Image: Dr. Marc DelMonico & Dr. Julia Dezelski (center), delegates of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to the international meeting on the laity in Rome, listen with other delegates to reports from international colleagues about their work forming the laity. (Credit: Dicastery on Laity, Family and Life. Used with permission.)

This entry continues my reflections on the September 26-28, 2018 international meeting on “Promotion and Formation of the Laity: Best Practices” in Rome, where I participated and co-presented with a colleague representing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). This gathering of 40 representatives from 15 countries was convoked by Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect for the Dicastery on Laity, Family and Life, following the submission of reports by 54 episcopal conferences (out of 150 inquiries) in response to the 2017 circular letter requesting information on these practices. The event was chaired by Dr. Santiago Pérez de Camino, head of the Promotion and Formation of the Laity section of the Dicastery and held on the beautiful grounds of Casa San Juan de Avila – a residence for students, pilgrims, and visitors to Rome on the grounds of the Spanish Episcopal College, approximately 3-5 miles to the west of the Vatican.

My previous posts addressed preparation for the meeting, an inspiration the delegates in the form of a special reception of our group by Pope Francis himself, and a summary of the U.S. report on best practices for formation of the laity and standards for formational development of lay ecclesial ministers. This concluding entry offers some general overviews of the unique insights garnered from the 15 reports and presentations on various aspects of formation of the laity across the globe. These summaries reflect the more comprehensive reports and presentations which are available on the Dicastery’s website (links available in my previous post). As I considered these themes, I divided them into 2 areas: common themes of affirmation and common themes of growth opportunity.

Common Themes of Affirmation

  • Initial efforts to form lay men and women are clearly rooted in Vatican II (Apostolicam acutuositatem), but in many cases the catalyst to take it seriously was and is in decline among members of the clergy. The promise of such holistic formation has continued to develop in many regions and nations, and it has come into its own. In many cases, this development has been “by the laity, for the laity.” Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect for the Dicastery on Laity, Family and Life, specifically recognized in his address to the delegates the need for best practices in the formation of the laity to reflect new approaches which correspond to the new realities of the times in which we live.
  • Engagement in lay formation in a number of countries has focused on work in the Church’s own life (ad intra). However, endeavors which emphasize the role of lay men and women outside of the Church (ad extra) have become a centerpiece in the work of national laity councils and lay movement groups in several nations. The formation for the work of the laity in the world takes various forms – ranging from family engagement, to preparations for activity in the business world and the political world. Such formation has been encouraged since Paul VI’s 1975 encyclical Evangelii nuntiandi but has grown in importance with more recent papal calls for a “new evangelization” and Pope Francis’ 2013 encyclical Evangelii gaudium with its invitation to a life of “missionary discipleship”. Several nations recognized this conceptualization of formation as a key focus for their present and future efforts.
  • Many nations reported on their experiences with larger-scale or more organized efforts to form the laity, including national councils of the laity, which often exist either with the direct support of, or independent and parallel to, episcopal conferences. Brazil is in the midst of a “Year of the Laity,” and other nations spoke of multi-year formation programs either associated with sacramental preparation or related to the effort to form missionary disciples. While the U.S. lacks a ‘national council’ of laity, similar national / regional gatherings such as the USCCB-led Convocation of Lay Leaders and V Encuentro offer similar types of engagements related to lay formation and follow up action.
  • Across all reporting nations and presentations, the local parish was recognized and affirmed as the primary way in which lay men and women relate to the larger community of the Church and the place where most of lay formation practically occurs (for better or for worse). The parish has been a focus for ‘revitalization’ in many countries, often through the intermediary work of small groups within the parish, regional or national lay movement groups. We also heard from three such lay movement groups and how they enact their work, precisely in the context of building up the larger Church: International Catholic Action, parish cells of evangelization, and the Cursillo Other types of groups were highlighted in the various nations’ reports, though it was continuously emphasized that these groups must serve as the engine of revitalization of the parish and that those who participate in the groups should be formed with an emphasis on being part of the larger Church and not only a member of the movement or group.
  • There was a recognition that the time of life and life circumstances of lay people affects their desire to be formed in the faith. While formation that is focused around sacramental engagement for themselves or their families is a natural point of outreach, more substantial opportunities may present themselves at different stages of life. Furthermore, the type of formation needs to vary as life changes (i.e. someone may wish to be better formed in the faith in relation to a particular job or may wish to better understand how to evaluate social and economic policies, etc.)
  • Those who are more formally trained in ministry as lay persons, such as lay ecclesial ministers, can be seen as role models of the life of faith for other lay people. It was further noted that collaborative formation of clergy and laity side-by-side for work in the Church is a very effective model in forming ministers with collaborative skills. Several graduate programs for ministry in the U.S. and other nations follow this approach. Additionally, the standards for formation for certified lay ecclesial ministers in the U.S. parallel those highlighted in the formation for clergy. Given the very strong ways in which formation of the clergy and laity overlap (and with due regard to the particular formation needs unique to each group), the further development of such common formation is seen as very valuable.
  • The meeting highlighted the importance of mutual exchange in a spirit of openness in today’s Church as it allows us to hear the particularities that are unique within each country’s efforts to form the laity and to build on the wealth of this shared awareness through the Spirit-based exchange which can continue after this meeting.
  • There was a clear emphasis that good formation of the laity requires great attention to the human and financial resources which make it possible;
  • The opportunity to avoid ‘re-inventing the wheel’ and to take advantage of ‘creative copying’ and adaptation of the ideas shared as best formation practices by the various countries is extremely beneficial and the reports provided by the 15 nations represented at the meeting will be available to others;
  • There was a strong emphasis in many reports that in order for the formation of the laity to be successful, those in Church leadership must establish an awareness of the knowledge and expertise the laity can readily bring to their work in the church or in society;
  • Successful formation of the laity is always rooted in accompaniment on the journey – with other laity, religious, priests and deacons, as well as discernment of gifts and calling, which is a product of comprehensive and integral formation, itself;
  • The Dicastery encourages episcopal conferences to make a “preferential option for the laity” and to recognize in doing so that it is fundamentally related to the “preferential option for the poor.” Conferences must encourage the “whole Church” to make this option consistently – a formation which occurs in families, among youth and young adults and in the local communities and parishes;
  • Episcopal conferences should also be encouraged to identify priorities for the promotion of their best practices in forming the laity and to clarify what precisely ‘best practices’ means in their contexts;
  • Clear pathways for formation of the laity for ministry have been highlighted and such practices are rooted in the ecclesiological understanding of the People of God promoted by the Second Vatican Council and the ‘synodal’ nature of the Church;
  • Broadly speaking, it will be valuable for the Dicastery to consider ‘visitations’ to the various episcopal conferences to encounter the reality of the laity in these nations – not simply to meet with bishops or those who work at the conference, but actual meetings with “laity-laity”, as the Pope mentioned;
  • There will be some consideration of the possibility of an International Year of the Laity;
  • This meeting was an effort to establish a ‘workshop’ or ‘laboratory’ of the Church’s practices for forming the laity. It was not a point of arrival, but a sharing at the beginning of a shared journey.

Common Themes of Growth Opportunity

  • Even as lay men and women are becoming some of the most well-formed in history, the lack of engagement with the ‘large majority’ of the laity (outside of the traditional loci of ministry) remains a pressing issue in every country.
  • While the parish is recognized as indispensable for the formation of the laity (per above), there is also a recognition that parishes in general are unevenly equipped to do the formation work required of them. While the smaller groups and lay movements noted above do have a significant impact on those who participate in them, and in many cases these organizations serve to help build up lay participation in the parish, most lay people don’t participate actively in small groups, lay movements or in parishes. There was a general recognition that parish-based formation of the laity generally tends to focus on ‘maintenance’ of what is, rather than on ‘mission’ towards those Catholics who are ‘disengaged.’ Furthermore, the budgetary realities faced by many dioceses and parishes, especially in rural or more isolated areas, highlight the real limitations of this important work within parishes.
  • Some of the clergy present at the meeting highlighted the dangers, frequently cited by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, of a ‘clericalism’ or ‘clericalization’ of the laity as a potential danger in the context of forming the laity, especially for ministry in the life of the Church. However, it was also noted that clericalism on the part of clergy does still at times have a significant negative impact on efforts to promote and form the laity. There were suggestions of a call to more thoroughly study the social effects of clericalism in any of its manifestations on the social dynamics in the Church.
  • The reality of clergy sexual abuse and related potential cover ups and abuse of power was not a focus of the meeting, but since the meeting occurred during a time of heightened awareness of this crisis, it was a significant topic of informal conversation. In addition to the crisis in the United States, recent disclosures by or about clergy and episcopal conferences in Ireland, Germany, Poland, Australia, Chile and other nations highlight inadequacies of ecclesial structural accountability which need to be remedied. It was recognized in the U.S. report that lay people, especially those involved in ministry in the Church, are capable and willing of being a part of potential institutional solutions.

As was noted above, this international meeting on promotion and formation of the laity was a beginning, and not a final destination point. In the three intensive days of the meeting, there was a deepened awareness among the participants of the work that has been accomplished in forming the laity in the various nations, as well as an energy which emerged in the sharing of those accomplishments. At the same time, all recognized that the work of forming the laity and establishing best practices for doing so remains a central priority for the whole Church.

The process experienced during the meeting of learning from one another, building upon successes from other places and supporting one another in spirit, prayer, and thought is a model which was of great benefit to all of us who participated. It reaffirms work already being done in the United States to establish ecclesial processes which reflect the synodal nature of the whole Church and invites us to further such endeavors and to share their fruits with colleagues in ministry around the world. All of us left Rome after the conclusion of the meeting with a desire to maintain the connections we had built and with the means to establish continuing remote conversations with one another. Speaking for myself, I welcome this opportunity and look forward to continuing to learn about these global best practices.