Parishioners serve through ministries at church

By Connie Berry
SUN editor

The March 21 meeting of the Diocesan Pastoral Council focused on the ways in which laypeople can take an active role in the life of their parishes — a sort of human stewardship. By virtue of baptism, all the faithful are called to ministry, Father James Lang reminded the group.

Father Lang, Vicar for Parishes, was moderator of a panel discussion comprised of Father Greg LeStrange, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Camillus; Father Fred Daley, pastor of All Saints Church in Syracuse; Elizabeth Fallon, director of religious education at St. John’s Church in Liverpool, and Tom Tynan from the newly-formed Ss. John and Andrew Church in Binghamton. Each member brought a unique perspective and ideas to consider as Father Lang delivered the questions to the panel.

Reconfiguration has played an important role in parish life. Father Daley spoke to this issue. All Saints Parish was formed from the former Our Lady of Solace and St. Therese the Little Flower of Jesus Churches. Father Daley explained the approach the parishes took: they closed both churches symbolically and reopened as one church. Our Lady of Solace closed and the newly-formed All Saints Parish exists in the building of the former St. Therese Church.

“This experience has brought a new energy and it’s been a great thrill to be part of the birthing process for this new parish,” Father Daley said. “The key to energy in a parish is ministry.”

Two of the people on the panel were part of parishes that have not been reconfigured as of yet. Father LeStrange’s parish has welcomed members of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Warners as that church closed. Father LeStrange noted the two churches were near each other but one was a small faith community and the other has a much larger parish family. He also noted that one of the benefits from two parishes coming together is that people who may not have signed up for a ministry in the past may feel more comfortable as they make a new beginning at a new parish. There can be a number of new faces helping with the food pantry, decorating the church for Christmas or ironing altar linens.

Tynan brought up the point that there are still “a lot of people out there who too many times rely on pastors for ideas to bring new faces into parish ministry.” He said the parish councils can play a vital role in building up ministries. “There should be discussion about this at every parish council meeting,” Tynan said.

Father Daley explained that an interim parish council was formed to help with the parish merger process and then a new parish council was formed to help set up the new mission and vision of All Saints. He said there has to be a willingness to involve new people and new creativity.

“One thing priests should not do is pour water over ideas by the usual, ‘There’s no money, no people…’ The role of the priest and the council is to fire up someone with an idea. If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen. If not, then so what? But we should say, ‘Wow — that sounds great. Let’s talk about it.’”

Ways a pastor might help affirm new energy is to talk about new ideas from the pulpit, take a few minutes to step into a meeting where parishioners are developing ideas so they will be versed in discussing them if a parishioner should happen to ask about it, Fallon said. At her parish, St. John’s, Fallon said there is a chance for a person representing each ministry to talk about it for a few minutes during or after the weekend liturgy. Also, she mentioned newsletters and Web sites as well as The Catholic SUN as ways to communicate what’s happening with the ministries at the parish. Most importantly, Fallon said, parishioners will respond best when they are asked personally to help with a ministry.

The panel discussion included lay participation with declining numbers of clergy and religious. Father Lang reminded the DPC that the Syracuse Diocese is “blessed with 5,000 catechists, thousands of Eucharistic ministers, lectors, and 1,500 people have been through the Formation For Ministry Program, not to mention those who have gone on to attain degrees in theology.”

Father Daley described a conversation with a man he knew in a rural parish. The man told Father Daley that he was frustrated because a number of years ago his parish had been told that they needed to prepare because “There’s gonna be a day when you won’t have a resident priest. You’ve got to learn how to operate.” The man told Father Daley, “We did that and all a priest had to do was come in and celebrate Mass. They closed us anyway.”

Father Daley echoed the frustration of some of the laity that has resulted from the many different experiences during the process of restructuring the diocese.
“Right now we have the one priest, one building model. Maybe with a new administration we could reevaluate that model and take lay ministry seriously and we can have parishes that are alive and vibrant,” Father Daley said.

Fallon said there are still times when parishioners will ask her, “Why don’t you have a sister come to teach religious education?”

“We have 3,000 parishioners and Father O’Brien,” Fallon said. The same case could be presented with hospital visits. Her pastor couldn’t possibly single-handedly visit each and every person in need. Parish ministers help him minister. Having a parish weekend where all the ministries have a booth set up to help familiarize parishioners with what they do is another way to get lay people more involved. Pat Williams from St. Augustine’s Church in Baldwinsville shared how her parish holds a parish covenant weekend. All the ministries display booths. In more recent years, she and her daughter have been available with laptop computers to key in information for parishioners who are interested in participating in the individual ministries. It is important Williams, as well as the panel, noted that the new signee is contacted immediately about the ministry so that they realize their input is valued from the beginning.

With the covenant system, each volunteer signs up for a year-long commitment to his/her chosen ministry. The prayer on the covenant sign-up sheet reads: “With the gift of the Holy Spirit, may I be empowered for the service of God’s people. Amen.”

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