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  • Writer's pictureImmersed in Christ

Accepting Lay Leadership

Sunday, November 5, 2023

by Fr. David M. Knight

View readings for Sunday, 31st Week of Ordinary Time:

Lectionary no. 151 (Mal 1: 14b to 2: 2b, 8-10; Ps 131: 1,2,3; 1Thes 2: 7b-9, 13; Mt 23: 1-12)


Do you see problems in the Church? What do you identify as their source? Should you even ask this question? Are you being judgmental if you trace the problem to attitudes found in particular groups of Catholics? Are you disloyal if you criticize attitudes found in the clergy? In the bishops? Is it possible to do this with humility and with love?

Ideas to Consider

The Entrance Antiphon begs “Do not abandon me, Lord… Hurry to help me, Lord, my Savior.” We have no fear of finding serious problems in any person or group in the Church, because our trust is not in any human being, but in God, and in the person of Jesus Christ as Savior. St. Peter himself said and did the wrong thing almost every time he is mentioned in the Gospels except for three times: when he identified Jesus as Messiah (Matthew 16:16, Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20, John 6:68), when he asked Jesus to call him to walk on the water (Matthew 14:28), and when he told Jesus three times he loved him to make up for his triple denial (John 21:15). Peter is never presented as being either brilliant or sinless. The “rock” upon which Jesus founded the Church (Matthew 16:18) was the rock of Peter’s weakness sustained by grace. So our trust and our loyalty to the Church do not depend on the kind of pope or priests we have. Every single Catholic is consecrated by God as a steward of Christ’s kingship and charged with the responsibility to try to lead the Church forward, with or without the support of priests and bishops, although never against their rightful authority. This may sound shocking — because we are all infected with “clericalism” — but it is Catholic doctrine.

In the Opening Prayer(s) we acknowledge that “only with God’s help” can we “offer fitting service and praise.” We ask God to “direct our steps” and to “remove the selfishness that blurs the vision of faith.” To be leaders we have to be lovers — of God and of each other. Vatican II teaches we are all called to this: “It is evident to everyone that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of love” (The Church no. 40). To strive for this is the cost of stewardship.

The priest problem

In Malachi 1:14 to 2:10 the prophet indicts the Jewish priests who “will not listen….”

The lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the LORD of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways.

In the Old Testament the priests are spoken of positively, for the most part, until the prophets come on the scene. Then priests are presented more often in a negative light, as a source of corruption in Israel. See, for example, Jeremiah (2:8; 5:31), Lamentations (4:13), Ezekiel (22:26), Hosea (5:1, 6:9), Joel (1:13), Micah (3:11), Zechariah (7:5), and Malachi (1:6, 2:1 ff.). In the New Testament almost every reference to the Jewish priests portrays them as enemies of Christ. Is this because they were Jewish, or because priesthood in any religion carries with it a prestige and power which are dangerous to the soul?

When the Catholic bishops gathered for the second Vatican Council, Bishop De Smedt of Bruges, pointed

out that the agenda originally drawn up by officials in the Vatican was characterized by triumphalism, clericalism and legalism. The bishops rejected these three attitudes as destructive and drew up a new agenda.

Clericalism is described by Father (later Cardinal) Avery Dulles, S.J., as an attitude which

views the clergy, especially the higher clergy, as the source of all power and initiative. Bishop De Smedt spoke of the pyramidal pattern in which all power is conceived as descending from the pope through the bishops and priests, while at the base the faithful people play a passive role and seem to have a lower position in the Church... (Models of the Church, pp. 39, 43).

In the renewed Church authority is distinguished from leadership. The function of authority (which belongs to the clergy) is to keep the community united. The function of leadership is to move it forward. These are two different jobs, and one does not presuppose the other. In a Church freed of clericalism, the laity exercise as much leadership as the clergy — more, in fact, because of their numbers and the advantage of their diversified points of view.

This means the laity have a responsibility, which most are still slow to accept, to point out to the clergy what needs to be done and, yes, what needs to be corrected in the direction a pastor, priest or bishop may be taking. This does not make the laity infallible; it just keeps the clergy from assuming that they themselves are. If we do not work together in this, cooperating as one holy People of God, do not Malachi’s words indict us all: “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?”

The peace of family

The Responsorial Psalm (Ps. 131) encourages us to say, “In you, Lord, I have found my peace.” Matthew 23: 1-12 continues the theme of Malachi, assuring us that we can find peace — and can only find it — by being very precise about who is our Father, who is our Teacher, and what our relationship is to one another. “You are all brothers and sisters,” Jesus says. No one in the Church is “higher” than anyone else. We all have different functions, each with a different degree of authority and perhaps of importance. But whoever by function appears to be “the greatest among you must be your servant” when it comes to claiming or accepting prestige. “Whoever exalts himself” through pretentious titles, impressive dress and pompous protocol “will be humbled.” In our day we have seen this happen again and again.

Some fundamentalists think that “Call no one on earth your father” was meant to prohibit calling Catholic priests “Father,” ignoring the fact that there were no Christian priests yet when Jesus spoke. And no one gave priests that title until the tenth century. So if that is what Jesus meant, it was lost on his listeners. Jesus was saying not to obey our earthly fathers over God. But it is important to note that when the laity in the Church began to give this title to priests, it was a title of relationship, not (like “Reverend” or “Your excellency”) an ecclesiastically bestowed title of prestige. The laity gave this title to priests who acted as their “spiritual fathers” by giving them spiritual direction and nourishment. The title expressed more love and gratitude than respect. If we keep clear what all the roles in the Church are, and do not invest any one of them with more dignity than another, we will say, “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?” and “In you, Lord, I have found my peace.”

True priesthood

In 1Thessalonians 2: 7-13 Paul models what a priest should be: “We were gentle among you, as nursing mother cares for her children.” Priesthood for Paul was “affection,” “sharing” his self as well as the Gospel with others, “toil and drudgery,” “working night and day in order not to burden” anyone. It was this authentic acceptance and experience of ministry that caused Paul to “give thanks to God unceasingly.” And it was because Paul thought and acted like this that the people received the Gospel

message from him “not as a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God.”

Authentic ministry empowers the laity to exercise leadership as stewards of the kingship of Christ. The sign that Church teaching is being preached and received as is should be is that “the word of God… is now at work in those who believe.” If we are faithful stewards, in this we can “find our peace.”


How do you see yourself now in relation to priests and bishops? Are they “higher” or “distinct but equal”? What responsibility does this put on you?

Action: Accept your baptismal responsibility as a steward of Christ’s kingship. Write or speak to your pastor and bishop about what needs to be done in the Church.

Reflections brought to you by the Immersed in Christ Ministry


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