Deborah Organ presents a view on lay ecclesial ministry from inner-city Minneapolis
For Dr. Deborah Organ, the lay ecclesial ministry is a matter of heart. While the current President of the Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics also keeps her head about her as she goes about her work, she seeks out communities that are deeply in need.
Organ has worked with youth on weekends in the central city parish of St. Paul in Dorchester — a neighborhood of Boston. She has counseled adults in Tamaulipas, Mexico. She has prepared congregants for sacraments in two languages in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has coordinated religious events at Stephens College, a women’s college in Missouri. She has advocated for Hispanic immigrants at Our Lady of Lourdes in Columbia, Missouri, and she currently ministers to the undocumented immigrant community at Holy Rosary Church in south Minneapolis.
In celebration of the “Year of the Liberal Arts” at St. Catherine University, Organ spoke on “Lay Ecclesial Ministry in the Church Today: A View from Inner-City Minneapolis,” on Wednesday, April 6, in the Recital Hall on the St. Paul campus of the University.
William McDonough, S.T.D., associate professor of theology at St. Kate’s, introduced Organ at the event, which was presented by the Master of Arts in Theology Program and the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences at St. Catherine University.
“We have tonight a deeply rooted and grounded lay minister in the Catholic Church. She is a voice of vision for us,” said McDonough. He added that Organ will join St. Catherine University in the fall as an adjunct faculty member.
When Organ took the stage, she opened with a story about a bat that had flown down upon her and her colleagues in church one morning. It interested her to learn that bats fly toward the vibration of the human voice, and she drew a parallel from the story to the lay ministry.
“We hunger for God and we move in and within grace,” said Organ. “We do draw one another by the warmth and vibration of our voices, sometimes unexpectedly but generally unmistakably.”
Organ said each individual in the lay ministry builds connections in daily life, both inside and outside the church walls. She said it usually takes a catalyst, however, to make an individual aware of those connections. Organ compared this catalyst to the bat swooping down from the church ceiling. She detected an “urgency of connection” coming from the creature, though her colleague had to first open his mouth to draw the bat toward him.
“Human beings are drawn through the senses as well, though often not completely blindly,” said Organ. “As human beings in church, we love because God first loved us. We are drawn into the light of God from formal church activities. We’re drawn into our essential life with God and, out of that, to a response in love that transforms the world.”
Organ also recounted the story of a middle-aged woman, who rushed into church just as mass was about to start one day. The woman had led a life full of trauma and pain, Organ had recently learned, and she was struggling to find her place in the world.
“She came to the first pew, slid in — just in time for mass,” said Organ. “I was sitting there off to the side and I started to weep. She was drawn to that first pew quite simply by the love of God.”
Organ said in her initial sessions with the woman, the woman had often complained, “I don’t understand. I’ll never understand.”
“Though she had very little opportunity for formal education, she found herself able to live right up against mystery and face it squarely,” said Organ. “Then the sense that she had nothing to offer and she couldn’t learn started to change.”
During her presentation, Organ invited the audience to quietly reflect on their own experiences several times. She also encouraged her audience to move past the obstacles standing in their way as lay ministers, and to regard lay ministers as “iconic mystics” wielding the power of God.
“A lay ecclesial minister is someone who is and does that which is necessary for people to see themselves as front pew material,” said Organ. “The ministry is essentially concerned with a communal and active living out of and into our fundamental reality — the life in and with God. Thirty years of professional ministry have drawn me into awareness that the Kingdom that we want to build is already our most basic reality, evidenced by the resurrection.”
She encouraged those in the audience to be aware of that concept, to claim it, reflect it and live it. And she said Christians must both realize there is more to any situation than meets the eye, and carry out of their ministry together.
Organ then took time to give her audience a recipe for flourishing in the lay ministry today. A few of the ideas she brought forward included releasing personal grief, committing to the ministry even when it is unclear what lies ahead, listening and creating a sense of home, and extending a feeling of family across family lines. She also said lay ministers must trust that their ministry will help the mission of the Church unfold in the world.
Organ concluded her presentation on Wednesday with a reception for those in the audience, who ranged from students, faculty and alumni of St. Kate’s to community members and Organ’s colleagues from Holy Rosary Church.