Lay people await participation in Pakistan Church

Clerics over-emphasize their role as leaders of the Church, which naturally diminishes the lay people, says a nun
Young Pakistani Catholics walk to the National Marian shrine in Mariamabad, Pakistan in this file photo

Young Pakistani Catholics walk to the National Marian shrine in Mariamabad, Pakistan in this file photo. (Photo supplied)

By Kamran Chaudhry

Mushtaq Asad was among the first five Pakistani lay people sent for a two-year study program in Rome in the early 1980s to ensure lay participation. That was two decades after the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), which stressed the role of lay people in the Church’s mission.

Only two of those five returned home. And since then, the hierarchy stopped sponsoring lay people for studies abroad, says 65-year-old Asad, who prefers to wear the traditional shalwar kameez (tunics with pleated trousers) just like other Pakistani men.

After returning home, Asad taught for over a decade at the National Catechists' Training Centre in Khushpur, in Faisalabad district. Now he spends time giving biblical reflections on his YouTube channel to over 4,000 subscribers, from his modest house in Malkhanwala, a village in Punjab province.

Seven decades after the Second Vatican Council, “there is no lay participation in the Church’s decision-making bodies. Their only job is to come to church, listen and return home. It is as if we are born to listen, while the clergy do all the talking,” Asad said.

In the Muslim-majority nation, the role of the laity has been “consciously limited to recitations, collecting tithes and presenting garlands to priests and bishops,” he said.

“Even catechists are not consulted while making decisions. They are considered paid workers. The Church doesn’t accept the participation of the laity, especially women. It is still not ready to see them in leadership roles,” said Asad, a lay theologian.


Parveen Bibi (right), a laywoman from the Punjab province who takes an active part in Church activities and helped build a church, talks with parishioners at a Catholic church in Qila Natha Singh village. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry / UCA News)

Lack of a pastoral vision

Emmanuel Neno, the only other person who returned home after studies in Rome, said the Church in Pakistan lacks a clear pastoral vision resulting in poor lay participation.

“Generally there is no pastoral vision. Catechism has been limited to children alone. Many school principals feel it is their job to run institutes without understanding their Catholic identity,” said Neno, who studied with Asad at the College of Mater Ecclesia, linked to the Pontifical Urban University in Rome.

Neno, the executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Catechetics, said the bishops need to review their pastoral plan at least in a decade.
 
He become the first lay director of the Catechetical Center Karachi in 1992, a position he retained till 2002.
 
“We have no clear idea. There is no collective effort to decide on what to do or where to lead our churches,” Neno said.
 
According to Asad, another major problem is the local Church’s inability to update itself. “The clergy of Pakistan is still living in the pre-Vatican II era,” he said.

“Lay people are reminded all the time that the bishops and priests are the pillars of the Church. They neither want to share nor encourage the pro-laity statements of Pope Francis,” he added.

The Basic Christian Communities (BCC) established by the Sri Lankan Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the late 1980s to uplift and develop local people, could have broadened the vision and given clarity on lay participation.

But it is not encouraged. “Many priests believe BCC would mean the death knell for their powers,” Asad said.

Father Emmanuel Asi, a leading theologian in Pakistan, agrees. “Most Church commissions are headed by priests as the bishops don’t trust the lay people. Lay people are treated as servants or volunteers. Priests remain part of an institutional, hierarchical and highly centralized Church,” he said.


Kanwal Rashid, a Catholic, teaches her son at their home in Lahore on March 22. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry / UCA News)

Insignificant and poverty-stricken

Pakistan has some 3 million Christians, an estimated half of them Catholics. But together they are a tiny minority of 1.27 percent of some 230 million people, 96 percent Muslims.

Leaders of the religious minorities — Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadiyya people — who together form hardly four percent of the population, say the Muslim majority neglects them socially and politically.

Besides the political neglect, the 1.3 million Catholics also suffer social and economic oppression as a majority of them are descendants of socially poor Dalit communities, converted during the British colonial era.

For several decades after the British left the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the Christian churches in Pakistan struggled to maintain an English image in language and dress, Church leaders admit.

Until the 1980s, the hierarchy was mostly led by English-speaking priests and bishops, foreign missioners, or descendants of those who migrated from western India’s Goa area, a former Portuguese colony.

“For a long time, the poor and ill-educated majority in the Church were neglected. Even today, the hierarchy is in a way ashamed to project the real face of the Pakistani Church — those who are sewage cleaners and road sweepers,” said Asad.

“Our people are shabbily dressed, and they articulate poorly. They neither know nor are interested to know theology or ecclesiology. Their priorities are the struggles of daily life. The hierarchy needs to work overtime to make them feel part of the Church,” he said.

“Change began to happen when some leaders of the Church began to stress the teachings of the Second Vatican Council in the 1980s. But it remains a process that the majority in the hierarchy now love to ignore,” he added.


Shafiq Masih a Catholic sanitation worker in Pakistan is seen here cleaning a sewer. (Photo: Sweepers are Heroes)

Change began but moves slow

Most members of the clergy now agree lay people are important in the Church but love to limit their role to manual tasks in the parish such as cleaning and laying the carpets or arranging chairs and pews, Asad said.

However, two decades after the Second Vatican Council, Church commissions began hiring lay people for top positions. The seminary syllabus was changed to add chapters on lay involvement in the Church. Bishops began to organize seminars and courses on lay participation.

In 1993, three decades ago, participants at an Asian bishops' institute on the lay apostolate concluded that the Pakistan Church is young and therefore not caught up in age-old conventions and traditions that often hamper renewal and change.

That seminar was the first such national program conducted in Urdu, the national language. It had 45 delegates from six dioceses — a majority of 24 of them lay people. Church leaders projected it as a “paradigm shift” in lay involvement.

In 1997, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Pakistan established the National Catholic Institute of Theology (NCIT), the first Catholic theological institute to help lay people earn academic diplomas in theology.

The Karachi-based institute accommodated six to eight students each year for its three-year certificate course. Most of them become catechists or religion teachers in Catholic schools.

Peter John, who graduated in 2021, works as a part-time catechist in St. James parish. But not everyone gets a job.

“At least six from my parish, who earned the theology institute’s certificate, are awaiting a call to work in any parish. Their diploma is gathering dust,” said John, who also works for an automobile company as an administrator.

“The laity is generally ignored but they cannot be involved in every aspect of Church management,” he said.


In this picture taken on March 10, 2022, Christian community workers from Lahore Waste Management Company clean a street in Lahore. (Photo: AFP) 

Papal calls ignored

The Sri Lankan Oblates of Mary Immaculate along with the BCCs also established 25 lay organizations to uplift and develop the people in Gojra parish of Faisalabad diocese.

However, these communities disappeared shortly after the Oblates handed over Gojra parish to diocesan priests in 1996, Asad said.

“The BCC was the only concrete thing for us. The Sri Lankans were our heroes. Sadly, the experiment remained limited to Gojra and the southern Archdiocese of Karachi,” said Asad.

“There was no encouragement from diocesan priests. The BCC faded away as people were never prepared for it. There was no groundwork. Our churches are now reduced to a one-man show of priests,” he added.

Bishop Indrias Rehmat, chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Catechetics, agrees change is hard. He initiated five-year pastoral planning in 2021. But it has not been finalized yet.

“Our priests couldn’t do it. They remain fixated on their own planning and parish activities, though I urged them to engage more in pastoral visits,” Rehmat said.

He believes that “both clergy and laity share the same role of giving testimony to their faith.”

As part of the Pakistan Church's preparation for the new millennium, a Church forum published an Urdu translation of 24 handbooks on the Asian Integrated Pastoral Approach (ASIPA) method. They were published after giving training to priests in Lahore and Karachi archdioceses as well as laity in six dioceses in 1999.

The handbooks aimed to build Christian communities through clergy and laity collaboration, adapting the Asian context of pastoral methods, said Theologian Father Emmanuel Asi, who coordinates the forum.

“Despite knowing that parishes cannot grow without the laity, they have not really thought of being a synodal Church. At present the Church is dominated too much by institutionalism and clericalism, without taking lay voices into consideration,” Asi added.

“The local Church has turned a deaf ear to ideas given by Pope Francis,” he added.

“Nobody makes any reference to his teachings, preaching and dialogue. A few bishops quote him, the rest just prefer decorating their rooms with his photos,” Asi said.

However, Archbishop Joseph of Islamabad-Rawalpindi said the local Church remains committed to supporting the role of lay people in Church works.

"We have formed many groups of youth and women in local churches," he said.

Arshad, who submitted the local Church’s response to the synod to the Continental Stage of the Synod last year, never made it public. It is for the Asian bishops' federation to make it public, he said. 


Shunila Ruth (center), a Christian woman leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Party with her supporters, hold red crosses at the Liberty Roundabout in Lahore on Oct. 28. 2022 to welcome ousted Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan. (Photos courtesy of Shunila Ruth)

Unhealthy lay demands

Many Church leaders privately admit that the poor treatment of the laity is the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, who pushed for a more traditional Church.

However, “despite the setbacks, there are some signs of engaging with lay people, thanks to encyclicals by Pope Francis,” said Sister Genevieve Ram Lal, the national director of the Catholic Women's Organization.

For example, some religious congregations, including hers, now hold joint retreats with lay associates, she said.

Neno said lay people should also be blamed for clergy developing an overall mistrust “caused by their behavior and actions.”

For example, three of the five sent to Rome for studies did not return. “Sadly the opportunity for studying in Mater Ecclesiae is now limited exclusively to nuns,” he said.

Most lay people who complete short courses on theology want to see “themselves as equal or even superior to the priests. They demand privileges claiming to be theologians.”

Although the hierarchy’s original plan was to ordain at least some of the theologically trained people as married deacons, the unwarranted demands resulted in the hierarchy abandoning the plan for married deacons.

“Now, there are no lay deacons in Pakistan. Slowly even the role of trained lay people will amount to nothing,” he said.

Since publication a quote by Sister Genevieve Ram Lal, the national director of the Catholic Women's Organization, has been edited for factual correctness.

Help UCA News to be independent
Dear reader,
Trafficking is one of the largest criminal industries in the world, only outdone by drugs and arms trafficking, and is the fastest-growing crime today.
Victims come from every continent and are trafficked within and to every continent. Asia is notorious as a hotbed of trafficking.
In this series, UCA News introduces our readers to this problem, its victims, and the efforts of those who shine the light of the Gospel on what the Vatican calls “these varied and brutal denials of human dignity.”
Help us with your donations to bring such stories of faith that make a difference in the Church and society.
A small contribution of US$5 will support us continue our mission…
William J. Grimm
Publisher
UCA News
5 Comments on this Story
ABID HABIB
The National Catholic Institute of Theology is also providing a Diploma Course on Theology to Lay people. There are quite a few who have graduated. While working in the Diocese of Hyderabad, Sindh there too I found a good number of lay participation. The present bishop of Hyderabad Bp Samson Shukardin OFM was an active member fostering the AsIPA. It is hoped that he will continue it as a bishop.
ERIC JEEVARAJ
I just read Kamal Chadhry's article about the article on laypeople in the Church in Pakistan. I fully agree with his statement. Lay people are treated, as third-class citizens not only in Pakistan but in Sri Lanka and India and some African Countries like Nigeria. In those countries, the biggest problem is "CLERICALISM". Pope Francis never tolerate " CLERICALISM". Thanks be to God we have Pope Francis at this difficult time in the Church. In those countries, most Bishops and priests are full of clericalism. They undermine laypeople and women religious. I am a Permanent Deacon in the UK. After my ordination last year, I contacted the Cardinal in Sri Lanka and asked him in case there is a funeral, wedding or Baptism among my family and friends can I exercise my Diaconal Ministry in my home Archdiocese of Colombo. He bluntly told me I am not allowed to exercise my ministry because I am married. So the Church in Sri Lanka doesn't recognize the Ministry of Permanent Deacons. So the Church in Sri Lanka is not part of the Universal Church? So he thinks that married people are criminals. The Cardinal in Sri Lanka is WRONG. I immediately reported to our Holy Father Pope Francis about this Cardinal's attitude. I also wrote to the President of the Asian Bishops (FABC) not a single reply from him. I encourage laypeople in Asia to appeal to our Holy Father to solve this issue. In the selection of new Bishops to the dioceses the Holy See must give power to the laypeople to give their opinion or reference about the candidate and whether he is fit to be a Bishop to the Dicastery for Evangelization (Propaganda Fidei). My question is who funds the Church? It is poor laypeople who fund the Church. All these concerns must raise in the forthcoming Synod on Synodality.
ERIC JEEVARAJ
I also want to comment that without the laity there is no Church. Therefore selection and appointment of the new Bishops, I strongly urge the Church to give freedom to the laity to give their opinion and reference to the Dicastery For Evangelisation(formally called Propaganda Fidei) that appoints the Bishops in Developing Countries whether the candidates are suitable or not to govern the Diocese.
JOHN MASCARENHAS
I FULLY SUPPORT YOUR SUGGESTION: THAT LAY PEOPLE ELECT THEIR BISHOPS. THE CURRENT TREND IS A PRIEST IS NOMINATED BY FELLOW PRIESTS OR BY ROME. THIS MUST STOP! THE PRIESTS NOMINATE ACCORDING TO THEIR FRIENDSHIP CIRCLES/CASTE/DENOMINATIONS/ETC. THE LAY PEOPLE ARE JUST FORCED TO ACCEPT AND HENCE WE HAVE WITNESSED CRIMINALS BECOMING BISHOPS!!!. IT IS THE LAY PEOPLE WHO KNOW THEIR PRIESTS WELL AND THEREFORE THEIR SAY IS IMPORTANT ON WHO REPRESENTS THEM AS THEIR BISHOP. IF LAY PEOPLE ARE NOT GIVEN IMPORTANCE BY THE SELF SERVING PROIESTS/BISHOPS, THEN THEY MUST BOYCOTT THE CHURCH AND/OR STOP GIVING THE CHURCH DONATIONS. THE CHURCH FORCES LAY PEOPLE TO COME TO CHURCH ONLY TO GET THEIR MONIES. WITHOUT MONIES THESE PROFESSIONAL CHURCH LEADERS WILL NOT SURVIVE. ONLY THEN WILL THE VATICAN PAY ATTENTION TO GROUND REALITY AND FORCE CHANGES. AS LONG AS PEOPLE ACT AS DUMBED SHEEP AND GIVE MONIES, THE CHURCH WILL NOT WORRY ABOUT YOU OR YOUR FAITH.
FIRDOUS MARGARET
Dear Reporter Kamran chaudhry , thanks for sharing such ‘ Eye Opener ‘ article. It’s thoughtful situation in Pakistan. In my opinion loop holes are on both sides. Firstly mostly lay people are day/ night running after meeting both ends and on the other hand the clergy least bother to seriously get involved and let real educated ( salt in the flour) involved in their business too. Remember changes comes with strong practical practices, strong and solid initiatives. Lay people are eager to put their share but if only church higher ups let them. Once again thank you for sharing thoughtful article