‘Lay ministry not for inflated egos’

Strong words from a pontiff who has since “rocked many a boat” in the Catholic Church since taking office as head of the universal Church.

Jun 23, 2023

The laity at a seminar. We are all lay ministers in our own right so long as we are using the gifts of the Holy Spirit to serve the People of God. We need not necessarily be commissioned or appointed as such. (HERALD file pic)


                                       
This was the “screaming” headline featured in a recent issue of HERALD (May 7, 2023) where Pope Francis spoke to the participants at the Second Plenary Assembly of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life.

Strong words from a pontiff who has since “rocked many a boat” in the Catholic Church since taking office as head of the universal Church. In his speech, translated in English, he said “these ministries, services, offices, must never become self-referential. I get angry when I see lay ministers who – pardon the expression – are ‘puffed up’ by this ministry. This is ministerial, but it is not Christian”. (source: Holy See Press Office Bulletin, Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, 22 April 2023).

How relevant are these words to the Church in Malaysia? How relevant is this in describing the situation of lay ministries in Malaysia?

To the best of my knowledge, the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur organised its very first lay ministry formation course in the early 1980s. That was the period after Aggiornamento 1976, when the Church in Peninsular Malaysia started her renewal process. The course was conducted weekly for two years at Cardijn House, Kuala Lumpur, and all parishes were asked to send participants. As usual, it started off well with several hundred attendees, but as the weeks and months passed, only about two hundred people completed the course.

This was the first time ever that I know, when the Church formally conducted a comprehensive training covering all aspects of liturgy, biblical, pastoral and sacramental of our faith to laity. The occasional “homework” and the reading materials handed out, made the course daunting for many who had to rush from office. The course was conducted on weekday nights for about two hours each session, by priests, religious brothers and sisters. For those who endured this two-year course, a rite of commissioning and a certificate was issued to recognise their completion.

From the success of this Lay Ministry programme, subsequent two-year courses were planned, but focused on Bible study only. At least two more batches of laity completed these programmes between 1985-1989. I was one of those in the last batch of the Bible study programme in 1989.


Fully empowered with their new knowledge and charged by the Holy Spirit, this first batch of commissioned lay ministers returned to their respective parishes, and thus began the period of laity involvement in the Church.

Today, we have laity spread out geographically across Malaysia, serving in various aspects of Church life. I seldom hear us being called lay ministers, but according to Pope Francis “the ministeriality of the faithful, and of laypeople in particular, stems from the charism that the Holy Spirit distributes within the People of God for its edification”. Meaning, we are all lay ministers in our own right so long as we are using the gifts of the Holy Spirit to serve the People of God. We need not necessarily be commissioned or appointed as such.

Returning to Pope Francis’ “angry words” above, I sincerely hope it is not happening anywhere in any of the parishes in Malaysia. On the contrary, I see many dedicated and much committed individuals serving in the churches, in the many parish ministries, groups and organisations. It is not like there are many people clamouring for power in the Church. After all, most of these positions and duties are voluntary and unpaid.

In fact, there are many who are happy just serving in one small area in Church without holding any positions.

The most I feel that we may be “guilty of”, if we can really call it so, is that many of the lay faithful serving in Church remain in the same lay ministry for long. Not that they have inflated egos or enjoy monetary rewards, but because they are comfortable serving in that ministry, and find satisfaction doing their little bit for God.

However, the Church does have some guidelines on that. Some parishes require its leaders to serve no more than two terms of three years each only. This will allow others the chance to come forward, as well as groom new leaders into the field. Of course for smaller parishes where resources are scarce and volunteers are few, we sometimes find the same person wearing more than one hat.

I agree with Pope Francis’ statement that lay ministry is not for people with inflated egos. In fact, Pope Francis, on many occasions, has referred to the Church as a field hospital — she needs many more lay faithful to step up in service.

Just like in the early years, the Church in Malaysia is in constant need to form and train its lay faithful to serve with love, care and compassion. She needs to constantly form the laity in the area of the pastoral, liturgical and sacramental life of the Church. All these cannot be done via Zoom, online or any form of electronic media. It needs to be done one-on-one, through human relationship and mutual support of each other.

(Richard Chia has been actively involved in Church since young. He held full-time corporate jobs while serving in ministries and groups at various church levels for the past four decades.)

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