Vatican II reminded us of the ancient understanding of the priesthood of all the baptized. We were reminded that it is through our baptism that we are all called to participate in the apostolic work of the Church. (See Lumen Gentium, chapter 4). More recently, in 1983, the Code of Canon Law was revised and now includes a provision that “in the case of a lack of priests,” pastoral care can be done by someone other than a priest (517.2). In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Cardinal Mahony anticipated such a time when, in April of 1997, he directed his Leadership Team to form a study group to look at the feasibility of a new ministry, that of “Pastoral Associate.” A year later, following the publication of a draft document describing the role of a Pastoral Associate, a pilot program was approved.
In 1999 the Department for Pastoral Associates was established, the predecessor to the Office of Parish Life. On Holy Thursday of 2000, the Cardinal issued the document, As I Have Done for You, in which he affirmed lay ecclesial ministry. The Cardinal described lay ecclesial ministry as “a vocation of full time Church service in response to the needs of each local community…. a unique vocation in the Church, a call to service in the name of the Church…exercised in a stable, public, recognized, and authorized way.” At this time the Cardinal called for a Synod, the first since 1960. The Synod concluded in 2003, with the publication of Gathered and Sent. In the document, Pastoral Initiatives 2 and 4 deal specifically with lay ecclesial ministry. The first group of Pastoral Associates for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was commissioned by the Cardinal in 2003.
In 2005, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles joined with the Diocese of San Bernardino to provide a regional “in-service” titled, “Parish Leadership for the Future.” The topic was the different models of parish leadership needed to accommodate the decline in number of priests. Later that year, the Archdiocese began Parish Viability Studies to determine what model of leadership would best suit the needs of each parish in the event that there are not enough priests to serve as pastors. At the end of the year the Office for Pastoral Associates was re-named the Office of Parish Life. In 2006 the Cardinal issued the document Serving Shoulder to Shoulder, in which the role of the Parish Life Director was described.
Nationally, other important events related to the development of lay ecclesial ministry have occurred. In 2000, the USCCB issued the document, Called and Gifted: The American Catholic Laity, which notes that, “since the Second Vatican Council new opportunities have developed for lay men and women in the Church,” 7. In 2003, the Lily Endowment commissioned a study of Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership in the Catholic Church. The ongoing study continues to document the extent, variety, opportunity and challenge of lay ecclesial leadership in parishes across the country. In 2005 the USCCB released Co-Workers in the Vineyard, a Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry which “expresses our strong desire for the fruitful collaboration of ordained and lay ministers who, in distinct but complimentary ways, continue in the Church the saving mission of Christ for the world, his vineyard,” 6. In November of 2011, the Bishops approved an updated version of the National Certification Standards for Lay Ecclesial Ministers.
We have come to a time when we do not always have a priest available to serve the needs of the people of God. Simultaneously, we have witnessed the growing phenomenon of lay men and women discerning a call to serve the Church in a professional capacity and equipping themselves to do so through prayer, formation, education and training. The Office of Parish Life helps those preparing for service as Pastoral Associates and Parish Life Directors.
A Pastoral Associate is a generalist in ministry who works collaboratively with a priest pastor to serve the needs of the parish. The Pastoral Associate’s ministry will vary from one parish to another depending upon the direction of the pastor, the specific needs of the parish, the gifts and talents of the Pastoral Associate, and the other staff resources available. (See Developing a Position Description.)
A Parish Life Director serves as the spiritual and administrative leader in a parish where there is not a priest pastor. A Priest Moderator, the canonical pastor of the parish, is available for advice and counsel. A Parish Life Director works with a Priest Minister who is responsible for the sacramental life of the parish. It is preferred that a Parish Life Director be a commissioned Pastoral Associate with several years of experience serving the diocese in that role before becoming a Parish Life Director. (See Serving Shoulder to Shoulder.)