That Elias Josue Moo went to Catholic school for 13 years and never once heard of the University of Notre Dame may strike some as odd. But Elias grew up in a distinctive kind of enclave in Oxnard, California. His parents both came to this country from Mexico when they were 17; his father as a farmworker and his mother as a ranch-hand. They struggled to send Elias and his four siblings to Catholic school and when, during his senior year, Notre Dame came knocking with a generous financial-aid package, he took the plunge. Elias had never been away from home for more than a night.
Since graduating in 2007, Elias has been working at St. Rose of Lima Catholic School in Denver. He first taught 23 fifth-graders and is now teaching eighth grade in this primarily Latino community whose median family income is $18,000 a year. Elias’s degree and his training through the Alliance for Catholic Education program have allowed him to give back in a way that he never could have imagined, he told us. His vocation, a term he does not hesitate to use as a layperson, has truly transformed his life.
If you have been reading in recent years about the hundreds of Catholic schools all over this country that have been forced to close—172 have been shuttered or consolidated in the last school year alone--you know that people like Elias are the only way that our church will be able to pass on the Faith to the next generation and provide a decent education to some of the neediest children in this country. In 1920, Catholic schools drew 92 percent of their staff from religious orders. Today, they draw less than 4 percent from that source, with lay teachers, administrators, and staff making up the other 96 percent.
Finding the staff for Catholic schools is only the tip of the iceberg. The Catholic population in the U.S. grew by more than 8 percent every decade from 1950 to 2000. But the Church’s ability to minister to the faithful has been challenged. During the same period, every 10 years, the number of diocesan priests decreased by about 13 percent and the membership in religious orders declined about 20 percent.
What do these numbers mean for the everyday life of the Church and its flock? Among other things, they explain how it has come to be that 1 in 7 parishes in the U.S. no longer has a resident priest. More and more lay Catholics are waking up to find that their priests, when they are present, are overworked, indeed overwhelmed, by the extent of their responsibilities. Almost half of American parishes share their pastor with another parish or mission. There are also shortages of religious leaders at the 18,500 parishes, 8,500 elementary schools, 1,600 high schools, 245 colleges and universities, and 750 hospitals and health clinics owned and operated by the Church.
Historically, the leadership of these institutions has resided in the hands of the clergy. But in recent years, much of the responsibility for them has been given to laypeople. As former New York Times columnist Peter Steinfels reported in “A People Adrift,” the transition has been startling: “In 1965, there were no married or single men ordained to be permanent deacons and almost no laypeople employed full-time in pastoral work by the Church. In 2002, there were 13,764 permanent deacons and another 14,000 lay ‘ecclesial ministers’ working alongside sisters in pastoral posts.” As of the time of Steinfels’ writing in 2003, there were over 30,000 lay parish ministers being paid to work more than 20 hours a week in over 60 percent of American parishes. Almost three-quarters were working full time.
The growing involvement of laypeople in the Church is not simply a demographic necessity. It is a theological imperative. The underpinnings for it come from all levels of the Church, most important, of course, from the Second Vatican Council. In Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Council Fathers of Vatican II state that “our own times require of the laity . . . zeal: in fact, modern conditions demand that their own apostolate be broadened and intensified.” It mentions not only charitable work and other volunteering opportunities within the Church community but also pastoral duties, including the “teaching of Christian doctrine, certain liturgical actions and the care of souls.”
In the past year, we have interviewed many of these lay pioneers and have been truly humbled by their accomplishments.
Take Kathleen Kichline, for example, who for the past 24 years, has been a pastoral associate at St. Thomas More parish outside Seattle. Back then, the archdiocese assigned only one priest to St. Thomas More instead of the two they had had before. That’s when the remaining priest decided to look for a pastoral associate to help him. Kathleen, the mother of school-age kids, had gone back to school but had not yet completed her pastoral studies degree when she took on the role.
In the past quarter-century, Kathleen’s responsibilities have changed depending on the needs of the parish, the other staff available, and her own interests. These days, she oversees many of the parish’s ministries. She is responsible for training the lectors and Eucharistic ministers, as well as the parishioners who are doing hospital visits. She is in charge of the liturgy commission, including the ushers and any musicians.
Her role, she says, “is to be comfortable presiding and to lead people in prayer.” Over the years, she has also offered some reflections on Scripture to the parishioners and has written penance services. She coordinates the services for Holy Week, assigning readings to different parishioners. And she presides over some graveside services as well. Kathleen meets with all of the engaged couples to talk to them about the spiritual aspects of their marriage and the meaning of marriage as a sacrament. She has developed and teaches a women’s Bible study titled Sisters in Scripture. “It’s something I get hugely excited about,” she says. “It’s very life-giving to me.”
If it sounds like Kathleen has taken on a lot, she has. Parish life has increased in scale and complexity. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, about 22 percent of parishes celebrate Mass in more than one language at least once a month. In their book, American Catholics Today, William D’Antonio, Dean Hoge, and James Davidson note that more than a quarter of U.S. Catholic parishes “are of a size equivalent to what would be considered a ‘mega-church’ in Protestant terminology—they have more than 1,200 registered households and more than 3,000 parishioners.” Also, like the megachurches, these parishes have launched dozens of new ministries, activities for people of all ages, and many offer five or more Masses on any given weekend.
We are inspired by the work of men and women like Kathleen and Elias and we hope that others will be too. Laypeople today have an unprecedented opportunity to help lift up the church, making use of their many talents, whether in the field of business, education, counseling, or administration. Please take a minute to think about your calling. We must all be engaged in the important work of “the care of souls.”
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.