Mission – a collaborative ministry

by Guest Contributor

Columban Fr. Peter Woodruff was ordained in 1967 and worked as a missionary priest in parishes located on the northern periphery of Lima, Peru for many years. He now resides at the Columban House in Essendon, Australia and has written about mission and his experience of it being a 'collaborative ministry'.

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“Through Baptism and Confirmation, each Christian is invited to share in Christ’s mission, which is, in fact, the mission of the Church.” This statement is taken from a website titled “Brisbane Catholic Education Catholic Identity Site”.

Sixty years ago, I joined the Missionary Society of St Columban, and ever since, my life has been primarily about seeking ways of being a missionary. I became, so to speak, a professional missionary, initially in Lima, Peru and more recently, in Australia.

However, along the way, I noticed that men and women who were not ordained priests seemed to be more effective missionaries than those likes me. They were more effective at communicating the Christian message of love and forgiveness.

I did not feel irrelevant. I could see that I had a varied supportive role, especially in organization, education and motivation.

With time, it became clear that one or two priests could run a huge parish by enlisting the active support of up to around 100 lay collaborators.

There were some things the priests had to do. Still, there was also so much scope for the laity – leadership in catechesis, bible courses, prayer, liturgy, community development and so on.

Learning to develop parish leadership in a shared way was challenging for both priests and laity, as both were required to adapt not just what we did but also our way of understanding our respective roles. We had to re-educate ourselves and understand our Christian vocation in a more dynamic and shared way, realizing that the sacraments of initiation are the Christian’s call to mission.

Our renewed appreciation of this helped move us towards seeing and treating each other as equals. The difference in roles did not necessarily imply higher and lower status, even though coming to that conclusion took us some time.

We were challenged to understand ourselves as sons and daughters of God. We all learned to appreciate the necessity of regular meetings to work things through, to work together in a coordinated and mutually supportive way.

Relationships of friendship developed in the context of appreciating that we were actively playing a part in helping Christian men, women and youth be the Church and so helping many baptized to enjoy and live their faith more authentically. It became ever more difficult for the priest to refer to his parishioners as his flock, as many were actively and creatively involved in sharing the shepherding.

Despite the enthusiasm with which I write about assuming mission in a shared way with those able and willing to do things in a collaborative and so less hierarchical way, I did have misgivings about attempting to do this without it being in the context of a coordinated diocesan approach. While our local bishop did not encourage this person of God’s approach to parish ministry, he did not oppose it, nor did he guarantee continuity after those working this way left the parish. Most local priests, be they diocesan or members of a religious order, seemed to have little interest in this approach.

However, I must point out that we Columbans learned the value of collaborative ministry thanks to a few diocesan priests.

Then, on one occasion, when I was feeling rather pessimistic about everything, I shared my doubts with one of the more active laymen in the parish.

At that time, I wondered about what seemed to be the slim chance of continuity after moving to another assignment.

He listened carefully, pondered the matter briefly and then assured me it was a good way to continue.

He told me that I had no way of knowing how what I had sown might bear fruit, that I should have confidence in those with whom I had walked.

He insisted, “We will find ways forward that others might not have yet imagined. We are tough people. We’ve had hundreds of years of being put down, kept in our place and given a chance to push back against that, be it in a church or secular setting. You should have confidence in our ability and determination to do so.”

I was amazed at what he had said. While I did not quite see how he and others might do as he had stated, I definitely said no more. He just left me with renewed hope. He reminded me of the faith we shared as outlined in the letter to the Hebrews, chapters 11 and 12.