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Jesuits and Lay Collaboration

Posted on: 1 Dec, 2014

Modified on: 1 Dec, 2014

By Lancy Lobo S.J.

Jesuits and Lay Collaboration: by Design or Default?

Lancy Lobo S.J.

The discourse among Jesuits of south Asia of making a paradigm shift from Paternalism to a Participatory mode of functioning in their apostolate is not new. Lay collaboration is seen as an ideal domain in which this paradigm could be realized. Conceptually we accept lay collaboration but operationally it remains elusive.

The roots of our Paternalism lie in the hierarchical structure of authority in the church and religious life. The ultimate tribute we pay to Paternalism is in calling the Pope “Papa” and having lay people call their pastors “Father”. Powerlessness in the laity has been institutionalized.

One of its manifestations is the institution of “Sole Trustee” in parishes. All authority and power have thereby been delivered into the hands of the parish priest. Traditionally he has seen no option but to exercise them all by himself. Canon law now mandates a Parish Council which should provide the necessary framework for lay collaboration at all levels of parish functioning. The II Vatican council defined the church as “the people of God”. The goal of our lay collaboration is to hand over increasingly greater control of the local church to the People of God.

Parish Councils and Trusts in which lay people have been inducted can be effective instruments of furthering lay collaboration. However, most of our Trusts that I know of do not hold mandatory annual general body meetings including some of those that fight for human rights and justice as well as engage in legal aid programs. They consider Trust laws an unnecessary burden and treat them as legal appendages. How carefully are our Trust documents maintained, including minutes and action taken reports? Having worked in a non Jesuit organization and being a Trustee for years I know how seriously the Trust deed is taken and accountability and transparency maintained.

Lay collaboration is not a matter of “they” working with “us” or even “us” with “them” but of laity and Jesuits sharing a common enterprise working in equal partnership with a mutual exchange of respect, trust., communication, accountability and transparency. This may require us to consciously give up power. The real question to my mind when lay collaboration is spoken of is: can we Jesuits work under lay people? This would be the real test. If we cannot then no lay collaboration is possible. Christian Brothers have already appointed a few competent lay principals in their schools with Brothers working under them.

Lay collaboration as equal partners implies that they are equally competent to do the tasks they are called upon to do. Hence they must be motivated to do the task and they must be qualified to do the task. Motivation comes from a shared vision and qualification and competence from training and formation.

Lay collaboration is not merely about proposing a new structure of the Church to people, a new set of relationships within an institution. It is about engaging the hearts of our collaborators to lead them to see how what they are doing will help people fulfill their dreams and live better lives. It is getting people to share the vision of the institution/parish. If the institution itself does not have a vision, there is no scope for collaboration. If people don’t have a compelling cause to live for, it is because the leadership doesn’t have one or has failed to communicate it. Creating a culture behind a shared mission, vision and values is the essence of leadership.*

The growth of an institution or parish is directly proportional to the growth of the people in it. By encouraging members to become massively competent, to assume responsibility for themselves and the situations that arise, they develop a sense of maturity and ownership in their work. Competence will come from constant leadership and skills training. By constantly investing in people, sending them to training seminars and courses, and exposing them to the latest developments in their field of work, we will sharpen their skills, develop their talents and help them to see that they can actually play a leading role in effecting a change in their institution*

In the West lay collaboration has been implemented out of necessity and compulsion. Decreasing number of Jesuits, an aging Jesuit population and lack of competent and skilled Jesuits to run institutions has compelled them to hand over totally or partially their institutions with perhaps just a symbolic or token Jesuit presence in them. They have no alternative but to engage lay people. But then is this the only form of lay collaboration we envisage?

In Asia, the situation is somewhat the opposite: here we have an increasing number of Jesuits and youthful ones too; however one cannot always vouch for their competence and skills. These fairly numerous Jesuits easily fill in positions and places without competing for them and not necessarily on merit. Better qualified lay people perhaps with better skills are not unlikely to have negative experiences under them. The sheer number of available Jesuits leaves little room for lay collaboration much as it is desirable. With our famed training are not many among us ending up as clerks and doing what lay persons could you with much cost-effectiveness?

Are Jesuits trained for teamwork in their formation? If Jesuits cannot work in a team among themselves much less will they work as a team with lay people except in a hierarchical position? Some Jesuits make no bones about it when they say, “It is easier to work with lay people than with fellow Jesuits.”

There is a vast difference between the work habits, subculture and life style of lay people and those of Jesuits. Lay people by and large learn through the daily grind of living with their wives and having to bring up children.. A religious does not have this sobering experience that brings him down to reality. A Jesuit lives a sheltered life, unaware of the underlying insecurity that touches the lives of lay people. Lay collaboration may even be perceived as an intrusion into the even tenor of their lives and apostolate. However lay people through creative cooperation have much to contribute through their unique experience of life and their different perspectives on issues and relationships that affect the institution.

Lay collaboration is feared for another reason.- our inability to trust lay people with real power, confidentiality and the funds of an institution. Cases of mismanagement by priests and religious are not so uncommon as to challenge our credulity. If we have nothing to hide, breach of confidentiality will not do the damage we fear when we are dishonest. Inducting lay people in our Trusts is a very concrete way of lay collaboration. They just need the vision to motivate them and capacity building and training to make them equally competent collaborators and leaders in any enterprise with Jesuits. The benefits to be reaped from the synenergistic potential of lay collaboration are huge. All Jesuits need is the courage to leave their comfort zone, and the humility to recognize that there are lay people out there with more talent and willingness than we can hope to garner from our very restricted numbers.

* Adapted from Robin Sharma on Leadership