This month, Pope Francis invites us to pray with him that the laity, particularly women, embrace our baptismal responsibility for the mission of the Church. Notice please he does not ask us to “collaborate” with the hierarchy, which is not to diminish the role of collaboration or the importance of the hierarchy, but rather to highlight the weight of the word, “responsible.” To be responsible is to have a vested interest, a share, an ownership of the thing. As baptized Catholics, we have a vested interest, an ownership in the Body of Christ and here we are challenged to actively participate in the Church’s being and acting in the world, i.e., sharing in Christ’s mission to reconcile all thing to Himself (Col 1:20).
In March 2020, I had the privilege to attend “Called & Co-Responsible: Exploring Co-Responsibility for the Mission of the Church” hosted by the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. John Cavadini, Director of the Institute, laid the groundwork for the conference by continuing the conversation on “Co-responsibility” where Pope Benedict left off in 2009 with his Address to the Pastoral Convention of the Diocese of Rome titled “Co-responsible for the Church’s Being and Action: Church Membership and Pastoral Co-responsibility.” The idea of pastoral co-responsibility is rooted in the universal call to all the baptized, i.e., both lay and ordained. By virtue of our baptism, we are incorporated into the Body of Christ and thereby share in His threefold office of priest, prophet, and king (Christi Fideles Laici, 14). Cavadini explained that, on one hand, there is a tendency to identify the Church only with the hierarchy, i.e., ordained ministers, and forget the common mission of the People of God in which we all share. On the other hand, there is a temptation to relegate the People of God to a merely social organization occurring in history. In response to this dichotomy, Professor Cavadini challenged us to think about how to “improve our pastoral structures” and promote co-responsibility for the mission of the Church. This necessarily shifts the center of gravity away from the hierarchy to the baptized, lay and ordained alike, which further promotes proper configuration to Eucharistic communion where the mystery of the Church as “People of God” and “Body of Christ” commingle as “the Church is held together by the sacrifice of Christ.”
Shifting the center of gravity is not without its challenges. Our share in the priesthood of Christ necessarily compels us to re-establish the link between human and divine so as to move a divided world toward unity and this way to sanctify the world. However, a dominant culture of clericalism within the Church has assigned this task only to the ordained. In her discussion on “Co-Responsibility for a Culture of Healing in the Church,” Kerry Robinson, Co-Founder of Leadership Roundtable, spoke on the need to move away from a clerical culture and the importance of cultivating new relationship dynamics between lay and ordained, particularly by promoting diverse perspectives. For instance, some recommended incorporating youth and young adults into our pastoral leadership structures. Monsignor Michael Heintz drawing on 1 Peter 5, said pastors should “not lord their power over those entrusted to you, but [be] examples to the flock,” adding that the pastor’s primary responsibility is to love his people, i.e., the flock entrusted to him. Kevin Hayes, Chair of Catholics for Change in our Church, characterized the problem of clericalism as an environment in which “the clergy believe they are exempt, superior from accountability” and the posture of the laity is one of “deference”, resulting in “a fractured relationship.” Hayes then challenged all baptized to “enter into the mess” by living our baptismal promises and working towards wholeness.
The obstacle of clericalism is related to a more fundamental and ongoing battle within each of us against what Augustine called the libido dominandi. The effects of this latent desire to set ourselves over and against one another plays into another obstacle to cultivating a culture of co-responsibility in the Church, i.e., “reframing co-responsibility as an opportunity, not an obligation,” as Erin Barisano Superintendent of the Diocese of Orange in California, put it. Thinking of co-responsibility in terms of the baptized share in the threefold office of Christ as priest, prophet, and king, does a great deal to help this process of reframing. As prophets, we are invited to be beacons of light, i.e., bearers of Truth, in the world. Co-responsibility is an opportunity to share in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” by letting our unique light, which originates from His Light, to shine. In his talk on “Faces of Prayer: Co-Responsible Approaches to Evangelization,” Bishop Caggiano stressed the value of authenticity and creating “personal relationships… it’s about the other.” Everyone, he said, has a “unique role in guiding the Church.” Moreover, the baptismal gift that we received, which we are called to be grateful for, to cherish, and to share, necessarily comes with a profound responsibility. In response to a young college student inquiring as to how to win hearts for Christ, Caggiano responded, “Just be you! [There is a] bright light to holiness even when it is not complete yet!” Caggiano also pointed out that on the road to Emmaus, Jesus accompanied the disciples as they were headed in the wrong direction, suggesting that being co-responsible means entering into the messiness of human life in the Church and, yes, at times making missteps. Colleen Moore, Director of Formation at the McGrath Institute, carried Caggiano’s point a step further in her talk “Forming Pastoral Leaders for Co-Responsibility.” Colleen provided a personal example of a friend who “claimed me… [took] responsibility for me” and exemplified the vulnerability necessary to cultivate an authentic relationship. Intimidation, which is a symptom of clericalism and the libido dominandi, buffers us from real encounter with others, a vulnerability which is at the core of real relationship.
Before we can share of ourselves in any real way, we need to know who we are and what gifts God has given us to share. Practicing a kingly leadership modeled after Christ the King requires the baptized to assess the characters and charisms of our communities so as to best order and direct all toward God. Echoing others on the importance of diversity, Michael Therrien, President and CEO of Preambula Group, stressed the importance of “strength-based approach to leadership” and “invest[ing] in people before programs” in his discussion on “Institutions.” Such an approach makes room for an under-leveraged skill set, namely management and organizational skills, within the Church. Betsy Bohlen, Chief Operating Officer at the Archdiocese of Chicago discussed the importance of professionalizing church business practices and adapting management skills to the pastoral environment in order to best serve the mission of the Church. This both/and approach is consonant with what it means to answer the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness. Bishop Wack of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee framed his discussion in these terms, saying: “Holiness is being who God created you to be.” He said that it is the Church’s responsibility to cultivate an environment of freedom in which the People of God are “free to be the person God calls you to be.” He challenged pastoral leaders to “ask people… encourage people to pray… to discern how the Lord is calling them to use their gifts God gave them.”
In reflecting upon Francis’ intention and the discussions of co-responsibility at the conference, an exemplar of lay co-responsibility is Dorothy Day. Prior to her conversion to Catholicism, Day was naturally drawn to those at the margins of society, to such a degree that she was actually imprisoned a number of times for protesting social injustices. Following her conversion, she linked arms with Peter Maurin and founded the Catholic Worker Movement, which launched in the midst of the Great Depression and continues to serve the poor in over 204 hospitality houses throughout the world. These communities share a home, meals, and form unnatural (perhaps supernatural) families. Day attended daily Mass and her love of the poor and the responsibility she felt toward them was found its roots in her love of the Eucharistic Lord. In her autobiography The Long Loneliness, she writes of the overflowing love of Christ in the Eucharist flowing through her to those she served: “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship” (285).
To be co-responsible is to live out our baptismal call to be priests, prophets, and kings. This is a challenge to be sure as a diverse body with many parts (1 Cor 12:12) seeks harmonious, non-competitive, yet active participation of all in the mission of the Church to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:18). For this reason, just as in our participation of the sacramental life of the Church, baptism deputizes for participation in the Eucharistic liturgy, in the life of co-responsibility, our share in the threefold office of Christ finally culminates and is ordered to our participation in the sacrifice of Christ made present in the Eucharist. Archbishop Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, offers encouragement by instructing us to take comfort in that, just as our share in the threefold office of Christ bestows upon us co-responsibility, God is totally, perfectly, and ultimately responsible. His responsibility flows from Love. God volunteered Himself to be liable for our sins to save us (1 Pet. 2:24; cf. Is 53:5) and in the same sacrifice offers Himself as our daily sustenance (CCC 1419), uniting the Body of Christ intimately with the Head (CCC 1368), so that through Him, with Him, and in Him a singular sacrificial offering pleasing to God would be made. In living out our baptismal call to co-responsibility we are true Christians “filling up what is lacking” in the sacrifice of Christ (Col 1:24). In short, the aim of co-responsibility is harmonizing the gifts given to the members of the Body of Christ so as to make God’s love more effectively known and present to a world in such dire need of it (1 Cor 12-13:1-3).
Your Sister in Christ,
P.S. To access talks and breakout sessions from the “Called and Co-Responsible” Conference, please visit:
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, as well.
Vanessa Crescio is an accountant with Lipic’s Engagement in Saint Louis, MO. She holds an MBA from the University of Notre Dame and an MTS from Newman University. She is interested in thinking through co-responsibility in the Church and developing leadership programs to form Catholics to serve the Church with not only their knowledge, skills, and abilities but with the servant heart of Christ.