Lay ecclesial ministers gather, discuss issues with bishop
Nearly 200 lay ecclesial ministers from across the eight-county Diocese of Cleveland gathered at the Center for Pastoral Leadership on Oct. 27 for their first session with Bishop Nelson Perez. Among the group were active and retired ministers, as well as those in formation.
Since the program began in 1985, 402 people have been certified through the diocesan formation program, with 193 still in active ministry. After a brief respite to revamp the program in 2016, there are 10 people in their second year of formation and eight people in the first year of formation.
In preparation for the meeting, the lay ecclesial ministers were asked to provide input on topics they would like the bishop to address. The group chose abuse issues, Catholic education, lay ecclesial ministry, young adults and families as some of the key topics for the session.
Bishop Perez tackled lay ministry first, explaining to the group that as the number of ordained clergy and professed religious has decreased, the role of lay ministers increased.
“Cleveland is ahead of the curve,” he said. “The role of laity in the Church is only just beginning.” The bishop said when he hears people say they feel the laity should be more involved in the leadership of the diocese, he thinks about a number of things, including his senior staff – about 15 people — which consists of one deacon, three priests and one religious sister; most are lay people. “The role of lay people in the Church is evolving and growing,” he emphasized.
The bishop also noted that this change is coming faster than people realize. It took about half of the Church’s 2,000-year-plus lifetime to establish formal formation for priests, whereas the lay ecclesial ministry program and other roles for the laity have evolved dramatically in about the past 50 years.
“It is important to recognize, live and affirm the role of laity in the Church. Thank you for all you do,” Bishop Perez told the group. “You made a deeper commitment by being trained and certified.”
Regarding the role of lay ecclesial ministers in the diocese, the bishop said without them, the diocesan Church would be diminished. He said better and ongoing training is important. Some parishes rely heavily on lay ecclesial ministers for their operations.
One minister asked the bishop how pastors could be better informed about the role of lay ecclesial ministers, noting that some do not understand the years of training that goes into certification. He said the training for priests will continue.
Regarding young adults, the bishop urged that they “be given a place at the table. Make room for them,” he said, pointing out they have much to offer. “They’re not the future of the Church – they are the Church.”
He said if parishes do not make room for these young adults, they are finding ways outside of the parish to become more engaged with their faith. Groups like Theology on Tap have developed and continue to draw good crowds for their monthly events. There are east, west and south chapters.
One young adult who is in formation as a lay ecclesial minister spoke of the difficulty she has experienced with trying to be engaged at a parish level. She said people often want to mentor her rather than listening to her, which means she finds doors closing. “What else can I do to serve the Church?” she asked. Bishop Perez said it’s time to consider praying and letting go of fear. “Replace it with holy boldness,” he added.
Another minister agreed, pointing out there is a need to find new ways to help young adults get involved, despite the difficulties of their busy schedules and often mobile lifestyles.
Still another shared her experience of trying to transition from the Newman Campus Ministry during her college years and finding a good fit with a parish as a young adult. She described feeling “alone and stranded” after college, noting that it’s important for parishes to be flexible and to allow young people to come when they can.
“Yes,” the bishop said. “We have to be more missionary-like, to go to the periphery. After all, we are a Church on mission, a Church on the way.”
The future of Catholic education also was discussed. Bishop Perez said it’s in flux and there may be more than one answer about how Catholic education should be shaped in the future. He briefly talked about the history of Catholic education, which he said originated in Philadelphia when Catholics were discriminated against, so they started their own schools and hospitals.
He pointed out there has been a culture change. Fifty or 60 years ago, parents expected to send their children to the parish school. “Those schools were built on the backs of the religious,” he said, but with fewer religious, more lay teachers and smaller families, the schools are facing a variety of challenges.
Bishop Perez said a strategic planning group was established in the diocese to thoroughly examine education and to develop some solutions.
He also tackled the clergy abuse issue which resurfaced in recent months. The bishop talked about how the diocese is working to improve the list of names of clergy who have been removed from active ministry because of credible accusations of sexual abuse of a minor. The list was made public in 2002 and is updated when new cases are discovered.
Cleveland underwent legal scrutiny in 2002 with a grand jury examining several cases of clerics accused of sexually abusing minors. Ohio law requires those reports to remain sealed, unlike Pennsylvania law, the bishop said.
Since 2002, more than 150,000 people in the diocese – in all levels of ministry from ordained priests and deacons to teachers, parish and diocesan staff, coaches and even volunteers who work with children — have been Virtus trained to recognize and report suspected instances of sexual abuse of a minor. Many things have been done to help ensure a safe environment for young people, he added. Also, listening sessions were organized so those with questions or concerns could speak to trained facilitators. Counseling is available for the victims, also.
Bishop Perez said there is a strict protocol in place for reporting instances of suspected abuse – to both the diocese and law enforcement. Many improvements have been made in the way these cases are handled now, he explained.
“The Virtus training and other things we do seem to be working,” the bishop said.
The clerical abuse issue is expected to be a major focus of the upcoming fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The bishop once again thanked the lay ecclesial ministers for their time and dedication to the Church.
Pattie Batchman, director of the diocesan Lay Ecclesial Ministry Office, said the program consists of four major components: formation and integration, spiritual development, academic preparation and mentor and supervised field experience.
A series of formation nights are being offered for those already in the ministry or those interested in learning more about lay ecclesial ministry. Sessions will be offered 6:30-8 p.m. on Fridays Nov. 9, Dec. 7, Jan. 4 and Feb. 1 at the Center for Pastoral Leadership, 27800 Euclid Ave., Wickliffe. Those planning to attend are asked to make a reservation by calling 440-943-7670 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A fundraising dinner is also being planned for May 3 at CPL for certified ministers, candidates, spouses, family and friends. Funds raised will be used for scholarships, education and formation for the lay ecclesial ministry program. Volunteers are needed to help plan the program, provide raffle baskets and to purchase tickets. Call 440-943-7670 or email email@example.com for more information.