ST. LOUIS -- A Catholic graduate school has chosen more than two dozen Missouri and Illinois parishes to take part in a new program that trains lay people to assume some duties typically handled by priests.
The Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis will begin classes in August for its Apollos Project, which seeks to ease pastors' workloads while increasing lay participation.
"Catholics in the pews have become passive," said the Rev. Charles Bouchard, president of Aquinas. "This project should remind each of us that the church belongs to every Catholic and we must concern ourselves with identifying and supporting lay leaders who will work collaboratively with priests."
Students participating in the program will earn a master's degree at Aquinas and eventually return to their parishes as salaried lay ministers. They would take over some duties a priest may have previously handled, including administrative tasks, visitation of the sick, youth ministries and adult education programs.
Apollos is funded by a $1.7 million grant from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment. Taking part are eight parishes from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, 15 from the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., three from the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., and one from the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.
The Rev. Finbarr Dowling, pastor of one participating church, St. Ignatius Loyola in Marthasville, said the program would benefit small, rural churches like his that are struggling to survive.
"In terms of long-term planning, we are not on the archdiocese's radar screen," he said. "Which means, if we are going to have a say in our future, we have to do it ourselves."
St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said last summer that Apollos was unnecessary here because the archdiocese's Paul VI Institute served a similar purpose of training the laity.
"They clearly have some dioceses who want this service from them and they are providing it," Burke said at the time. "We don't need it."
Burke's spokesman, Jamie Allman, said this week that none of the eight St. Louis area pastors involved in the program had informed the archbishop of their participation.
Allman said the archbishop did not want to comment on his pastors' involvement in the program and did not want "to get involved in a public theological mud wrestling match."
Canon law allows someone other than a priest to oversee a parish as long as an ordained priest celebrates Mass and administers the sacraments.
But a 1987 Vatican document sought to restrict some of the freedoms the Second Vatican Council allowed the laity. And in a 1999 letter, American bishops voiced concerns that lay ministers could hurt the effort to draw more men to the priesthood.
Dowling said increasing lay involvement could determine the fate of his parish.
"To empower a lay minister, in the eyes of the parish, to do a lot of the administration and a lot of the ministries," he said. "That would be marvelous."