Bishop Terry LaValley, leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg, spoke to the Enterprise by phone on March 8 about how the diocese is responding to a priest shortage in the North Country.
The interview was prompted by a story that aired that morning on North Country Public Radio. Here is an abridged version of that conversation:
Bishop Terry LaValley
ADE: One thing that seemed like a bit of a change was talking about lay people being more involved in leadership roles in parishes, and I wanted to ask about how that would work: whether we're talking more administrative-type roles, more ministry, more sacred functions - more involved in the services - or all or some of the above?
LaValley: True. I think I had mentioned in my (NCPR) interview, by virtue of our baptism, we all have a responsibility to build up the church locally, and certainly lay involvement is extremely important, particularly because of the (shortage of priestly) vocations. And so we've had a program in the diocese for many years now, the Formation for Ministry program, which is an opportunity to learn more about the faith for our lay people. And at the end of that program, we have what we refer to as a commissioning ceremony here at the cathedral (in Ogdensburg), and as part of the program, they are committed to devoting a certain amount of time in their individual parishes, focusing on a ministry. It could be administrative, it could be social outreach, it could be some kind of pastoral ministry, it could be liturgical.
We also, more in the leadership phase, we have - and we're continuing to develop it - what we refer to as pastoral life coordinators. These would be individuals - it could be religious (nuns and monks), deacons, lay persons - who would be qualified to work in a parish setting. If we don't have a pastor who is in residence at a particular parish, this might be a good contact person, someone who would be responsible for the administration, so to speak, of the parish, the finances, coordinating ministries.
And of course, here in our own diocesan offices, I just had a staff meeting this morning, and most of our department heads are lay people. We have a (nun) who is the chancellor for the diocese, and many, many of our department heads and important positions are held by lay people today and not priests.
ADE: Are you now really having to rethink what do we really need priests for: What jobs can only priests do, and what jobs could someone else possibly do?
LaValley: Absolutely. In a way, it's reclaiming the baptized responsibility, but in the past when we've had a great number of priests, a lot of those church/religious responsibilities have fallen upon the priests or the sisters. But certainly the church calls forth the laity to step forward, and canon law clearly provides for it. And so now ... the urgency ... is even more evident. So we're trying to creatively assure that all the faithful have that kind of pastoral presence, whether it's a priest or a deacon or a sister or a qualified lay person.
ADE: Has there been a change, either more or less, in the number of deacons in the diocese?
LaValley: We have a growing number. In fact, I teach a course in canon law to the deacon candidates. We have 13 in the class right now.
ADE: Is that a big class?
LaValley: It's about an average-sized class. But again, it's a great gift to the local church, and these are really fine, upstanding men who are participating in the program.
ADE: So going forward in the next generation, in the next 10, 20 years, do you foresee parish life looking quite a bit more lay-focused and more lay-led?
LaValley: Our parishes are always Christ-focused. They're always focused on worship of our god, and out of necessity, our lay people will become even more prominent, I think, in our leadership and in the ministry of the church - and rightly so.