Priesthood of Community Leaders

From the book, Like His Brothers and Sisters

by Roman Catholic Bishop Fritz Lobinger

The Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, 1998

(Please note that Bishop Lobinger arrives at different solutions than we do in his book; his conclusions draw from the institutional model of the Church as a separate societal entity. Our conclusions, outlined elsewhere, draw from a perspective of the sacredness of all creation, the God-Life in all humanity, and the Church as a spiritual yeast within the everyday life of the world, 24-7.)


The shortage of priests: not the reason but the trigger

It is certainly true that it is the shortage of priests which has prompted us to examine the state of Church ministry. That shortage has given us the courage to rethink an age-old practice which seemed almost unquestionable. However, this trigger-motive is not to be confused with the deeper reasons why we should reintroduce the ordination of proven local leaders.

If the shortage of priests were the actual reason for ordaining community leaders, then we should discontinue the practice as soon as we have sufficient priests. If the arguments we present in publications and discussions for introducing the ordination of lay leaders mainly concern the shortage of priests, then we imply that the present policy is the totally correct one. This present policy excludes many charisms and admits only candidates who choose celibate, full-time priesthood and, as a consequence, we practically say that the communities cannot celebrate the Eucharist without the presence of a priest who comes from outside their ranks. This was never our explicit teaching or our intention, but our practice seems to give this impression. If we continue to place our emphasis only on the shortage of priests we re-enforce this wrong impression.

The present priest shortage has certainly been the trigger, the starter-motive, but it is neither the only nor the deepest reason for the ordination of community leaders …

– Page 86

Reasons for ordaining community leaders

It is actually wrong to put the question in this way: “Why should we ordain proven members of the community?” because it puts the onus of proof on the wrong foot. The proven community leaders are the more natural kind of candidates and it would therefore be more appropriate to ask “why not proven members of the community? Why restrict ordination to those who are not members of the local community, are not following an average profession, an do not have a family?” The onus of providing reasons lies with those who want to continue the present type of restrictions on the access to priesthood, not with those who want certain restrictions to be lifted …

– Pgs. 86-87

A mature community should have its own presiders

The process of becoming a mature faith community includes many aspects, and one of these is that the community develops the ability to fulfill all its essential tasks by itself. An immature community is either unwilling or unable to do so, or prevented from doing it. The New Testament communities provide the model for a mature community. They were quickly enabled to assume all responsibilities even to presiding over their sacramental celebrations. However, they will welcomed and wanted the periodic visits of an apostle to ensure that their community life was complete and genuine.

The congregation which says: “we are able to do most things for ourselves, but for the authenticity of the Word and presiding over the sacraments we prefer to wait for somebody to be sent to us” cannot be considered as leading a complete or mature community life …

– pg. 87

To show that it is we who celebrate, let our own leaders preside

A liturgical celebration is like a word the community is saying to God. God desires to hear the word of every community and each community wants to say its own word to God. It should not be someone who comes from another place who says the word on its behalf. For the word to be truly genuine, it should be uttered by the community itself. Of course this does not mean that the community’s intention is to say this word in isolation but in communion with the Whole Church. This is why the situation must change and a community should have some of its own members ordained for the task of presiding over the celebrations. They will at the same time act as the link to the Universal Church …

– pg. 88

To show that God is everywhere in the world, let the people of the world stand at the altar

When we approach the altar, we bring ourselves to it with all we are. We should not say: “We cannot come to the altar because we are involved with the world of fields, of machines, of science, of families, of …”, but instead: “We come to the altar with all we are”. It is important for Christians to experience the whole world as being very near to God.

While this realization is necessary at any time, there is a renewed need for it in our times when so many people find it difficult to sense God’s presence in our modern world. Consequently it is important that some of those who normally preside over the sacraments live in the world in the same manner as the other members of the community. That is, some community members should be ordained for this service.

– pgs. 88-89

We need sound motivations for full-time priesthood

… There are numerous complaints that in spite of today’s people-of-God theology taught in the seminaries a dominating kind of priest keeps on developing or re-appearing. The reason seems to lie in the fact that young candidates are formed by the atmosphere of the great shortage of provider-priests. They know that they will automatically hold a very special position among the people even if they have little to offer as spiritual wisdom and maturity. Whatever views they hold and whatever way they have of dealing with people, they are sure to be accepted as the only existing spiritual providers. They know that they will be the only ones who can dispense the sacraments and this alone assures a kind of automatic superiority. It is unavoidable that this automatic superiority is experienced as a temptation to be less of a listener than a talker, to pay little attention to the spiritual situation of others but to adopt an attitude of knowing it all. The temptation to become a domineering person is too great to be avoided. The assurance of a monopoly is often stronger than our servant-theology.

The introduction of OCLs [“Ordained Community Leaders”] can be a powerful antidote against a monopolistic idea of priesthood. IF parishes have teams of OCLs, young candidates for full-time priesthood will no longer aim at being the sold dispenser of sacraments. They will see that there is a constant and sufficient number of respected people who can administer the sacraments. In this context they will come to realize that the Church needs not only dispensers of sacraments but also priests who, above their liturgical role, are evangelizers, witnesses, spiritual friends, community builders, animators for the various charisms in a congregation, formators of the different kinds of ministers, and, in a special manner, are the link with the Universal Church …

The existence of OCLs will therefore be a powerful motive for priest candidates to make greater efforts to develop their ability to animate leaders and communities. At present many of them feel instinctively that even with little knowledge or skill their future position is unquestionable because nobody else can administer the sacraments. If OCLs become a reality and administer the sacraments, it will be immediately clear that something beyond that is expected of the theologically fully-trained priests. Candidates will take their formation more seriously because of the higher expectations they will have to meet.

Important reasons for the above nature are often overlooked. Those commonly given for the ordination of community leaders relate to the sacraments: the people must be “provided” with sacraments. If the traditional kind of priest is not available to “provide” them then we need additional “providers.” This impoverished, distorted view of ordination and of the sacraments is not only a weak basis for the ordination of community leaders, but it perverts our whole evangelization. It should be replaced by the true conception of ordination.

– pgs. 90-92

We want to follow the self-ministering communities of the New Testament

Many New Testament scholars have reminded us that in the early years of the Church the one new priesthood was practiced in slightly different forms in the various areas. None of those areas, however, would ever have dreamt of doing what we are practicing today: telling the communities they could only celebrate the Eucharist when somebody who had been ordained somewhere else would be sent to them. The communities and the itinerant apostles automatically did the opposite. They ordained some of the local leaders so that the new communities could very soon celebrate the Eucharist on their own.

This practice was the only reasonable thing to do, also for practical reasons. For economic reasons it would have been impossible to have highly trained, Church-employed celebrators ordained and sent to each community. If the issue was discussed by those early communities, we can assume that they would have advanced not only practical reasons why each community should have its own ordained leaders. They would have advanced theological reasons. They would have pointed at their way of understanding the charisms given by the Spirit, the spiritual duty to use them and to accept them. They would have pointed at the nature of the Eucharist which was the thanksgiving of each community, not the thanksgiving of distant leaders.

– pg. 92

Our theology of ministry: We want to be brothers and sisters in Christ’s way

… We know that Christ sent the whole community of his believers to continue announcing and building the Reign of God and that this mission of the whole community is led, authenticated and crystallized in the work of those who are the pillars of the community. The mission of the whole community is one with the mission of those called to be their sacramental leaders. The mission can only be fulfilled together …

Listening carefully to these aspirations of today’s believers we discern that the priority is the desire to become a community of brothers and sisters in Christ. The desire to be and to be seen as a community of equals has often been given the first place; this has also been acknowledged by the Second Vatican Council (GS 29 and LG 32). People want to be seen as equals and want to overcome anything that could indicate master-servant relationships. People of today are touched and inspired by the example of Christ who wanted to be a priest who is “like his brothers and sisters.” (Hebrews 2:17) …

In former times the believers may have felt called to be Church in different ways, and may therefore have been happy with different forms. But it is the task of today’s Church to look for forms of priestly ministry which correspond to the signs of the times as expressed in the genuine aspirations of the believers and of all people of today. If bishops and theologians hear the genuine voices of the believers saying “we want to be brothers and sisters in Christ’s way,” then this is a theological norm of shaping Church life and ministry today …

The suggestion to entrust the ordained ministry to a team of local leaders within the communities constitutes a major shift in the theological history of priesthood. It looks like a return to the practice of the first century, but it differs in many ways from it. It was not conceived as a return to something practiced before but rather as a response to the faith experience and the situation of today. The history of the first century of the Church was not the decisive motive, but more an enabling factor …

– pgs. 94-97


The suggestions never to ordain one leader alone but only teams of viri probati have, understandably, been made only in areas where congregations have experienced progressive stages of community building … Those who promote this … are convinced that the presence of many other active teams, as well as the one at the altar, is an essential element of the congregation. They consider it vital that the few ordained ones come from the ranks of the many who have been community leaders for many years. All of them wanted to assist the community; they did not aim at priesthood. They do not have a clericalistic outlook; they have proved over many years that their style of leadership is a non-dominating one seeking the cooperation of the whole community. In a healthy community the domineering characters are less likely to be successful, although one can expect to find some exceptions. Furthermore, having a team of ordained leaders offers the constant possibility of new candidates emerging from the community to join the team. There is a greater chance … that the changing times and the concerns of society will be reflected in the team of ordained leaders …

The selection of candidates … is community based. The candidates emerge gradually form among the active people of the community. Many people are engaged in the early stages of selection, and even the final process requires the cooperation of the formation personnel, the parish council, the wives [or husbands … ACCL added] of the candidates, and the bishop. Selection is certainly not based on academic examinations but on the presence of a charism and the ability to serve and lead this particular community …

The term [“ordained community leader”] should be suitable for people who live like anybody else. It should avoid reference to an otherworldly, different class. It should be suitable for ordained leaders who never wear clerical dress. It is our desire that the new kind of priest should not just supplement and imitate the existing priests but should be different from them and should be “like the brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:17).

– pgs. 68, 68, 73, 77

Learning from the successes and failures of history

In the Middle Ages we had too many priest and one of the aims of the Council of Trent was to reduce the incredibly high number; to have fewer priests and to have them properly trained in diocesan seminaries. …There is no comparison between [these] two models. The thousands of medieval “Mass priests” existed because of an almost magic idea of Holy Mass, each priest celebrating alone on one of the countless alters in corners and niches of the Churches. The viri probati priests will conduct the liturgy together, always in a community celebration, always as a team, always with the collaboration of teams of lay leaders, and will be involved in much more than liturgy. They will not, like the medieval Mass-priests, live from Mass stipends but from their secular occupation. They will not appear as a clerical class. A low level of secular education or of theological training can constitute a danger but does not automatically do so. It was a danger for the mediaeval Mass-priest because it was coupled with a kind of magic understanding of the Sacraments about which the people had little understanding or knowledge. The viri probati priests’ standard of education should be on a par with that of the people in the area; where that is of a low level, there will not be any problem because the community will probably change with the changing times and will admit more highly educated candidates when levels of education rise …

From the models which have been successful in other Churches we can single out the Methodist Church. It is accepted that the Methodist practice of establishing teams of “preachers” in each small or large community has proved efficacious and has been adopted as the most suitable method by many other denominations in developing countries. According to this model, one full-time minister may served an area of 20 to 50 kilometers in diameter with 50 or so congregations, each with five to ten “preachers.” The interesting aspect is that the preachers rotate, for each Sunday service from congregation to congregation according to a “plan” which is decided and printed each year. This “plan” which has assumed strategic importance, assigns each preacher to a different congregation every Sunday. The preachers move to their assigned places at their own expense; their service is completely voluntary. The full-time minister visits each congregation only four times a year; on all other Sundays the local preachers together with the “scheduled” preacher conduct the service. The structure is held together by the regular meetings of all the preachers with the minister, by the strict procedure of appointing new preachers and by the need to be included in the “plan” in order to be accepted. This method has worked well over a long period of time, especially in developing countries.

Frequent celebration of the Eucharist is not seen as a value in the Methodist church, at least not in the majority of the congregations. Therefore the training programme for preachers does not include such a liturgy or being barred from it, but simply a matter of the particular theology the church has adopted. The reliability of the structure, the low cost of maintaining it, and the fact that it has been copied by so many other denominations recommend it. If a church with a high regard for the sacraments would adopt it, it would certainly be a promising model.


Preparation of the candidates

… To attain this vision it will be important to avoid all forms of status seeking from the beginning. This means that the parish should never ask for volunteers for becoming OCLs. The long journey of training must start with nothing else in the mind than working for the community and certainly not with the motive of becoming ordained. Only when the trainees have been working and training in this general way for many years could the question of ordination … be posed carefully. … Status seeking is extremely prevalent and this is one efficacious way of preventing it …

Onging, unending formation is not limited to the OCLs. It must be universal practice for all forms of ministry including the non-ordained, in order to avoid any danger that formation might gradually stop after some time. If only the ordained have to continue with formation it would certainly be in danger of disappearing. The experience of other Churches has shown how easy it is to gradually neglect such formation, reduce it again and again, and eventually to drop it altogether. It must therefore be part of the preparation work to introduce ongoing formation for all kinds of ministry, not only for the OCLs …

– pgs. 157-158


Linking the teams of ordained community leaders with the animator priests

In this regard we can learn by observing other Churches. Even Churches which place a high value on lay involvement and on equality, such as the Methodist Church, have made sure that the full-time minister retains strong power. His authority does not rest on the ability to administer sacraments; it is based on other requisites such as the nomination of preachers or the issuing of receipts for Church dues. Is it not obvious that the dioceses which introduce teams of OCLs should form the beginning ensure that there will be a permanent link between them, the full-time priests and the bishop?

… There is the possibility of giving a special status to the full-time priests, such as appointing each of them (or many of them) as Episcopal Vicar. This recourse will not be necessary in the initial phase of exceptional ordinations of community leaders but it may become meaningful once many communities have their own teams of ordained community leaders. Then the communities will no longer say “we need a priest” but will say “we need unity” and this means they want a clear link to the bishop. Calling the animator priests “vicar of the bishop” will therefore become meaningful as he would exercise part of the overseeing role of the bishop. This presupposes the ability to accompany the OCLs, to unify them, to plan with them and to be the link between them and the bishop.

– pg. 165

Possible ways of preventing community leaders not in communion with the bishop from officiating in the Church

A diocese could introduce the following practice:

Each year every parish arranges a time of renewal for all its leaders, during which the community evaluates its whole life and the performance of the OCLs and other leaders. The Parish Council decides which new candidates for lay ministries should receive formation and at the end of their training who should be commissioned and receive the blessing of leaders from the bishop (or his representative). The Council also determines which active lay leaders are to be presented for the annual rededication and the annual blessing. The rededication of the ordained leaders may take a different form, such as the inclusion of a clause that the Episcopal Vicar must be present in the parish council when the decision is taken to present the OCLs to the bishop. Experience may prompt other procedures. It is when the bishop (or his representative) pays a visit of some days to the parish that these matters are discussed.

At the end of the renewal session the Eucharist is celebrated. The communion of the OCLs with their bishop and the Church is confirmed and a “symbol of priestly communion” exchanged. The community is told:

“The bishop is the center of the body of priests, called the ‘presbyterium’. These your priests exercise the priestly ministry in union with the bishop and with all the priests of the diocese. This gives your whole community the joyful certainty tat you live in communion with the whole Church.

“Therefore we will now express in a ceremony that the priests of this community are rendering their service in communion with the bishop and the whole Church. If we are united in this way we can be certain that we are in communion with Jesus Christ, the High Priest.”

After the explanation the bishop extends a visible sign of communion with the OCLs. Probably it will be wise to introduce a new kind of visible sign, a “symbol of priestly communion,” e.g., the “touching of the chalice of the bishop,” a special chalice which is kept at the bishop’s residence and which the bishop or his representative brings with him at the annual visit and which he invites the OCLs to touch and to drink form during this liturgy as a sign of communion.

The above is one of various ways how communion between the bishop and the OCLs could be expressed and maintained. Other symbolic liturgical actions can be designed for this important ceremony.

If the deliberations which take place during the visit bring to light that one of the OCLs can no longer exercise the priestly ministry at this time, all the aspects of the case are thoroughly discussed by the Episcopal vicar4/animator priest and the local community who together reach a decision. The OCL may have to be told that he cannot for the time being exercise his priestly ministry although his ordination remains valid. At the final liturgy of that particular year he is not included in the symbol of priestly communion. The way will be kept open for the later re-inclusion of a temporarily suspended priest.

It is necessary to make the moratorium visible to the whole community because the OCL will have many relatives and supporters in his community. The fact that a suspended OCL is not invited to “touch the chalice of the bishop” would serve as a definite and powerful sign that he is not to function as a priest.

– pgs. 165-167


Before ordination to the priesthood, a community leader should make a … statement that he expects no financial assistance.

People may find this difficult to understand. They are so used to the fact that every ordained person is financially completely dependent on the Church that they find it inadmissible for an ordained local leader not to be in a position to claim financial support, not even when he is in need. The new principle becomes acceptable when we remember the fact that active parishes rely on the voluntary work of hundreds of lay people and none of them would dream of claiming support from the Church in times of need. When some of them are ordained this does not change their financial position. Spontaneous assistance in times of need can of course be offered but cannot be claimed and has never been claimed by voluntary leaders.

– pgs. 180-181

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