PARSONS: Discerning a vocation in Ecclesial lay ministry

February 25, 2020

When I was a little girl, I prayed a simple prayer, “Lord, lead me to where You need me to be so that I may fulfill Your will.”

Whenever I went to Mass with my family, I quietly prayed this prayer. By the time I was a freshman in high school, I discerned that my vocation would be to be married and have a family. I came to know in my heart that I would someday have seven children and that I would serve in the Church. Here I am at age 60 married to a wonderful man, have three biological children and four bonus children, and have served in the Church for nearly 35 years! I am what is known as an ecclesial lay minister.

What is an ecclesial lay minister? According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s (USCCB’s) publication, Co-Workers in the Vineyard, the sacramental basis for ecclesial lay ministry is the Sacraments of Initiation, not Ordination.
Service is done by laypersons and is ecclesial because it has a place within the community of the Church, whose communion and mission it serves, and because it is under the discernment, authorization and supervision of the hierarchy. It is called ministry because it is the work by which Christians participate in the ministry of Christ as priest, prophet and king to continue His mission and ministry in the world.

The term “ecclesial lay minister” is not a specific title or rank of laity in the Church. Ecclesial lay ministers are women and men whose service in the Church is characterized by the authorization of the hierarchy to serve publicly in the local Church leadership in a particular area of ministry.

On April 20, 1985, in the Archdiocese of Detroit, I was commissioned as an Apostleship of the Sea ecclesial lay minister. On July 1, 1992, I was appointed the first ecclesial lay minister in the world to be a port chaplain by Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza. For nearly 35 years, I have served our Church publicly representing the Archdiocese as I climb aboard ships and serve the needs of God’s People of the Sea. 

There are many Catholic seafarers that we serve from countries all over the globe. Being an example to the laity working aboard ships has been one of my greatest joys. Encouraging Catholic seafarers to come together in prayer when they are at sea and teaching them about service to others is exciting. But just as exciting is being a witness as a Catholic Christian to seafarers of non-Christian faiths.

In Pope Francis’ apostolic letter, Gaudete et Exsultate, he writes: “….You too need to see your life as a mission. Try to do so by listening to God in prayer and recognizing the signs that He gives you. Always ask the Spirit what Jesus expects from you at every moment of your life, and in every decision you must make, to discern its place in the mission you have received. Allow the Spirit to forge in you the personal mystery that can reflect Jesus Christ in today’s world.” (Chapter 1, par 23). 

Consider a vocation as an ecclesial lay minister. The blessings are abundant and the joys are phenomenal! 

Karen M. Parsons, OFS, is a port chaplain with the Apostleship of the Sea.