Bishop to lay ecclesial ministers:
‘You are to communicate God’s presence’

Five LEMI candidates were commissioned by Bishop Barry C. Knestout during Mass at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond, on Saturday, June 24, the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Candidates from left to right: Laura Stapleton, Aaron Hostetter, Jean Musto-Hawley, Austin Farinholt, Tim Hatton. (Photo/Alese Monahan)

“Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight his paths” (Mk 1:3).

Spoken by St. John the Baptist, these words are an admonition in our work to spread the Gospel. For five lay ecclesial ministers commissioned by Bishop Barry C. Knestout, they are a special call to action.

The commission took place during Mass at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond, on Saturday, June 24, the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.

“As each of you are commissioned today, you are to communicate God’s presence,” Bishop Knestout told the candidates in his homily. “You are to be instruments of tenderness and grace in your words and actions.”

The celebration represented the culmination of four years of study and spiritual retreat by Austin Farinholt, Tim Hatton, Jean Musto-Hawley, Aaron Hostetter and Laura Stapleton. The five candidates completed their coursework with the diocese’s Lay Ecclesial Ministers Institute (LEMI), a formation program designed to enhance their ability to serve in the ministry roles they already hold in the diocese.

The commission did not represent a new rank among the laity or an ordination. Instead, it was a recognition of their particular role in the Church and of their completion of the rigorous LEMI program.

“‘Lay ecclesial minister’ isn’t a title,” said Hostetter. “It is a way to describe the growing reality of people who aren’t ordained but are working in ministry in the Church.”

In that sense, Hostetter – a youth minister at Holy Trinity, Norfolk – has been a lay minister for some time. But through the LEMI program, he attained his master’s degree in theology from Augustine Institute, a process that elevated both his depth of knowledge and his ability to evangelize the faith.

“It was a very robust theological program,” said Hostetter. “I studied the Church fathers, early Church history, and different methods of evangelization. They aim for you to hit the ground running at a practical level.”

Teresa Lee, director of the diocesan Office of Christian Formation, completed the LEMI program herself in 2016, earning a master’s in theology from St. Leo University. She was commissioned by Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo in 2017.

“LEMI is an opportunity that our diocese gives to our lay leaders to get their master’s degree – or, if you don’t have an undergraduate degree, to get a certificate,” she said. “It’s a way for them – for us – to further our education, obtain more knowledge, and become better Catholics, better spiritual leaders in our parishes.”

Most candidates take one class per semester, but even for those who double up on coursework, the program takes four years, requiring a spiritual retreat to be made each year.

“There’s pastoral formation, there’s human formation, there are workshops to attend,” said Lee. “It’s year-round.”

Subsidies for coursework are funded by appeals and offered at $800 per class. Associated universities include Franciscan University of Steubenville, St. Leo University, St. Joseph’s College of Maine and the University of Dayton.

The University of Dayton coursework offers a certificate in catechesis, and graduate level courses are available to everybody in the diocese for $50. But by going through LEMI, Hatton – facilitator of adult faith formation at Church of the Holy Spirit, Virginia Beach – was able to enjoy the fruits of pastoral, human and spiritual formation emphasized in LEMI workshops, in addition to the intellectual formation he got with his certificate.

Raised and confirmed in the Byzantine rite, Hatton originally considered becoming a deacon. However, it would have required further rites in the Roman Church to become a Roman Catholic deacon, or he would have to prepare for the diaconate in the Byzantine Catholic Church.

“Byzantine Catholics can still worship in the Roman rite. We still fall under the Pope,” he explained. “But there was a lot of things that would have had to happen to become a deacon in the Roman rite, and I was already fifty years old. So I had to pray and fast and ask God, ‘What do you want me to do? Where are you sending me?’”

Farinholt, director of campus ministry at James Madison University (JMU), graduated through LEMI from Franciscan University of Steubenville with a master’s in Catholic Studies. He was encouraged to join the program by Father John David Ramsey while they were both at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Newport News.

“I was going through a deeper conversion experience in my life at the time,” said Farinholt. “I thought I knew a lot about the faith, then I met Jesus personally, and I had a hunger about the faith to learn more about who he is.”

“At the time, Father Ramsey had taken me under his wing, and he is a huge advocate for higher education,” he added. “I decided I wanted to go to graduate school and get an advanced degree learning about our faith and God.”

Catholic Studies, a relatively new field of study at Franciscan University, focuses on Catholic culture and thought. Farinholt took classes on Catholic art, including a class on Dante. He also took a class on virtue and morality with two professors – one a psychologist, the other a theologian – that looked at the process of growing in virtue from both a modern perspective and a Thomistic perspective.

He started his classes on the first day of his new job at JMU, and he found that what he learned was immediately applicable. “Within hours of learning the material, I’d have a chance to teach it,” he said.

One example was a question from a JMU student about talking to Protestants about faith. Just that morning, Farinholt had been studying the philosophy of nominalism, a late medieval philosophy espoused by Martin Luther that contrasts sharply with Platonic and Aristotelian ideas endorsed by the Church.

“I could say to my students, ‘Here are the metaphysics that back up the way they think,’” he said. “So, you can have this conversation in a different way than you might expect to.”

Lee echoes Farinholt’s experience. When she started the LEMI program, she was the director of religious education at St. Bridget, Richmond, and she was preparing children and their parents for first sacraments.

“It was fascinating to dive into the Old Testament,” she said. “After my very first session of my very first class, I was able to start using what I had learned.”

To be eligible for LEMI, applicants must be practicing Catholics over the age of 21 and actively ministering in a leadership position in the diocese for at least one year. The screening process includes a written application, an in-person interview and a confidential psychological evaluation.

Musto-Hawley and Stapleton were commissioned alongside Hostetter, Hatton and Farinholt. Musto-Hawley, director of religious education at Immaculate Conception, Hampton, received her master’s in theology from St. Leo. Stapleton, coordinator of Christian formation at St. Mary’s, Richmond, received her master’s in pastoral theology from St. Joseph’s College of Maine.

Hatton emphasized that, after the retreats, formation, coursework and ceremony, the primary duty of a lay ecclesial minister is to spread the Gospel. “We are called to be witnesses to the word of God,” he said.

“The biggest responsibility we have is to Jesus Christ. Everything is directed by him and back to him,” Hatton added.

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