Awake Workshop Explores Essential Role of Lay People in the Catholic Church

By Sara Knutson
Awake Leadership Team

Last Tuesday, July 19, members of the Awake community came together for “Embracing Shared Responsibility,” a workshop led by Conor Kelly, Ph.D., a moral theologian at Marquette University. Held at St. Joseph Parish Center in Wauwatosa, the event was cosponsored by Marquette and Awake Milwaukee, as well as Fordham University, through an initiative known as Taking Responsibility: Jesuit Institutions Confront the Causes and Legacy of Clergy Sexual Abuse. Participants included members of Awake’s Board of Directors and Leadership Team, lay ministers from local parishes, and other Catholic lay people who are concerned about the abuse crisis in the Church. During the evening, Kelly offered spiritual resources to empower lay people in their important role in the Catholic Church. 

Why does this empowerment matter? Kelly noted that abuse of power is a factor in the Church’s sexual abuse and leadership crisis, and the potential for abuse grows when clergy are seen as more important than the laity. He hopes that empowering and lifting up the laity can help to lessen this imbalance and create a healthier and safer Church.

Kelly focused on three major areas related to lay people in the Church.

1. Equality Among Believers.

The landmark Vatican II document Lumen Gentium​​​ (“Light of the World,” with the Church itself as the subject) notes that all people have a universal call to holiness and that there is a common priesthood of all believers. These concepts form the basis for greater equality in the Church. 

During the workshop, Kelly asked attendees to draw images representing their earliest sense of the Church. Many images included the priest at the center or large, beautiful buildings, representing wealth and power. Kelly then asked participants to imagine their vision of the ideal Church. Later, he noted that most Catholics say they would like to see a more egalitarian Church and a more dynamic, less static one. Lumen Gentium​​​ and the documents of Vatican II as a whole appear to support such a Church. 

Kelly also explained the five models of the Church laid out by theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles: institution, herald, body of Christ, servant, and sacrament. He asserted that each of these models reveals something important about the Church. When one model is emphasized to the exclusion of the others, our vision of the Church is incomplete.

Conor Kelly, Ph.D.

2. Primacy of Conscience.

Kelly led a discussion about conscience, sharing excerpts of four papal documents—drawn from Vatican II as well as the writings of St. John Paul II and Pope Francis—that teach about it. He described two ways of thinking about conscience. The legalistic approach presents conscience as a set of rules or laws that a person uses to judge specific actions. To illustrate this, Kelly used the image of a baseball umpire who uses a pre-established strike zone to decide if a particular pitch is a ball or strike. The personalist approach envisions conscience as a process of discernment that each person uses to determine how they need to act in a specific context. Kelly described this as similar to the way a map and compass can be used to take more than one route to the proper destination. The papal documents showed elements of both these views in the Catholic tradition and suggest the importance of a balance between these two visions.

Kelly noted that each person is beholden to their own conscience and must make an effort to properly form it. Ultimately, he said, we are called to trust this conscience.

3. Discernment.

Discernment is the art of prayerful decision-making, which encourages people to follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit in an effort to make wise choices that can be carried out confidently. Discernment is part of the Christian spiritual tradition and is particularly emphasized in Ignatian spirituality. Kelly offered a handout describing one way to practice Ignatian discernment. He then gave attendees time to pray and reflect on this process individually.

As an attendee, I felt lifted up and inspired by the evening. I appreciated the chance to reflect on my childhood perspective of the Church compared to my current understanding as an adult, and I learned from the reflections of others. I felt encouraged hearing that yes, my conscience is important and given by God, and that it shouldn’t be disregarded, especially in complex situations. At the same time, having even a few minutes to practice the prayer of discernment gave me new insights into decisions in my current life. Other attendees shared that they felt new clarity and confidence in their decision-making following our time of prayer.

Perhaps most importantly, the evening affirmed that our role as laity is a crucially important one, not a lesser-than status. We have work to do, with the sexual abuse and leadership crisis specifically, and in our Christian lives more generally. And God asks laypeople to do this work as laity, not in any other way.

Sara Knutson is a member of the Awake Leadership Team. She lives in Milwaukee and works in college campus ministry. Special thanks to Mike Larson of the Awake Leadership Team for additional help in writing this post. 

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