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March 27, 2008
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Christifideles Laici: Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on the vocation and mission of the laity
“A new state of affairs today both in the Church and in social, economic, political and cultural life, calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful. If lack of commitment is always unacceptable, the present time renders it even more so. It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle.” [EWTN]

Fr. Peter Grover's homilies
(audio)

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Unleashing the Laity (or, how to revive a Catholic parish)

It's been forty years since Vatican II and we're still waiting for lay Catholics to get energized. But a priest in Boston (yes, Boston) may have found the key to church renewal at the parish level: Let the laity loose.

Fr. Peter Grover


According to Father Peter Grover, Director of St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine in Boston's Back Bay neighorhood, Catholics are starving for a deeper spiritual life. The order to which he belongs, The Oblates of the Virgin Mary, is devoted to feeding that desperate hunger. He's seen two parishes, St. Clement, and St. Andrew's in Avenel, New Jersey, revive under his direction. How did it happen? He made it possible for his parishioners to study the Scriptures and talk about their faith.

I watched Fr. Peter closely as he celebrated Mass recently at St. Clement. His graying hair was mussed in the back, as if he'd just rolled out of bed. Yet his face looked freshly scrubbed—as bright, I thought to myself, as a schoolboy's, with a touch of ascetical tautness. His spirit shone in his eyes, changing instantly with his emotions. Boston was in his voice: "a's" and "o's" flattened into an "ach" or an ache, his "r's" lingering in protest. His restrained manner brought out the liturgy's dramatic lines, and his simple yet profound preaching brought out the immediacy of the Gospel texts.

The fervor of his congregation was unmistakable. These Catholics sang like Baptists! Instead of stampeding toward the door at the closing hymn, they observed a short period of Eucharistic adoration. Where had such Catholic churches been all my life?

Many parishioners ask the same question when they first arrive. What makes St. Clement so different?

I visited with Fr. Peter looking for remedies to the lukewarm state of so many Catholic parishes.
"We can't just tell people about Christ's life," Fr. Peter says. "We have to inspire our people to want Christ's life inside them. You can only have joy by living God's life. You've got to fall in love. The Lord asks Peter: 'Do you love me?' You've got to answer that question. Then the good works follow."

I visited with Fr. Peter looking for remedies to the lukewarm state of so many Catholic parishes. Despite calls at the highest levels for a new evangelization, and the existence of outstanding lay movements such as Communion and Liberation, Focolare, the Community of Saint Egidio, and Opus Dei, local parishes have lagged behind in the renewal of true spirituality that Vatican II meant to inspire. An official with the Rome-based Institute for World Evangelization (ICPE), Nelida Ancora, recently suggested that what's needed today is for the local parish to embrace the spiritual vitality of the lay movements and incorporate their methods.

That's what's going on at St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine under Fr. Peter Grover's direction. "You've got to give people environments where they can talk about their faith," Fr. Peter says. "Normally, the priest does all the talking. He gets all the fun because he gets to talk about the faith, which is the greatest thing. But a lay person, he never gets to talk about the faith. You go to work, you can't talk about the faith—there you talk about the football game, politics. Maybe you go home and your wife and kids aren't interested. Where can you talk about the faith? It's the best thing in your life and you can't talk about it to anybody."

'Normally, the priest does all the talking. But a lay person, he never gets to talk about the faith. It’s the best thing in your life and you can’t talk about it to anybody.'
At St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine people do talk about their faith, in a variety of study groups. The young adult group meets every week to study and discuss the coming Sunday's Mass readings. The group begins with an opening prayer and turns its attention immediately to the texts. Social activities and charitable works occur as an outgrowth of the members' Christian unity, based first and last in study and prayer. This practice mirrors the catechetical methods of the lay movements. The room-bursting attendance at these functions provides evidence that people make the faith their own in a new way when they begin to speak about what's in their hearts. The program has been so successful that the Archdiocese of Boston has put the Oblates of the Virgin Mary in charge of running parish-based programs for young adults throughout the diocese.

The young adults program has its complements in an "Upper Room" program for middle-aged adults, an open Bible study led by Fr. Peter, a topical lecture series on great issues in the faith, a Hispanic program, and a Saturday morning breakfast where the new Catechism is taught systematically.

I suggested to Fr. Peter that many pastors might find centering every gathering in catechesis and spiritual development unworkable in their parishes. After all, St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine enjoys the benefits of being run by a significant if small religious order, which also maintains a seminary, Our Lady of Grace, attached to the church. Located in Boston's Back Bay, catercorner to the Berklee College of Music and mere blocks from Boston University and Northeastern, a "T" ride from Harvard, MIT, Boston College, and the other educational institutions of "America's Athens," St. Clement, I pointed out, must be packed with articulate members.

Fr. Peter quickly explained that the same approach revived the more typical suburban parish of St. Andrews in Avenel, New Jersey. Equally important, Fr. Peter explained, was that when he first came to St. Clement in 1995, his order had come to a decision that the church had to be renewed or shut down. Its roof and pipes leaked, the walls were blackened with the soot of votive candles and the city itself, and the cheap, half-broken chandeliers were about to fall down. No one was coming to Mass. The attached seminary also needed to improve its physical plant, as well as upgrade its curriculum, staffing, and students.

St. Andrew's and St. Clement were renewed by putting worship and catechesis first. Fr. Peter minimized the "happy get-togethers," parish dinners and the like, and took his parish leadership on retreats instead. By giving lay leaders opportunities to talk about their faith, he inspired them to claim that faith as their own and prepared them to lead others in doing the same.

St. Andrews and St. Clement were renewed by putting worship and catechesis first.
I asked Fr. Peter how difficult this task was. I have been in so many Catholic groups where, when a theological question was raised, all eyes turned to the priest. The clericalism of the past has created an atmosphere in Catholic culture in which only the priest is expected to address such questions.

He said that asking lay Catholics to talk about their faith can be awkward at first. They don't always have the necessary theological vocabulary, so they found themselves stumbling to explain things, the way most of us do when we take our cars to a mechanic. "That thing there," he says, mimicking such an encounter, "you turn it on and it makes a funny noise." Once people become comfortable, though, "they find themselves speaking the language; they start to talk from the heart and it's a great thing to see."

We talked about why so many pastors seem afraid of entrusting teaching responsibilities—particularly adult catechesis and ongoing spiritual formation—to lay leadership. Fr. Peter didn't want to generalize, but he attributed the problem to a lingering clericalism"Don't talk about the faith," he said, spoofing these attitudes, "just shut up and listen, and I'll tell you what the faith is."

Then he introduced a truly radical and hopeful notion: he thinks that the religious vocation crisis in the Western European Church today is being used by the Holy Spirit to correct the clericalism of the past. The clergy and the laity must now join in a true evangelistic partnership in which the clergy and religious focus on feeding the people and the people bring the world to Christ. "God's running the Church, hang in there," he told me, gently chiding my pessimism. "God's doing a good job, He's directing the Church to where it's going."

In this new partnership priests are being directed to concentrate on the essence of the priestly vocation. "I can do three things that you can't do," Fr. Peter tells me. "Say Mass, anoint the sick, and hear confessions. Preaching as well—those four things, although the laity can preach in certain instances. I have to stay on mission in these things. To sacrifice hearing confessions to go to meetings, planning boards, or being a builder, that gets me further and further away from my mission."

We have to rely less on 'happy get-togethers' and concentrate on what the Church is truly about.
Fr. Peter drew my attention to how "Jesus always stayed on mission." He remarked that Jesus was "the worst social worker in the world," because He didn't heal everyone, when He well could have. He knew that his mission was to bring the good news of the Kingdom and to suffer and die and rise again as a ransom for many, restoring humankind's communion with God.

To carry out his mission, Fr. Peter follows the disciplines of his order in study and prayer, with particular emphasis on Eucharistic adoration, intercession with the Blessed Virgin Mary, and meditation on the Scriptures using Ignatian methods. "I have a responsibility to educate myself and be inspired; I can't inspire others unless I'm inspired myself. It's got to start here. That's what I found about the Oblates, that our founder gave us a way to keep inspired. You have to keep praying and studying and never stop. Otherwise you're not going to be able to give what you don't have."

Fr. Peter's order invites the laity into the same disciplines. Besides the Bible studies and other teaching groups that characterize the parishes they run, the Oblates of the Virgin Mary also conduct Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and other retreats, as well as spiritual direction, and training the laity to do spiritual direction. They also try to make the Sacrament of Reconciliation as available as buying milk. (At the order's St. Francis Chapel in Boston's Prudential building, the sacrament of reconciliation is available twenty-four hours a day.)

Because of his natural abilities, his study and prayer, and his formation in Ignatian methods, Fr. Peter is a powerful preacher. In his preparation he meditates on the lectionary passages, until he arrives at an "aha" moment—an epiphany of how our lives are taken up into the Gospel passage. He preaches as Jesus taught, with stories and common comparisons.

The day I attended Mass Fr. Peter spoke on Christ's generosity in healing those brought to Simon's house after dark, when Jesus must have been exhausted himself. The priest used a personal story about buying a small, vanilla ice cream cone, only to see a portion of the scoop shaved off after the server weighed it. Still, the server's tip can beckoned a response, and Fr. Peter tossed in his change, if begrudgingly. This caused him to understand that his own "tip can" before God is more like an enormous bin, and the measure in which we receive will be in accord with how we measure. So we pray to have the unstinting generosity of Jesus. "You'll get it back," Fr. Peter ended, "I promise you, you'll get it back." Anyone could see that the thought delighted him as much as he hoped it would delight his listeners. (Fr. Peter's sermons are posted on the web.) 

'God's running the Church, hang in there,' Fr. Peter told me, gently chiding my pessimism.
As we concluded our talk, Fr. Peter emphasized that the laity can undertake its role in the new evangelization by virtue of their experience. He used the example of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac. After the demoniac was healed, and his demons were dispersed to a herd of swine who plunged over a cliff, the man asked Jesus if he could come with him and be his disciple. Jesus told the man to remain in his home territory. He was simply to tell his neighbors what God had done for him. The next time Jesus visited the area, Gennesaret, everyone knew him. They brought all their sick and afflicted to him to be healed. That's how powerful the testimony of the former demoniac had been. "You don't have to complicate it with theology," Fr. Peter says. "Just tell what God has done for you."

I left my encounter with Fr. Peter Grover greatly heartened by what I had seen and heard. By virtue of our Eucharistic worship the hearts of the Catholic laity belong to Christ, but the inheritance of clericalism has created a Catholic lay culture mostly incapable of "speaking the hope that is within you." We have to start talking to one another about the unity we have in Christ. We have to rely less on "happy get-togethers" and concentrate on what the Church is truly about: the knowledge and love of Christ. It's not hard—in fact, it's a lot less time-consuming than the usual activities that consume so much of local parish life at present. The clergy need to stay on mission—to do what only they can dowhile the laity must assume its diverse and multifaceted role in bringing Christ to the world.

First, though, as Fr. Peter says, we have to fall in love. We have to answer Christ's questionDo you love me?anew, and with all our hearts.

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April 14, 2006

HAROLD FICKETT is the author of ‘The Living Christ; ‘The Holy Fool’, and other books, and is a co-founder of Image Journal. He is a Godspy Contributing Editor.

Copyright ©2006, Harold Fickett. All rights reserved.

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READER COMMENTS
05.31.06   taps says:
I must say I loved Fr.Peter's article on unleashing the laiety. I was born in Inchicore Dublin one minute walk from the Oblate Fathers church and my junior school. I have lived in Canada since 1972. In 1975 I went through "The life in the Spitit seminar, shortly I had my first retreat at Manresa, The Jesuit fathers retreat house in Pickering Ont. In 1979 with the spiritual direction of my good friend(R.I.P.) Fr. Gordie George I left playing in a professional touring band and moved to Guelph to the Jesuit Farm Community. This was to eventually lead me as both Fr. Gordie and I beleived to the seminary to become a Jesuit. While there I lived and worked alongside ex prisoners from the Guelph Correction Centre. I had the great prividledge while there of completing the Spiritual Exercises of St.Ignatious over a six month period. It became very evident after about a year that our Dear Lord was not calling me to the priesthood. I became the caretaker at The Church of Our Lady in Gueph for a period of nine months. I then rejoined the band I had left and continued playing with them for another five years until my wife became pregnabt with our first son. I have been core group leader at two parishes in Toronto and I am presently one of the worship leaders at St.Timothys Parish. Recently Sherry Waddel and Fr.Joe came and introduced us to the "Called and gifted program. I discerened whether or not I had the gift of healing during the six weeks course, and after the workshop was over I had no doubt in my mind that I had the gift of healing. As I have laid my hands on people I have witnessed Jesus healing those people, also my highest marks on a question and answer sheet were,intersessor,the gift of giving of myself,and also the gift of healing through my music ministry.And my parish priest does not allow me or encourage me to use these Charisms. At our prayer group I have not been allowed to share my personal testomony, what is one to do? Thank you for the oppurtunity to share a little of my frustration with you. Pray for me as I will for you. Aidan.

05.10.06   maryk says:
I agree with Fr. when he say that he needs to spend time hearing confessions and administering the sacraments rather then be bogged down in administrative meetings where people are fighting for their own agendas anyway. I know far to many priests (after working in the church since 1993) that do to many things that laity can handle and then you can't get them to come hear confessions.

05.07.06   fpk3 says:
I looked it up and yes, his old NJ parish is an Oblates parish. So, it's likely that the movement he started in the parish will continue. This is a credit to him and his order. // It seems to me that it used to be quite common for parishes to have movements that handled the formation of children: nuns (at the secondary level, brothers). Thus, the ones forming children were themselves formed by a particular charism, a particular spiritual gift for passing on the faith. //Now, ecclesial movements (and new communities) are filling this void. This is nothing new, but only a return in a new way to the heart of Catholic education.// ~ Fred

04.18.06   StubbleSpark says:
"Clericalism"? Is that what they call it when the priest is so unorthodox that he regularly flaunts Church teaching -- even to go as far as to preach outright heresy (ie, empty Hell theory). So that when the laity actually want to to organize they cannot even count on parish support but must do so on their own -- almost at the level of being underground?Is clericalism what you call when you want to evangelize someone but have absolutely no idea whether you should send them to the parish that does not use its kneelers, the one where you hear open challenges to allowing women in the priesthood, or the one where the pastor is involved in ongoing carnal relations with a woman or man (hey, take your pick!)?The problem with the Church's inability to involve the laity is that too many people are perpetually stuck in that 60's mentality that authority is there to be bucked. Calling our lack of participation "clericalism" is an excellent example of that. Could it be that the younger generation does not think at all like the "Don't trust anyone over 30" generation? Could it be that we respect the authority of the Church and, because we do, are much less likely to seek confrontation with those duly appointed leaders who represent Holy Mother Church EVEN IF we have valid grounds upon which to seek their chastisement and removal?I do not think you can call this clericalism. This is being made a stranger in your own house because your dad will not do his job and keep heretical doctrine from coming right in the front doors. You could call it "salvific suffering" but not "clericalism" because we bear these irresolute and muddle-headed leaders like Christ does his cross.Give us some credit.I have no doubt the secret to Fr. Grover's success is his orthodoxy. It would be in helping Catholics who actually believe contraception is objectively evil or that women cannot be made priests (or any other of the Church's controversial messages) feel like they have a place where they can voice those beliefs without bringing on the derision and scorn of other "Catholics".Let me tell you what this generation wants. We want priests who are orthodox. We NEED them to be courageously so. Unfortunately, there are so few of those in the "lost" generations and the good generation (ironically those over 30 back in the day) is fading fast. I praise God for every day we still have priests over 75 who are still working. You want lay involvement? THOSE are the guys you should be imitating.I have no doubt that it took courage for the boomers to come out and criticize the faults of their elders. At the same time, I would invite that same group to entertain the possibility they are not a perfect generation and they should not interpret silence from our generation as approval(we are silent because we are praying for you). I hope that my younger generation will be able to make clear their objections as well but realize also that this lost generation of non-Catholic Catholic priests who comprise the majority of the active priesthood these days will not stoke the fires of evangelical passion by being lukewarm traitors.Please be Catholic. Then you will see a Catholic response. If you cannot, retire early.

04.16.06   fpk3 says:
I wonder about St. Andrews parish in Avenel, New Jersey -- now that Fr. Peter has moved on and another pastor has taken his place. As an order priest, Fr. Peter has a lot of resources that prepare him for leading a parish in this way: a specific charism, the rule of his order, and the support of other members.I've seen new pastors come in and dismantle adult education, make the parish an unhospitable place for movements (like the Christian Family Movement), etc. If the order has a long-term relationship with St. Andrews, I could see a work like this continuing, but otherwise it may be extremely fragile.Fred

04.15.06   av.yanez says:
Once again, someone is relying on the laity, (read sheep), to be the shepherds. There is a false distinction that has developed that somehow the Church is one world and then there is another world for the laity to engage in. We live in an age where this paradigm is offered as an excuse for the clergy not engaging in the world. It has been 40 years since Vatican II and all of its experiments. None of them seem to have succedded. Was ther something broken about the Catholic Church. We went from Baltimore Catechism to making felt banner projects as our catechesis, from a great legacy of music to Kumbaya to Protestants writing mass settings for us (see Marty Haugen). WE went from no salvation outside the Catholic Church to Hindus worshipping at Assisi at the high altar. Oh well.Hymnody was bursting with catechesis now we get badly paraphrased scripture without explanation that would easily fit into protestant services; all in the name of false ecumenism. Most people who call themselves Catholic dont believe in the real presense in the Eucharist. We have cults like the Neo Catechumenal Way accepted with their false understanding of the Eucharist and their experimental liturgy accepted from the top down in this Church. Every Apostolate comes along with their version of what works for themUnleash the Laity? When are priests going to unleash on the laity about abortion, contraception, pornography, euthenasia, lack of a just wage for illegal immigrants, the usery of credit cards, the exporting of jobs to despotic states for cheep labor etc. All subjects very rarely commented on in homilies. Cowardice is cloaked in a false understanding of pastoral behavior. The bible says "your rod and your staff they give me comfort". Sometimes we sheep need the rod. Sometimes enemies of the Church need the rod. When Jesus beat the money changers at the temple this was a pastoral act. It was an act of love. God is Love. Jesus is God. Jesus at the temple with the money changers was an act of Love. If this is the attitude of Father Grover then sign me up. It is good to see that he too has seen the fallacy of touchy-feely church. As to the solution of why Catholics don't sing at mass, Cathlolics don't sing at mass because clergy doesn't sing at mass. The clergy should be called on to sing all of their parts of the Mass. Let us look to the Vatican on this one. I have watched EWTN broadcasts of Masses fromthe Vatican and they are sung from beginning to end.Thank you for allowing this sinner to vent his spleen on this Holy Saturday

04.14.06   kabloona says:
Praise God for Fr. Grover.I've long felt envious of the enthusiasm, faith, community, vibrant youth ministries, and gospel centeredness of the Evangelical churches (viewing this as an outsider of course). I've always thought that the answer to revive Catholic parishes was all too obvious, and, at least among the lay people, there is no shortage of potential leaders at the grass roots level to make it happen. The problem has been a lack of leadership at the priest/pastor/bishop level, but we lay people have to step up to the plate. We are members of the Catholic church culture; and therefore, the culture will not change if we don't. Reformbegins, right here, with me.This article shows exactly what needs to be done.

04.14.06   Godspy says:
It's been forty years since Vatican II and we're still waiting for lay Catholics to get energized. But a priest in Boston (yes, Boston) may have found the key to church renewal at the parish level: Let the laity loose.

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