Video: Pope to parishes: 'Love your priests'

updated 4/17/2008 9:17:39 PM ET 2008-04-18T01:17:39

For 46,000 Catholics, it was a Mass like no other, with the altar standing in the center of a ballpark and the presiding clergyman arriving in a bulletproof vehicle.

But Pope Benedict XVI's Mass in the U.S. capital Thursday was also different from a typical service in another way: Lay people were not asked to distribute Communion, which was administered exclusively by 300 priests and deacons.

Organizers of the Mass at Nationals Park were only following the letter of church law. But to some Roman Catholics, the ceremony was symbolic of what they see as Benedict's desire to erect clear boundaries between clergy and lay people.

"What he wants to do really is to reinforce the old categories and classifications — different roles for different people," said David Gibson, author of books on Benedict and the future of the U.S. church.

"Men and women, priests and lay people. Each one has their role according to their talents, their ordained status in the church."

Divison of roles
The clear division of roles does not sit well with all American Catholics, who are used to living in a democracy. Some would like a greater say in church affairs, including choosing their parish priests. Others cherish the distinct roles held by clergy and point to several examples of the two working together in harmony.

The pope has signaled his position through some relatively small gestures, Gibson said.

For example, the Vatican has issued a document reaffirming that only priests and deacons can touch and clean the chalice after Mass, something many lay people have done.

The Rev. John Wauck, a professor of literature at Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, warned against measuring appreciation for the laity by what they can and cannt do in church.

"The life of the church doesn't take place in sacristies and parish meeting halls alone," Wauck said. "It takes place in homes, shops, sports fields, businesses, hospitals ... wherever there are Catholics."

He added: "The relationship between the clergy and the laity can't be seen in terms of a power struggle. Both are serving the church in their own way."

New duties with priest shortage
Because of the priest shortage in the U.S., lay people are increasingly being called upon to run the administrative side of parishes while leaving sacramental duties to clergy.

In 2005, nearly one-quarter of the 217,000 U.S. parishes were without a resident parish priest. At the end of Pope John Paul II's pontificate, more lay people than clergy were working full-time in American parishes and many of those lay leaders were women.

Lay people also have taken more active roles on parish financial councils and high-profile panels like the church's National Review Board, which was formed in response to the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Even so, that board is advisory. Bishops still make policy decisions, and board members have left after complaining their advice was not heeded.

For distribution of the Eucharist, priests and deacons are known as "ordinary" ministers, meaning they should do the job when they are available.

At Thursday's Mass, 1,500 priests and deacons were in the stadium _ five times the number needed, said Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Some high-profile roles
Another staple of parish life — altar boys and girls — also were missing from the Mass. Under papal liturgy guidelines, seminarians perform those duties.

But lay people also played high-profile roles, reading the Scripture and serving as cantors and petition readers.

"To me, it's almost seamless how we work together," said Gibbs, one of nine lay people on the archdiocese's papal planning committee. "Clergy bring pastoral teaching and direction. Lay people bring business skills, administrative skills."

Patty Olszewski, 51, was disappointed about the lack of lay Eucharistic ministers — she is one.

She describes herself as an anti-abortion Catholic who wishes the church would at least consider women priests and disagrees with church teaching against homosexuality. Even so, she said she is happy with her role and feels like she is contributing.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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