Canada's Choice: Lay Ministers or Vocations Drive

OTTAWA — Catholics in Canada were unsettled last December when a headline in the Ottawa Citizen declared that Ottawa's Archbishop Marcel Gervais was “introducing a ‘new model of church,’” in which nuns and lay people may officiate sacramentally at baptisms, weddings and funerals.

Alongside a decree on “parish teams” promulgated on Dec. 14, the archbishop in Canada's national capital announced the “pastoral appointments” of one religious sister and four lay people as “coordinators or parish activity,” with each team assigned to a parish without a resident priest.

The decree explained that while the priest is an indispensable part of the parish who manifests the communion of the parish with the local bishop, religious and lay people may now be charged with coordinating and performing pastoral care in parishes, with the exception of those functions — such as saying Mass and hearing confession — that priests alone can provide.

Archbishop Gervais implied the change was motivated not primarily by a shortage of priests, but instead by the desire to involve lay people more in parish leadership. “The issue is not just solving problems, but a new model of church,” he told the Citizen.

Some Catholics expressed concern that the archbishop was blurring the lines between laity and clergy, by emphasizing the extraordinary roles lay people may play in parishes and downplaying the primary vocation of the laity to evangelize the world through family life and in the secular realm.

Archbishop Gervais’ Perspective

But asked to clarify the reason for the change, Archbishop Gervais explained to the Register that he is simply calling lay people to take up their proper duties as Christians.

“Our lay people have traditionally handed over all their responsibility to ordained priests and religious,” the archbishop said. “They have exempted themselves from the responsibility of catechizing, of evangelizing, of taking the initiative to raise their children as Christians ... We're not taking something away from the priests, we're giving something back to the lay people that belongs to them to begin with.”

In response to media inquiries about Archbishop Gervais’ announcement, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops provided a statement indicating that the CCCB has formally authorized bishops in Canada to allow lay people to preach and to officiate at baptisms, weddings and funerals, “as indicated by the Code of Canon Law.”

The authority Archbishop Gervais cited for the new arrangements is a Church law, Canon 517.2, that allows bishops to “entrust a share in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish” to deacons or lay people, specifically in case of a shortage of priests. He says he based his interpretation of the law on a 1995 publication of the Canon Law Society of America, Pastoral Care in Parishes Without Pastors: Applications of Canon 517.2.

However, an instruction promulgated by eight Roman dicasteries in 1997 details very strict circumstances under which lay people may officiate at baptisms and certain other liturgical functions. The document, Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests, also stresses repeatedly the need to maintain proper distinctions between clergy and laity.

The instruction notes that, in situations where collaboration between clerics and lay people in parish activities has been successful, “all who are in any way involved ... exercise particular care to safeguard the nature and mission of sacred ministry and the vocation and secular character of the lay faithful ... The necessary aspect of hierarchical relationship has been maintained while constantly seeking to remedy the situation of emergency” which has required such collaboration.

Among concerns about Archbishop Gervais’ announcement, one of the most frequently asked questions is why he is not planning primarily to use permanent deacons in parishes without resident priests. The 1997 instruction interprets canon 517.2 as indicating a preference for deacons over lay people in such situations.

The archbishop explains that “the permanent diaconate is not primarily geared to parish ministry,” citing the role of deacons in hospital and prison ministries and the like. “Some are involved directly in parishes and so we can use them there, but I would not want to just lump all deacons in as being in parish ministry. All of our permanent deacons, until they retire, they all have jobs, they all have families... They have all kinds of responsibilities before they have diaconal responsibilities.”

Another question raised by Archbishop Gervais’ initiative is whether enough is being done to encourage men to hear and answer the call to the priesthood. The 1997 instruction from the Vatican stresses there is a “necessity for a continuing, zealous, and well-organized pastoral promotion of vocations so as to provide the Church with those ministers which she needs ... Any other solution to problems deriving from a shortage of sacred ministers can only lead to precarious consequences.”

Archbishop Gervais says that Ottawa has two vocations teams which are hard at work and functioning well. But, he adds, “we have to wait on God. He calls. We can't, by drumming up the bushes, simply invent vocations.” The archdiocese does not plan to seek out foreign priests, although it does welcome a limited number of foreigners as seminarians.

Archbishop Exner's Perspective

The Archdiocese of Vancouver, the most prominent diocese in Western Canada, is also feeling a need for more priests. There, because of very rapid population growth mostly due to immigration, foreign priests and seminarians are much more numerous.

Archbishop Adam Exner says what's needed is a passionate and hope-filled approach to encouraging priestly vocations.

“We have to dispel the idea that the Church is a sinking ship or a losing team,” Archbishop Exner told the Register. “No one in his right mind wants to join a sinking ship or a losing team. As long as that idea is around we won't get any vocations ... If you believe in the divine presence in the Church you must understand that it is not a sinking ship.”

Archbishop Exner recounted his first meeting with Pope John Paul II, when the archbishop was a young bishop, just after the Pope's election in 1978. The Pope asked him whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the Church, and then answered the question himself.

Said the Pope, “In the world today we have enormous problems and in the Church today we have problems as perhaps never before, but the reasons for hope and optimism are stronger and more convincing.”

Archbishop Exner told the Register, “All of a sudden it hit me. [The Pope] believes in Christianity — he believes that our Lord conquered evil and death and sin by dying and that he has restored life and hope by rising ... When this kind of thinking is diffused around the diocese, we'll get vocations.”

Archbishop Exner, who was previously Archbishop of Winnipeg, adds that before he went to that city, “there hadn't been an ordination for a number of years. When I arrived in the archdiocese there were five seminarians. In the nine years I was there I ordained 15 and I left behind 14 seminarians.”

“It can be done,” he concluded, “but you have to put effort into it in every diocese. You have to have vocations directors, and bishops have to be involved in some capacity. You have to beat the bushes. They're out there; you have to find them.”

David Curtin writes from Toronto.

------- EXCERPT: