By David Lewellen
The shift toward lay leadership in the Catholic Church is just the latest in two millennia of changes, Zeni Fox believes — which is not to say that it’s easy.
Fox, the author of New Ecclesial Ministry: Lay Professionals Serving the Church, has made a career of studying lay leadership, and she thanked the NACC conference audience for providing her the chance to learn more about chaplaincy as a field of ministry.
Chaplains see spiritual care as a professional ministry, but Fox took a step back to the question of what “professional” means. Years ago, she served in the relatively new role of parish director of religious education, and worked with a group of peers that included three with master’s degrees and one without a bachelor’s degree who did her job very well. Confronted with that fact, Fox concluded at the time that “a professional is one who is acknowledged as a professional by other professionals.”
The line drew a laugh, but she pointed out that United States bishops wrestled with that question during the long process of producing the 2005 document “Coworkers in the Vineyard of the Lord.” Fox, who consulted with the bishops on that landmark publication, said that there was doubt up until the night before whether it would be accepted, and that the bishops chose not to include the term “professional” because it has no basis in Scripture or Church teaching, and because they didn’t want to create an elite within the church.
What is the underlying relationship between people in ministry? Today, she said, in the Catholic Church and American society, it is primarily hierarchical. But the early church emphasized multiple ministries and communal lifestyle.
Over the course of church history, Fox said, “Certain modes arrive, flourish and then diminish,” citing the ruined monasteries that dot Europe. From the more recent past, the world of being known by name in church is gone, whether the backdrop was a rural village or an urban ethnic neighborhood. But even so, the need for personal interaction is “greater than it ever was.”
Therefore, she asked, “What does this call you to? The extension of care that will be needed.” Pastoral care as the gift of presence, she said, is “more valuable than any of the words you may say.” The word “pastor” derives from the Latin for “shepherd,” and early depictions of Jesus in art, she said, were exclusively as the good shepherd.
“Yours is ministry greatly needed in our day,” Fox said. “The Spirit of God is doing something beautiful and new,” even if “new charisms are not fully understood or recognized.” But the charism of chaplaincy in particular, she said, is something to celebrate. The Catholic Church has not developed a tradition of celebrating lay calls, and she said that Friday’s certification Mass “moved me, that there was that affirmation of the connection to the church.” She concluded, “Think only a little bit about the present crisis. Think much more about what’s happening and rejoice.”