Many have voiced the opinion that giving more laity - and, specifically, women - positions of leadership in the Catholic Church would help avoid sexual abuse scandals like the one now consuming the faith and its faithful. In the Buffalo diocese, there are a series of positions open to lay people, but ultimate power always remains with clergy. Even so, one empowering model may light the way to the future.
Bishop Edward Kmiec approved guidelines for what are called Pastoral Administrators in 2007, in the wake of a growing priest shortage. It was another six years before Bishop Richard Malone began to implement the model.
"Right now our priestly preparation is to form spiritual leaders, but in this modern age, the running of a parish is like being a CEO, practically, and there's such a diversity of needs," said Sister Lori High. "So if we can spead the responsibility, I think it helps take the load off of the spiritual leader and allow the gifts of others to come forward."
Currently, there are Pastoral Administrators empowered to help run three parishes in the eight-county diocese: two women and a man. High has worked out of St. George in West Falls since 2016 and said she felt welcomed right away in the small parish.
"I think the whole situation for how parishes can move forward is going to take a lot of creative thought. How do we adapt?" High said. "This is one solution that we're working on here in the Diocese of Buffalo and, I guess, across the nation. We are the church and so it's not the priest's job to make it work, it is all of ours."
Three positions share the work in the Pastoral Administrator model, all appointed by the Bishop. A Pastoral Administrator oversees parish operations and can be a layperson. A Sacramental Minister oversees worship and must be a priest. A Priest Moderator supervises them both and also must be a priest.
"It has been a survival mode," said Debbie Brown. "It was sort of like driving in snow, it was hard to get traction, because every time you felt you were moving forward, something new got in your way."
Brown just completed her one-year probationary period and has received a permanent three-year appointment as Pastoral Administrator at St. John the Baptist in Alden. The uncertainty of being a temp was just one challenge she had to overcome.
"The same day that my picture was on the front of WNY Catholic hugging the bishop, announcing this new paradigm here, that same weekend, that was the beginning of the priest abuse scandal," Brown said. "Two people here were the first two men that came forward and said they were abused by a priest here."
Brown said her Priest Moderator got caught up in the abuse scandal, her Sacramental Priest has been recovering from a near-death accident, her religious education leader left and many parishioners resisted her being a layperson instead of a priest.
Just another year in the life of a parish.
Both Brown and High agree, the partnership of clergy and laity is helping strengthen the entire church.
"This experiment of trying a three-fold leadership model has been successful thus far," said High. "It's not perfect and it doesn't fit everywhere and not everyone's skill sets fit the same places, but it is a way of saying, 'Oh, we could split out this reponsibility in a way that enables the spiritual leader to maintain focus on spiritual needs and sacramental responsibilities, more than dollars and sense or brick and mortar or electric bills or whatever else.'"
"I think how we put our leadership in place in our parish, whether it's a priest or a layperson, would so much benefit if one group with lay and religious and priests looked at the big picture, like the whole vicariate and all the parishes. That's where the grassroots has got to come in. That's where this model can really work well," Brown said. "In addition to the abuse scandal, the church is in the news for negative things. I mean, that's the reality. It's a human institution, but we have to accept the fact that we all, by virtue of our baptism, have a job to do to make this church grow and we can't put that burden just on the ordained."