According to a 2005 study by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), more than five hundred U.S. parishes were entrusted to someone other than a priest. Many of these church workers, usually called parish-life coordinators, are lay people, including women religious, although most are deacons. Given the ongoing shortage of priests, a 2019 CARA report surprisingly indicated that just 341 parishes are now being administered to by deacons or lay people, a more than 30 percent decline. This can be attributed in part to the closing or merging of parishes, but it also seems to reflect a hesitancy on the part of bishops to embrace lay leadership on the parish level. The concern, as expressed by an instruction released by the Vatican in July, is that the central role of the priesthood in the sacramental and pastoral life of the Church cannot, by definition, be assumed by the laity. Otherwise, the statement explained, pastoral leadership can be seen as merely “functional” rather than sacerdotal. The distinctive roles of the laity and the priesthood must be secured; an “essential difference…exists between the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood.” The appointment of parish-life coordinators cannot be made for “reasons of convenience or ‘ambiguous advancement of the laity.’”
These are not necessarily unreasonable concerns. When it comes to the sacramental life of the Church and the centrality of the priesthood to Catholic historical and theological self-understanding, turning over priestly roles to the laity raises a host of questions. But with no dramatic increase in priestly vocations on the horizon, at least in the United States, parish-life coordinators will remain the face of some parishes, a face that most parishioners seem to welcome. According to CARA, these devoted lay people are usually highly educated and are most often women. That is the case for Eleanor Sauers, the parish-life coordinator for St. Anthony of Padua Church in Fairfield, Connecticut. Fairfield is in the Diocese of Bridgeport, whose bishop is the Most Reverend Frank Caggiano. Sauers was the first—and remains the only—lay parish-life coordinator in the diocese. I recently interviewed her by email. Our exchange has been edited for clarity.
PAUL BAUMANN: Eleanor, you became parish-life coordinator after the death of Fr. John Baran, a much-loved pastor. You were the head of religious education at St. Anthony’s at the time, and it was my impression that you and Fr. John were good friends, and that he was a mentor for you. What was that transition like? How do you see your pastoral vision in light of Fr. John’s ministry?
ELEANOR SAUERS: I became the director of religious education at St. Anthony’s in September 2002. I had come to the parish as a volunteer when Fr. John was transferred there as an administrator. Fr. John had been a parochial vicar at Our Lady of the Assumption parish in Fairfield for seven years, during which time I worked (as a volunteer) with him on the parish council, the youth group, the liturgy committee, and other ministries. John became a close friend to my family during this time.
I left my position in a local insurance agency in 2000, having entered the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham. John encouraged me to pursue my studies and became a mentor to me throughout my master’s and doctoral journeys. At St. Anthony’s, I worked with Fr. John, Frank Macari, the music director, and Beth Paris, the pastoral minister for youth. We were a team. Throughout John’s tenure, during his long affliction with muscular dystrophy, and especially during his final battle with melanoma, he and I collaborated on most parish efforts.
When John died in March 2018, I was devastated. Fr. Michael Boccaccio, a semi-retired diocesan priest, was appointed administrator of the parish but I ran the day-to-day activities. The future was uncertain, but the team and I were determined to continue to implement Fr. John’s vision for the parish. That vision was firmly rooted in the collegiality and subsidiary foci of the Second Vatican Council. We respected and treated parishioners as adults. We also recognized that as a small parish we couldn’t offer everything, but whatever we offered had to be done well. Fr. John’s preaching and his welcoming manner, especially his determination to create an environment where the Spirit could flourish, caused the parish to blossom and grow exponentially until his death.
In the months following his death, we maintained parish life as we thought he would, but we were aware things could and would change as soon as the next pastor was named. We were dedicated to keeping Fr. John’s mission alive. Bishop Caggiano met with the parish staff, trustees, and pastoral council twice—the first time in June 2018. He asked us what our hopes were for the next pastor. He also told us that he would eventually be appointing a diocesan priest. We met with the bishop again in December. At that time, he informed us that he was appointing me as the parish-life coordinator.
The months in between those meetings were anxious ones, not knowing what the future would bring. But we decided to “act as if” things would work out for the best and that John’s legacy would not only be maintained but built upon.
My pastoral vision, influenced heavily by my time with John, is one of promoting inclusivity in all areas of parish life. By that I mean welcoming all people and inviting them to share in the life of the parish. In particular, I am interested in reaching out to other communities, particularly communities of color, to help our parishioners and theirs gain new perspectives on what we have in common and new respect for the ways in which we differ. At this moment, recognizing and fighting racism is of paramount importance. I am interested in showing that the Catholic Church is a place where you learn how to get closer to God. I want to share our rich spiritual life as Catholics, and provide opportunities to discuss our faith. My emphasis is always on community and how communal worship and socialization can help form, inform, and transform people.