A fairly small news item earlier this week – about Archbishop Wim Eijk of Utrecht asking a parish council to terminate the employment of pastoral worker Tejo van der Meulen – has led to much debate about the role of pastoral workers and the lines they, in more than one person’s opinion, routinely seem to cross.

At first, the piece of information seemed innocent enough: an issue that concerned one parish, but we’ve seen several times already that not all of these issues keep to the boundaries of the parish they originate in. Both secular and Catholic media have made much of it, taken the fact as a reason to write in favour of or against the existence of, the duties of, or the liberties taken by pastoral workers. The case of Mr. van der Meulen is used as a starting point of the debate, and as evidence that pastoral workers routinely ‘play priest’.

Without going into too much detail about the situation of Mr. van der Meulen and the reasons that Archbishop Eijk had for rescinding his mission, it does shed a light on the status of pastoral workers in the dioceses of the Netherlands. Pastoral workers are lay people who are sent by the bishop to a specific parish or area to perform pastoral duties, usually in cooperation with a priest and parish council, although in some areas, for example in the north, priests may be few and pastoral workers will have managerial duties that are usually reserved for parish priests in other areas. Here, pastoral workers also lead the faithful in prayer services, as well as services of the Word and even Communion services. While the Church does require pastoral workers to attend Mass before being sent out to lead a service somewhere else, this does not always happen. Sometimes that is because the pastoral workers in question does not have the opportunity to go to Mass, but that can’t always be the case.

As the above indicates, theory does not always equal practice. And, more often than many would like, we’ve seen liturgical abuses crop up, because the boundaries between priest and pastoral worker vanished. A single clear cause is difficult to indicate, but the lack of priests and a limited knowledge of the faculties and duties of priest and laity are certainly among them. And then we see situation like in the case of Mr. van der Meulen, where the pastoral worker joins the priest at the altar for the Eucharistic prayer, or where the pastoral worker reads the Gospel at Mass. Indications that there is no awareness of what a priest or lay person can or can’t do, and a pretense that the one is the same as the other. And that is something that, I believe, Archbishop Eijk tries to combat. And he should be joined by all other bishops in that, as Blessed Pope John Paul II called them to do as far back as 1980.

Priests and pastoral workers are two sides of the same coin; I often have the impression that pastoral workers work from a strong pastoral concern for the people. A good priest will have that same concern, but will be called to express that concern by means of the sacraments and the proclamation of the Word of God. Together, they can and should work fruitfully together for the faithful under their care, which is possible when they know duties, abilities and limitations, as Father Anton ten Klooster points out.

Actually, come to think of it, pastoral workers and priests who pretend they are something they are not, are mostly doing a disservice to themselves. They have each been given a specific mission in the Church, in which they each can be bearers of the Good News, each in their own unique way. Why throw that gift aside, or switch it for someone else’s?

We are all workers in God’s vineyard, not in our own. Let’s reflect that in our work and vocation.

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