Stepping out in faith

Sept. 14-20, 2006
VOL 125 NO. 30
Stepping out in faith
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Formation for Ministry Program helps laity realize their potential

Since Webster’s definition of “vocation” features the words “calling” and “summons,” it is fitting that lay persons who wish to answer the summons have an avenue to do just that. In the Syracuse Diocese, the Formation for Ministry Program equips laity to serve in various capacities in their home parishes. All involved in the program are quick to say that their service does not replace the role of parish priest, but it is a fulfillment of their own desire to minister.

Formation for Ministry is in its 25th year in the diocese and was meant to prepare adults to hear and accept their baptismal call. This HOPE Appeal funded program isn’t a cake walk and requires two years of academic, ministerial, spiritual and field training. Those who complete it make a commitment to serve their parish for three years in their area of expertise. This year close to 40 lay persons were commissioned in areas ranging from religious education to pastoral care and nursing ministry to parish initiation ministry. Although empowering lay people to recognize their gifts was an idea Pope John XXIII encouraged with the second Vatican Council, in some ways Catholics have seemingly overlooked the obvious in what they are called to do. In the Syracuse Diocese, however, there have been over 1,500 lay people commissioned in the Formation for Ministry Program over the years.

Father Joseph Scardella is the current director of the program and he could reflect for hours about the joy of observing lay people discover their God-given gifts while they complete their studies and field work. “I think people are becoming more aware that they have to step up to the plate and take their place in the church. It’s every Christian’s right and duty to minister to each other,” Father Scardella said.

He can also rattle off facts, such as the number of people who volunteer 20 hours or more a week in their parish is up 68 percent since 1997, and over 30,000 lay ministers work in parishes throughout the U.S. Father Scardella said that people interested in different areas of ministry within the church should try a class. They do not necessarily have to become commissioned lay ministers, but the classes can sometimes “whet the appetite.” Oftentimes, Father Scardella said, the program literally opens eyes to the concept that the church is not an institution made up of priests and religious, but rather made up of the people of God. Many are the naysayers today who contend that the church is not prepared for the future either because there are so few men who are entering seminaries, or because the church is in a cataclysmic dive due to a lack of personal accountability.

Bishop James Moynihan’s pastoral letter, “Equipping the Saints for the Work of Ministry,” written in 2001, informed the people of the diocese that the number of priests available to serve in 1974 was 400 and in 2001 had dwindled to 281. The pastoral letter addresses the changing church. The bishop wrote, “We will need to work together to invite many to ministry, to offer creative solutions to complex challenges, and to be committed to a changing Church. We should not relax our standards. We must carefully select, effectively train and enthusiastically motivate those new professionals and volunteers who will help lead our church in the future.”

Father Guy Baccaro, pastor of St. John’s Church in Liverpool, has been saying for years that the Second Vatican Council designated the 21st century as the “Century of Laity.” He said there are many people who want to volunteer in parishes but that it is integral that they be adequately prepared. “You wouldn’t take your car to a mechanic who isn’t properly trained. The Formation for Ministry Program gives people the option to explore ministry, to realize their gifts,” Father Baccaro said. There is a need to rely upon the people of the parish to take care of issues that would have earlier been addressed with, “We better call Father,” he said. He knows he can only spread himself so thin and welcomes the commissioning of lay ministers for his parish. Genevieve Pieniazek will be commissioned in pastoral care ministry and Father Baccaro said he will be able to rely on Pieniazek to visit the homebound and to encourage families and more. “The people are getting excited about this too,” Father Baccaro said. “In some cases when a parishioner makes visits, that person is either visiting with an old friend or making a new friend.”

Since Father Baccaro is in his 12th year of service at St. John’s, he felt it was his duty to make sure parishioners are prepared for the future, no matter what it might hold. “If I don’t help prepare them for that transition then I’ve failed in my role as pastor.” He said the Formation for Ministry Program makes parishes stronger

Those who facilitate the courses within the program are adamant about gaining more than they are giving when it comes to traveling the diocese to teach a class. Father Mark Kaminski is pastor of St. Anthony’s Church in Cortland and he was Father Scardella’s predecessor. He has taught courses on moral theology, the Synoptic Gospels, Christology and the sacraments, to name a few. It isn’t so much the information he disseminates as much as it is the ministerial identity that the courses establish.

“It is a valid point that Father can’t do everything and needs support. Father is not a plumber. Father is not a roofer. But it is also important that the program elevates people to a higher level. Lay people can have so many gifts and talents that clergy may not have. For example, I may not relate well to young people; so I am very much appreciative and I recognize it and treasure that gift in someone else. And, I can help them excel at this.”

Father Kaminski explained that pastors help provide field experience in a nurturing environment for the adult students in Formation for Ministry. That process helps them form their identity within the church and in their field of study.

The Formation for Ministry classes are held in all four regions of the diocese and it is not at all uncommon to have facilitators travel to where the people are rather than have 25 people drive to them. “We’re trying always to share responsibilities and to respond to the needs of the times,” Father Kaminski said. “There is so much potential for growth in this program.”

Students in the program must complete eight courses, each six weeks long. They have homework and they have to prepare for a final. Tony Gaeta, a parishioner of Holy Cross Church in DeWitt, found the classes so interesting and so compelling that he enjoyed each class he attended. At nearly 66 years old, Gaeta said he had been under the impression that he already knew most of what he needed to know about his religion and his church. He found he was mistaken with that assumption.

“It was a great, great, great experience,” Gaeta said. “You think you know it all and then you learn that that’s not really the case. I especially enjoyed learning about Vatican II and social justice. You don’t realize what Vatican II actually was with those 2,500 bishops and cardinals until you study it. And, I didn’t realize that social justice in the church really began back in the 1800s. John Paul II let us know that there are people of God everywhere; that we are all people of God.”

Gaeta will serve in family ministry at his parish, working with those going through a divorce or through alcohol or drug issues. But, Gaeta said, he will be available to help with whatever the pastor needs. Married for more than 40 years, Gaeta said there are many things that have taken a long time to discover regarding his own relationships. “For example,” Gaeta said, “with children, you can’t demand what you want. That doesn’t work. You have to give them an example of what your union with God has done for you. You show them through the way you treat their mother, how you live your life.”

Gaeta’s pastor, Father Robert Yeazel, served as his sponsor for the program and Father John Manno was his supervisor. Gaeta said that both priests gave him direction and were very thorough in their guidance and assistance while he was going through the Formation for Ministry Program. “I learned from them all,” he said. There are many church documents that speak to the gifts of laity. Recently, the U.S. Catholic bishops published “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord” which delves into the development of lay ministry. “All of the baptized are called to work toward the transformation of the world,” the document reads. It also addresses the hierarchy’s obligation to lay ministry. “Working in the Church is a path of Christian discipleship to be encouraged by the hierarchy.”

Sharon Bartholomew will now serve as a leader in a new program being developed at her parish, St. Mary’s in Minoa. She will be helping to develop the whole community catechesis plan along with other parishioners. Bartholomew said she prayed about it and considered serving for a while before she began the Formation for Ministry Program. “It’s amazing the things that you Don’t know,” Bartholomew said. “The program is unbelievable. It’s a life changing experience. I’m going to miss being a part of the program.”

Parish ministers are commissioned by the bishop of the diocese when they complete the Formation for Ministry Program. They are recognized and applauded for their commitment not only to the church, but also to their parish, their pastor and, most importantly, to the all the individuals they will serve through their ministry. As Tony Gaeta said, “the people of God.”

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