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Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord

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Jesus said, “You too go into my vineyard” (Mk 20:4).

When I was a boy, the pastor of St. William’s Church, assistant priests and religious women performed most of the parish’s work. In addition, it had a lay organist, boy servers, a choir, a married man to count the collection and a single woman teaching in the school. These lay people never called their work “ministry.”

This changed as the Second Vatican Council introduced lay ministry into the life of the Church. Today, parishes need the services of the lay faithful, including full- and part-time ministers. They serve as readers, altar servers, secretaries, liturgists, catechetical leaders, stewardship ministers and pastoral council and finance committee members. They collaborate with their pastors to further the Good News of Jesus Christ. We take their presence for granted, but this wasn’t always the case.

This article looks at the gradual clarification of various ministries that emerged after Vatican II, as the lay faithful took their place along with the clergy in the ministry of the Church. It focuses on “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” a document published 15 years ago by the United States’ bishops.

In it, the bishops root the collaboration between clergy and laity in the Sacrament of Baptism and clarify the relationship between ordained ministry, discipleship, ministry, and lay ecclesial ministry (LEM). In so doing, it indicates that for effective Church ministry the collaboration of clergy and laity alike to further the mission of the Church is essential.

Vatican II clarified this need for collaboration by affirming that every baptized person receives special charisms, or gifts, for discipleship and ministry. This was new for Catholics, exemplified by the following episode.

Change of Focus

On Dec. 4, 1963, Pope St. Paul VI promulgated the council’s Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). Initially, this document received a mixed response from the faithful and clergy alike. It caused great joy among Church members looking for changes in the liturgy and doubt among those skeptical of the changes that it directed.

The Church began to implement the document in 1964, during my second year of doctoral work at St. John’s University in New York. Both positive and negative responses occurred. On the positive side at university, diocesan and parish levels, many priests, religious men and women, and lay people enthusiastically flocked to lectures, hungry for new insights coming from the council. New publishers sprang up and the Church was alive.

At the same time, however, not everyone favored the changes, illustrated by one episode. It happened at an assembly of priests, called by the Diocese of Brooklyn, to discuss the changes.

As I took my seat in a large auditorium, where the assembly was held, strong feelings for and against the liturgical changes were apparent immediately. Many priests in attendance had been pastors of the same parish for more than 20 years. Aware that change was in the air, they were concerned. Would they have to retire? How would they cope with the changes they saw coming?

Murmurs of approval and disapproval flowed through the room, as the presenter began to describe changes to take place. He stressed that Mass would be celebrated in the vernacular, instead of in Latin, that lay people would become more active in Church affairs, and that other liturgical changes would occur.


Agents of Formation

All formation is ultimately self-formation, and lay ecclesial ministers themselves are the pivotal agents of their own formation. We call them to nurture in themselves a deep and powerful hunger for formation, willingness to learn and grow, and desire to serve the Lord with excellence and generosity.

“Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” p. 53


The tension in the room reached a climax after the speaker described how lay people would enter the sanctuary, read the first two readings and be involved in other liturgical matters in ways unheard of before that time. As he spoke, an old monsignor directly in front of me said in a loud voice to the priest sitting next to him, “I will never allow a layperson in my sanctuary.”

The monsignor’s words give us an indication of how far we have come. Before Vatican II, the laity had little to do with Church affairs — spiritual or otherwise. These were the pastor’s prerogatives, symbolized by the monsignor’s words — “My sanctuary.”

Since that time, a massive paradigm shift has occurred, rooted in Vatican II ecclesiology and based on the realization that all Christians are called to some form of discipleship by virtue of their baptism. “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord” summarizes these efforts and clarifies the meaning of ministry.

A New Look at Ministry

The emergence of new ministries after Vatican II occurred in uneven steps. The newly adopted documents required significant changes that took time to develop. An episode in 1975 exemplifies this when Cincinnati staff members attended a conference on Christian ministry.

The attendees returned with a new enthusiasm. A religious woman said: “I learned that all the baptized are called to some form of ministry. If this is true, it changes everything.”

This use of the term “ministry” was new in the Catholic Church. Many Protestants called their pastor a “minister” and connected it with all the baptized.

Before Vatican II, Catholics never referred to their priest as a minister or used it to refer to the work of the laity. After Vatican II, some Catholics began to link “ministry” with baptism.

The staff member’s words indicate the need to clarify this term for Catholics. This took many years, as “Co-Workers” implies in the following ecclesiological perspectives.

Rooted in Baptism

At Vatican II Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution of the Church) established a basic framework for the Church, stressing the basic equality of every Christian. It did this by speaking of the Church as a communion of disciples and rooting their equality in baptism.

This framework sets the stage for a deeper appreciation of how “Co-Workers” develops subsequent changes in Church ministry, roots them in baptism and connects them to holy orders and the other sacraments. At the same time, “Co-Workers” indicates that the fundamental call of all Christians is to discipleship.

The following clarifications help us to appreciate various modes of ministerial collaboration in the Church.

Discipleship: The Fundamental Call

As “Co-Workers” says, “The basic call is the same for all the followers of Christ” (p. 7). This is a call to discipleship, which centers on holiness and charity. For the clergy, this means basing their ministry on love and taking sacramental and pastoral leadership in serving the entire body of believers. For men and women religious, it means serving in and beyond the ecclesial community according to the dictates of their specific religious charism. For the laity, whose call is directed primarily to the secular arena, it means growing in holiness and charity while collaborating with their pastor in the work of the Church in and beyond the parish.

Even though the discipleship of the laity is directed primarily to the secular arena, many lay members of Christ’s faithful work in the Church, a calling the Church encourages them to pursue. In living out this lay calling, “Co-Workers” distinguishes between Christian discipleship, ministry and lay ecclesial ministry.

Discipleship and Ministry

Discipleship, a broad term, includes acts done by all members of Christ’s body.

As regards the laity, it includes work done by them in their everyday lives offered in service of the Lord. It includes living one’s calling as a spouse, parent or a single person. It also includes volunteer work, work at one’s job as a computer programmer or custodian, etc., and any service done in the spirit of the Lord. In fulfilling their proper role, the laity cooperate with the clergy to further Jesus’ mission in the world.

In addition, discipleship for the laity includes work done by the laity under the aegis of the Church. This includes various forms of ministry, full- and part-time, paid or volunteer, performed in and for the Church, such as a liturgist, pastoral associate, reader at Mass or catechist.

For the ordained clergy, it refers to work in their sacramental ministry, leadership in the body of Christ, service ministries and other offices in the Church.

For men and women religious, it includes living out their calling to serve the Lord in light of their religious charism in the Church and the world.

In summary, the laity, religious and clergy alike are disciples of Christ, and their ministry is rooted in baptism.

Ministry for the laity, a form of discipleship, is the term “Co-Workers” uses for work done by lay men and women who “cooperate with their pastors in the service of the ecclesial community” (p. 9). In other words, the service they perform comes under the umbrella of the Church.

Such ministry often is done on a limited and voluntary basis. It includes, “for example, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, readers, cantors and choir members, catechists, pastoral council members, visitors to the sick and needy, and those who serve in programs such as sacramental preparation, youth ministry, including ministers with people with disabilities, and charity and justice” (p. 9).

Lay Ecclesial Ministry is a further specification of the general term, “ministry.” It is described in “Co-Workers” as work done by a smaller group of the laity within the larger group of Church ministers mentioned above (cf. p. 10). It is characterized by (1) authorization by the bishop or his delegate (often the pastor) for public service, (2) leadership in a special area of ministry, (3) close collaboration with the clergy and (4) preparation and formation for their ministry.

In a parish, lay ecclesial ministers act as pastoral associates, parish catechetical leaders, directors of liturgy, youth ministers, school principals and more (cf. p. 11). The local bishop or pastor determines which ministries are needed.

It is “lay” because it is a ministry done by lay people, “ecclesial” because it takes place within the Church community and “ministry” because it shares in Christ’s threefold ministry as priest, prophet and king (cf. p. 11). Such ministry often is done by laypersons on a professional, paid basis. Today, it would be difficult for a parish to function effectively without adequate collaboration between the clergy and lay ecclesial ministers.

Lay ecclesial ministers, in exercising their various functions, bring the secular world into conformity with the will of God. Cooperating with the clergy, they help build the Church from within. The call of a layperson to serve the Church as a designated lay ecclesial minister must be discerned and affirmed by the community they intend to serve and approved by the bishop or his delegate, usually the pastor.

Ordained ministry is the work of ordained members of Christ’s faithful people — bishops, priests and deacons. Just as all the faithful receive the call to discipleship at baptism, so the clergy receive the call to leadership in the Church when they receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

Collaboration: Further Considerations

During my 60 years of ordained ministry, I have come to see that for discipleship and the various forms of ministry to bear fruit, a collaboration between the clergy and laity is essential. The pastor is primarily responsible to instruct the entire community in the work of discipleship and to stress that this is every Christian’s call from baptism.

In addition, the pastor, priests in parish service and deacons set the tone for paid and volunteer parish ministries. In this effort, cooperation begins with the positive attitude of the pastor and the clergy. This is especially important when lay ecclesial ministers, designated by the pastor, help him fulfill his ministry as the leader of the local parish community.

For effective collaboration in parish ministry, liturgical and otherwise, certain requirements are necessary. An analysis of them is beyond the confines of this article. For those interested, refer to “Co-Workers” and to an instruction by Pope St. John Paul II in 1997 entitled “On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests.”

The instruction indicates that collaboration between the laity and clergy “exists in both orders of the Church’s mission; whether it is in the spiritual order, bringing the message of Christ and his grace to men, or, in the temporal one in the primary areas of evangelization and sanctification.” The pope encourages the clergy to support the laity in these orders, especially in the laity’s involvement in the arts, theater, scientific research, labor, communications, media, politics and the economy.

Laity in the Church’s Ministry

As regards ministry, changes that brought the laity into the heart of the Church’s ministry produced great fruit. Lay collaboration with the clergy makes it possible for laity and clergy alike to “go forth and proclaim the Gospel” in a new way. On a positive note, the conclusion of “Co-Workers” offers a fitting end to our reflections on ministry and collaboration when it says: “We are blessed indeed to have such gifted and co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord to which we have all been called. Let us continue to work together as a ‘community of people united in Christ and guided by the holy Spirit in our pilgrimage toward the Father’s kingdom, bearers of a message for all humanity’” (quoting Gaudium et Spes).

All Christians receive a wonderful gift at baptism. Let us appreciate this gift more each day! Indeed, we are disciples of Christ.

FATHER ROBERT J. HATER, Ph.D., a Cincinnati archdiocesan priest, is an internationally known author and lecturer. He is professor emeritus at the University of Dayton and resides at St. Clare Parish in Cincinnati.



Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord” is available as a downloadable document at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website, usccb.org.


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