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11-PARISH-LAITY

Just what is a ‘pastoral associate’?

Sally Fraser looks at the laity’s place in today’s Church as she takes up a new role in her parish.

Most school holidays for us involve a trip to Edinburgh Zoo. The experience changes over the years: the children are no longer naive enough to accept my rubbish explanations of what the animals are. I can’t just dismiss everything as a ‘big monkey’ or a ‘funny type of cow’ or a ‘fluffy mouse thing.’ They can read the labels now.

“What’s a south american prudu, mummy?” they demand. So I point at the fluffy mouse thing and say—with a northern English grammatical error that 16 years of living in Scotland has not shifted—‘it’s a one of them.’

And my children are right I suppose, because names are important. The other day I was introducing a friend of mine to the joy of an afternoon pint with my dad and to my delight they were bonding over an attempt to remember the name of the new post I am starting at the church next month.

“Pa, pa, parish… no.”

“Pas… pastoral… as, assis… no.”

“Pastoral associate!” exclaimed my dad triumphantly with a wink, and he and my friend nodded at each and chinked glasses, mastering the name of my new position being as much of a cause for celebration as me being appointed to it. Of course, even if people get the hang of the name, then they don’t understand what it actually means.

Of course, we don’t know what the majority of grown-up jobs actually entail do we? The man next door who does something to do with advertising. Her across the road who is in computers. Estate agents. Actuaries. Journalists for goodness sake. No one really knows what these folk really do, unless they specifically do it to us. But presumably they themselves know. Unlike me, who isn’t sure yet.

Ask me in the pub and I will tell you that a pastoral associate is someone who works in the church doing as much stuff as they are allowed to do without being a priest, because there aren’t really enough priests.

We aren’t really supposed to admit that out loud are we, that last bit? Aren’t supposed to notice, that while the rest of the population is up in arms as retirement age is pushed through the 60s, many of our priests are working in their 80s. We are all praying for vocations, but we are also doing our sums, and I don’t believe we are being unfaithful to look to sustainable ways of increasing lay participation in Church life.

That has been my major concern personally, as someone who cares passionately about my church and community: sustainability—doing all I can to keep the church I love functioning for my children, who I love. Where my situation differs from most of the other lay workers I have met is that this was my parish, my church, my community already.

I first came to our church about five years ago, amusingly telling my husband, ‘OK, I’ll come along, but I am not getting sucked into anything.’

But sucked in I have well and truly been, first as parish secretary, now this. It has been the biggest learning curve of my life working as parish secretary. It’s been a privilege to get to know people, to hear their stories.

I get to talk to people who inspire me every single day, with their extraordinary resilience, resilience which always has and always will be central to the sustainability of the Church, and which workers and clergy can lean on too. I feel very blessed to take on this new challenge, and excited.

And I feel proud to work for an order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, that places such a great emphasis on training the laity, and that has encouraged me personally to raise my pastoral game.

But I am also nervous. I know that my appointment is going to bother people for a million different reasons. People who don’t want to see any lay workers in the Church at all, let alone a woman, and let alone, well, a woman like me.

There will be those who think I am a power-mad lefty feminist with an agenda and this is all part of some masterplan to Generally Not Know My Place and eventually become pope.

There are those, too, who believe all lay work should be voluntary, and I can see this is a vexed issue. And I worry that as a convert, my incessant feeling that I am putting my foot in it is going to be magnified 200-fold in the new job. But what is Catholicism if not an endless nagging anxiety that you are putting your foot in it?

I feel scared. But scared in a knowing-it-means-something kind of a way. I tend to think that if something’s worth doing, and if you are going to do it properly, you have to let it break you a bit. Children. Marriage.

In fact, this feels a bit like before I got married, when I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I somehow couldn’t do it. And someone older and wiser than me reassured me that it was a Sacrament, and I could lean on that, and lean on my husband’s Faith too.

And now I have a whole community to lean on. We all do, and we are all bound by those same Sacraments and gifts which give us the strength to minister in whatever way we are required to. Baptism. Confirmation. A body and a soul and a beating heart. So hopefully people will just get to know me. I will be a pastoral associate at them, to them and with them.

And I would like to think that what I do will be suitably productive and visible; that one day should a child or your dad or your friend ask ‘what’s a pastoral associate’ you might be able to point at me and in your best Yorkshire accent say ‘it’s a one of them.’

– Sally Fraser is a pastoral associate at St Mary’s Star of the Sea in Leith, Edinburgh. She converted to Catholicism in her 20s and is married with two small children.

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