This past week CTU welcomed more than one hundred new students to begin their studies and spiritual formation for a variety of ministries in the church. Some will become priests, some are religious sisters and brothers, and many will serve as lay ecclesial ministers. Some serve in pastoral ministries, some are hospital chaplains, others are youth ministers and teachers, to name only a few. What is remarkable is that in such a turbulent time in the church, there are still scores of women and men drawn to a life of ministry. One might expect that disillusionment with the current scandals and divisions in the church might discourage those considering a life of ministry. But it seems that precisely at the point when hope is most needed, the Spirit is moving even more forcefully in the hearts of women and men who respond with great generosity and commitment.
The number of Catholic priests, both diocesan and religious, has gone down by almost 6,000 since 1990; however, the number of lay ecclesial ministers has increased by approximately 9,000. Today in the U. S. there are an estimated 31,000 lay ecclesial ministers serving in Catholic parishes. Approximately eighty percent of these lay ecclesial ministers are women. Some sixteen percent are women religious, while sixty-four percent are lay women. Statistics for the global church are difficult to pin down, however, it is estimated that roughly ninety percent of the 4.3 million women and men who serve in church ministries around the world are lay.
While in some sectors of the church, there are growing tensions between clergy and lay ministers, a recent survey of CTU students found that the vast majority of seminarians feel that their vocation is affirmed and supported by their fellow lay students. The vast majority of the lay students said the same of the students studying for ordained ministry. Both groups agreed that studying together in the same classrooms is a good preparation for lay and ordained ministers to be able to work together.
It is clear that while the shape of ministry in the church is shifting, there is no shortage of committed ministers. As they come to their studies with enthusiasm and great faith, they also wonder about how to try to address massive systems of injustice, such as sex abuse, gender inequity, racial discrimination, justice for immigrants, respect for all life, and care for Earth, to name only a few.
I am reminded of Jesus’ reply to the disciples when they pleaded with him to increase their faith. He told them that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could say to a mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would happen (Luke 17:6). A mulberry trees has a deep and extensive root system, and it is extremely difficult to uproot and replant. It is an apt image for deep-rooted systems of injustice. Mustard seed, by contrast, is tiny, and seems no match for a big mulberry. But mustard spreads like wildfire, and is also nearly impossible to eradicate.
Disciples who feel that they cannot possibly have an impact on massive systems of injustice, are assured by Jesus that they have all they need to do the transformative work of bringing about the reign of God. Jesus goes on to tell a parable about faithful servants, who go about their constant service day-in and day-out. It is by persistent daily ministerial service in what seems like tiny, insignificant ways that seemingly intractable systems are transformed.
In this harvest season, we also plant. We plant seeds of hope and nurture the mustard seed faith of all the generous ministers who dedicate themselves to study and to service in the church. Each adds their small measure, and together the transformative work of the gospel is accomplished.
Barbara E. Reid, O.P., is Professor of New Testament Studies and Vice President and Academic Dean at Catholic Theological Union
© 2010 Catholic Theological Union