Pandemic has opened more Spaces for Lay Leadership in the Church
July 30th, 2021 Published in La Croix International link below.
The Diocese of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg (LGF) in Switzerland has recently emerged as a sort of “laboratory” for a new and reimagined form of lay leadership in the Catholic Church.
Bishop Charles Morerod, the Dominican theologian who has been the shepherd of its 700,000 members since 2011, recently decided to replace priests who have been serving as episcopal vicars with laypersons who will be official “representatives of the bishop”.
The change will soon take place in two of the diocese’s four cantons.
One of them is the canton of Vaud where theologian Philippe Becquart runs the adult education program. He and Gregory Solari — a theologian-philosopher and director of the Ad Solem religious publishing house who is one of the formators in the program — spoke about the new developments with La Croix’s Mélinée Le PriolLa Croix:
La Croix: How did Catholics in the canton of Vaud (Lausanne) react to this spring’s announcement of a reorganization of your diocese, which notably makes way for the laity in its governance?
Philippe Becquart: The diocesan process initiated by our bishop is actually linked specifically to the cantons. Here in the canton of Vaud, it all began with a very concrete request in 2018 from the episcopal vicar, Father Christophe Godel.
There were governance problems within certain pastoral units (groupings of parishes) and tensions between ordained ministers and lay pastoral agents.
So he called on a few theologians who had pastoral responsibilities — including the two of us — to help him find solutions. Gradually, what started out as a reflection on governance became a more global working group.
Gregory Solari: It must be said that at that time, Pope Francis was increasingly talking about synodality. Re-reading his October 2015 speech for the fiftieth anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops was decisive.
We saw in it a response from the Holy Spirit to what we perceived on the ground as an emergency: realizing that what is at the center of the Church is the people of God.
During an advisory council meeting in Geneva in May 2019 we presented our conclusions to Bishop Morerod.
Philippe Becquart: Without saying that we “inspired” the bishop, I think that we contributed to an awareness of the urgency of pastoral transformation.
For in addition to the practical considerations that could justify this reorganization (such as the concern to have more “young” priests in parishes, and therefore more lay people in charge), we worked a lot on the theological and pastoral understanding of synodality as a way of renewal for the local Church.
Why do you think this reorganization is taking place now?
Gregory Solari: The trigger was definitely the COVID-19 pandemic. It brought about this moment of pause during which Bishop Morerod said to himself: “This is the moment, we must go!”
Above all, the health crisis revealed the fragility of pastoral work in the field, which was very much centered on the sacraments: when these could no longer be given, Catholics found themselves in disarray.
Philippe Becquart: The pandemic allowed many baptized people to take stock of their responsibility. Deprived of the sacraments, we had to become aware of the role we each have to play in spreading the Word of God and in practicing charity.
We needed to reinvest, therefore, in our mission as baptized people.
The other contextual element that accelerated the reorganization of our diocese was the sexual abuse crisis. This was a real shock for our bishop, who was in the forefront in terms of institutional responses.
The cantons of Vaud and Fribourg will each have a lay person as the official “representative of the bishop” beginning in September. They replace priests who have served as episcopal vicars.
Why is this change important?
Philippe Becquart: It is not so much a point of arrival as a point of departure. The appointment of Michel Racloz, a lay theologian and family man, as the bishop’s representative is a prerequisite for other changes under consideration. But it was not a given!
Instead, the Vatican, like the diocesan bishops’ advisory council, preferred to have a lay person take on the role of a “diocesan administrative coordinator”.
Giving lay people administrative and financial responsibilities is generally accepted, but giving them pastoral responsibilities is something else… But that is what happened in May with the announcement of these new “representatives of the bishop”.
Gregory Solari: This approach worries both priests and the faithful. This is normal: synodality represents a paradigm shift in relation to what we have always known; it upsets our perceptions.
For me, one of the major projects of the years to come is to rethink a theology of the presbyterate.
While Vatican II revalued the role of the bishops and the faithful, the “intermediate layer”, that of the priests, has been somewhat forgotten.
Can French-speaking Switzerland be a “laboratory” for the Church of the future?
Gregory Solari: Yes, I think so.Firstly, because direct democracy is very well established in
Switzerland. Secondly, because the Reformed component is in the majority and these Churches have long wanted to be more synodal than we are.
The ecclesial and cultural context of French-speaking Switzerland can therefore make it a fruitful laboratory.
Philippe Becquart: Of course, we do not claim to be inventing anything. Already, in the 1990s, Archbishop Albert Rouet created the “local communities” in Poitiers, which were a kind of testing-ground for synodality!
In any case, this kind of experimentation is an act of faith: we let go of a previous model without really knowing what we are going to find.
What characterizes the path towards more synodality that we have taken over the past three years here is the surprise that marks each step towards greater responsibility for all the baptized.
This is a turning point for the Church.