hesitation, if not resistance, even among the clergy to go all out with BEC. One reason is the hard work and constant need to follow up on our poor who constitute most BEC clusters. Unlike faith communities that seem to have internally galvanized mostly middle-class lay Catholics into evangelization, mission and proselytizing, the BEC appears to need the steady active role of the clergy to survive and thrive. I submit that one thing we take for granted is the low self-esteem and self-image of our poor. There is no substitute to a good catechesis on the real implications of Baptism to respond to this situation. But catechesis needs the help of priest-encouraged solidarity-building between the poor and better-off parishioners of our communities. Forming faith communities and other mandated religious groups and organizations in the BEC spirituality and tapping them to participate in evangelizing, forming and building BEC communities in which the better-off interact with our poor as brothers and sisters in one big family is a step in the right direction.
4. By Cultivating a More Human and Christ-like Relationship with People
Even unbeknownst to us, our laity looks at us as men of power and privilege. I am struck at how it seems a big thing for people to discover that their priest is “kind” and “considerate”. Priests who are so perceived have the ability to bring people out of their shells. Conversely, priests who are seen as cold and harsh drive even the educated Catholics away from church and church life. A lay parishioner mistreats an ordinary-looking man. To her shock she discovers the man is actually a priest. She apologizes to him but blames him for not wearing a clerical. The priest answers: “Even if I did not wear a clerical, all human beings are entitled to be treated like human beings.” Well-said, Father. But that doesn’t mean we must abandon the clerical. It means, however, that clerical is a sign that we priest must be the first to act human in the way we treat others because we carry the presence of Jesus Christ in our person. Jesus was most human not only because he has shared everything we humans have and are but also (and especially) because he acknowledged the humanity even of the downtrodden, the poor and the outcasts, and treated them as such. It must be very good to be truly human because the Son of God became one and acted like one. St. Irenaeus, in fact, exclaimed that the glory of God is the fully human person. That is what we see in Jesus Christ in which perfect love of God is completely one with perfect love of people. There’s no reason for his priest to be any less.
5. By Recognizing, Appreciating and Maximizing the Laity’s Potentials
Some priests are happy to discover parishioners with various talents and abilities. Other priests feel threatened by them. We must clearly reject the second option as un-Christian and un-priestly. Here’s why: To each human being, especially to each baptized Christian, the Holy Spirit showers gifts and charisms according to God’s wisdom for the sake of building up his kingdom on earth and Christ’s Body. It is precisely for this reason that we must spot, recognize, appreciate, tap and maximize these gifts and charisms for the sake of the Church and the spread of the gospel. In a concrete parish it’s not hard to see this need. We need parishioners who can be lectors, others who can be commentators, still others who can be altar servers, collectors, ushers/usherettes, song leaders, psalmists, prayer leaders, Communion ministers, caregivers, catechists, preachers, etc. That is to say, no one can be so empowering as a priest who, with the help of his parishioners, recognizes the Holy Spirit’s gifts in the potentials and charisms of people and taps them to the maximum for God’s kingdom. I know a priest who observed that any pastor who does not recognize, appreciate and maximize his lay leaders commits a practical heresy. I asked what he meant by ‘practical heresy’. He answered: “It means that, even if you believe correctly that the Holy Spirit enriches each baptized Christian with his gifts and charisms, once that belief is not put into practice, you become a ‘practical heretic’. The reason is that your practice is the exact opposite of your belief.”
6. By Accepting People’s Weaknesses and Moving Forward Despite Them
All human beings, including priests, have both strengths and weaknesses. For most of us life goes smoothly as long as our strengths dominate our weaknesses. But in a pastor’s life weaknesses of parishioners or his own could get more attention for one reason or another. Let’s try to be as concrete as we can. A member of the Parish Pastoral Council has a way of speaking and acting that is annoying. Parishioners keep telling the pastor how his homilies are bookish (another way of saying ‘boring’) and his voice so high-pitched and painful to the ear. A confraternity member is always late for meetings. A group of ladies often backbite other parishioners and the parish priest. A men’s group have a drinking problem, sometimes dragging the parish priest into their sessions. The list could go on. We must distinguish between weaknesses that are destructive of people who have them and the people around them, and weaknesses that are simply distracting or annoying. For the first we must do our best to give people who have them the appropriate help. For the second we must simply remember and observe the word of our elders regarding people who have them: “Pasayloon”, that is, deserving our forgiveness. St. Augustine once said that of all the alms we can give, “none is greater than that by which we forgive from our heart…”
7. By Giving Second Chances
Sometimes life surprises us with how doing a simple thing we take for granted in our ministry could have lasting consequences. For example, a priest had a problem with his temper. But he learned to hold it and cultivate patience through an experience with an altar server who habitually makes mistakes at the altar. Every time he is tempted to flare up over another mistake, he recalls how the boy’s elder brother joined the born-again group ‘U-Turn for Christ’ because his own father tried to forcefully make him stop coming home late. The priest confessed that perhaps one reason why the younger brother has remained Catholic is the string of ‘second chances’ he extends to him when he overlooks the boy’s mistakes. Of course, these second chances have only been effective because mistakes were eventually corrected in a way the priest judges to be consistent with the gospel. The priest admits he was helped by Jesus’ own injunction in Matthew’s gospel about fraternal correction—to do it step by step: first privately, then with witnesses, then with the whole church (Mt 18:15-20). The priest thought that if he flared up, that would be known by the whole Church and, in effect, reverse the gospel process. Giving second chances is wise.
8. By Consulting the Laity in Matters Affecting Them and Their Parish Community
Imagine coming to a presbyteral assembly and hearing the archbishop make this announcement: “Brothers, for purposes of transparency and efficiency in our financial system, I have decided to send auditors from COA to all our parishes effective next week…” I think I will not be exaggerating if I say that there will be, first, shock among the clergy, then anxious clarifications, then an uproar if not an openly livid opposition (but not a ‘hostage crisis’, I can be sure of that, because there will be no financially viable hostages available). The biggest and strongest reason behind the opposition is this: There were no consultations. We priests are so used to being consulted that we do not hesitate in pointing out how unfair and unjust it is when there is no consultation in matters affecting us as priests and pastors. On the other hand, we need to ask if we make consultations ourselves with the people we serve in matters affecting them and their communities. If we do, we show concretely our recognition of their dignity as members of the New People of God, and the rights and duties that come with it.
9. By Encouraging the Laity’s Participation According to Their Charism and Field of Competence
Filipino priests who have an experience ministering in some parts of the United States often tell a common story. During weekdays they do almost everything in church. They open the doors, sometimes do some cleaning and physical arrangement of the place, prepare bread, wine and other Mass paraphernalia, set up their own vestments, become the lector especially when Mass-goers are mostly elderly and also become their own altar server as well. (Thank God they don’t have to respond to their own declaration, “The Lord be with you”, with “And also with me”.). What comes out clearly here is how comical church life is when there is little or no participation. The reason why the Holy Spirit has gifted all the faithful, lay and clerical, with diverse gifts and charisms, is precisely that the Lord wants all the baptized involved in the building up of his kingdom on earth. This is implied in Jesus’ command in the gospels to all his disciples to preach the Good News to all nations or to all creation. However, involvement is only one aspect of participation. The other aspect is that this is done according to one’s charism and field of competence. It is not right, for instance, for a lector to be assigned choir master (sometimes this happens) or for a lawyer parishioner to be assigned PPC auditor (sometimes it also happens) or, again, for a novena prayer leader to be Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. A number of priests have a special group of people close to him, aside from the PPC, that advises him in many matters in the parish. The question a priest must always honestly answer is: Are these people truly competent to advise me in such and such a matter? Nothing is more empowering than to allow people to do their part in the whole tapestry of church life and mission but according to their charisms, abilities and field of competence.
10. By Applying Honest but Compassionate Evaluation of the Laity’s Performance
One natural mechanism in human life is that when we do good or right, we get praised and when we do wrong or fail, we get criticized or censured. We call this ‘feedback’. A praise is a ‘positive feedback’; a censure or a disapproving criticism is a ‘negative feedback’. We all need a feedback after we perform a task or a responsibility, especially because a feedback can help us achieve a goal or objective better. Even Jesus asked for a feedback when he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16:13). It is clear that he wanted to know if people had a correct idea of who he is and what his purpose/mission is from his preaching and works. When Peter gave him the correct answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16), Jesus responded with a positive feedback, saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven” (Mt 16:17). In a word, Jesus is saying, “You got it right, Simon. My Father in heaven has given you the grace of insight!”
What has this got to do with empowering the laity?
Plenty. Our laity, many times after doing their tasks, no matter how simple, rarely get a feedback unless it is a negative one when he/she fails, especially from their parish priests. We take for granted how empowering an honest feedback can be. Think of how empowered you become when the bishop praises a well-done program or project in your parish. If it works for us priests, it certainly will work with our laity as well. But there is a no-no here. Let us not give dishonest feedback just to make our lay brethren feel good about themselves. A lie will eventually show itself and only add to the problem.
Priests do better to be honest in giving feedbacks to their lay parishioners regarding mistakes committed. But one could do so with compassion by focusing not on the person but on the erroneous act. Instead of saying, “You are a failure as a lector”, it is much more helpful and compassionate to privately tell the person in question, “You showed good effort but i noticed there were words that you mispronounced, like ‘booth’, ‘fishes’ etc. Could you practice with someone before the actual reading and also lower down your voice tone? The pitch was high I found it a bit painful to the ear, listening to you.” Feedbacks such as these are not condemning nor judgmental. They rather focus on things that can be corrected. Any person will come out of it empowered to improve in future performances of his/her task.
What have we been saying here? A simple message to the clergy: EMPOWER THE LAITY, EMPOWER YOURSELVES.