In the 2005 document entitled Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord, the bishops of the United States expressed their support of the growth of what has come to be known as lay ecclesial ministry – that is, the work of ministry leadership in the Catholic Church done by lay persons – that is, those who are not ordained priests or deacons. While consecrated religious who are not ordained are also considered lay people, this particular document was focused on supporting the development of women and men, single and married, who minister in the life of the church in so many ways. In the Co-Workers document, the bishops affirm that while all lay people are called to use their God-given gifts in their day to day lives, in their jobs, volunteering in organizations, or giving of their time and talent in other ways – some do so directly in professional ministry leadership roles in parishes, campus ministries, ministering to those in prisons or hospitals or in specialized ministries. And that the role of lay people in these ministries is a divine calling worthy of both direct support, training and preparation, and public recognition in the life of the Church. My work here at the bishops’ conference is to develop and support standards which dioceses and organizations can use to best prepare lay ecclesial ministers for this vital work.
Many different kinds of ministries in the church are affirmed by the author of the letter to the Ephesians in our first reading today – likely an early follower of St. Paul, writing in his name. Not everyone in the church does the same thing and not everyone has the same gifts – one is an apostle, one is a prophet, one is an evangelist; others are teachers, pastors and so forth. And this is a great blessing in the church!
It is a beautiful image which Paul frequently used and we find in many of the letters in the New Testament – all are responsible together for the life of the church and no one’s gifts, given by the Holy Spirit, are to be ignored, or worse, dismissed or denied. Like all the parts of a body, each one has her or his own gifts to build up the church. We are reminded that the building up of the church isn’t ours to do alone; others will work with us and support us. As the bishops of the U.S. have said about lay ministers – we are co-workers in God’s vineyard!
What a beautiful image to meditate on as we reflect on the worldwide synod process to which Pope Francis has called the Church. Many Catholics around the country and around the world have participated in dialogue and conversations in parishes and Catholic communities over the past several months. We have discussed the current and future contributions to the church of lay people – young and old, from many different backgrounds and cultures – together with our deacons, priests, and bishops. The insights gained can be used in our parishes and other communities and institutions to revitalize engagement with our faith lives and our faith communities. After the challenges of these years of pandemic and other social and economic upheavals, the synod has provided us space to do what Pope Francis has invited us to do – together with God, prompted by the Holy Spirit – to dream together about the future for our church and world.
The story in today’s Gospel from Luke is about envisioning a future together, too!
The owner thinks the tree won’t be able to bear the fruit it should. However, the gardener sees the possibility of a fruitful future, and pleads with the landowner to allow him to support the tree with just a bit more care and attention.
That gardener had a lot of faith that the tree was going to bear fruit! We don’t know the end of the story for that tree, but we can be confident that if all in the church are faithful in using the gifts God has given us to build up the life of the church, and we affirm each others’ unique God-given gifts, even in the face of obstacles and challenges, we will be held together by the love of Christ, and build up his body – the Church – in love, truth and service both within the church and in our world.
God give you peace!