The Role of a Fellow Lay-Person – Ethan Dickler

For me, the purpose of the Catholic mass was always interconnected with the formal positions within the service. For a successful service to occur, everyone needed to perform their assigned role. The priest led the mass, the servers assisted him, and the readers introduced tradition into the service. Though the mass itself bored me as a kid, these positions always captivated me.

As a child, I wanted to be near the tabernacle. The tabernacle is a gilded box used to hold the bread after it is transformed into a sacred relic; I used to think of the tabernacle as a mystical portal to heaven. Even though I was a particularly incompetent communicator, I always volunteered to read the Old Testament portions in mass in order to be near the tabernacle. Similarly, in middle school I carried the Roman Missal (the rubric and texts for the mass) as an altar boy in order to maintain close proximity to the tabernacle. For me, the best way to fulfill the purpose of the mass was to be near the tabernacle, and being a reader or server were the best options to accomplish that goal. However, I now realize that my role in the mass is one that I never realized required effort: the lay person. Though the purpose of the lay person appears to be one of listless repetition, it is actually one of enthused growth.

Absolutely no one wanted to serve the role of the lay-person. The lay person is a general member of the congregation, kneeling or standing the entire service but lacking a more specialized role. At least, that was my conception as a child. In reality, the lay person does have specific obligations to the mass. They must recite numerous prayers and perform actions at specific times in the service. Further, they are responsible for interactions with other faiths. In order to have a diverse religious community, lay people must engage with other faiths and share with them their experiences as Catholics. I now understand that the purpose of the mass is not to be physically near the tabernacle, but spiritually near it. To accomplish this, I must understand my own faith and the faiths of others.

My position as an interfaith fellow is an extension of my position as a lay person. Through intentional conversations with people of diverse faiths, this fellowship will help me improve connections with my own religion as well as others, thereby fulfilling my role as a lay person.

How have the roles you played in your own faiths/communities impacted your identities? How might they extend into your work as a fellow?

10 thoughts on “The Role of a Fellow Lay-Person – Ethan Dickler”

  1. Your thoughts on the importance of people and spaces have reminded me of this debate within some Christian denominations relating to the idea that “the Church is not a building.” Rather, the Church is only the people. This stands on one end of the spectrum, and on the other there’s the idea that the building is vitally important, the location being sanctified through the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

    As a Catholic, how do you negotiate these issues? Your words on the importance of the lay person and moving spiritually near the tabernacle, rather than physically, suggest something closer to the first option, but I’m wondering how you or other Christians (of any denomination) think of this issue. I think it’s gained a particular relevance in this pandemic, when many are shut out of their physical places of worship.

    1. I think of the Chruch as a people and a tradition more than a physical location. Yet, I think that the buildings we practice in shape our views of Christ. I feel that part of being Catholic and not another form of Christianity is to embrace the tradition. The buildings are part of the tradition. My hometown church in Dodgeville is the center of my faith. Going to a cathedral in Europe does not seem to be part of my faith – it is a relic from another time. For me, the Chruch is a people in a place over a period of time. You can do without one or the other to an extent, but the congregation at a location over time is my faith. I think that to remove one of these components is to weaken part of the whole.

  2. Ethan – Thank you for sharing this story, and educating me on these roles within the Catholic Faith. As I was reading, I was intrigued by the diversity of skillset within your church community. As you mention, for a successful service, you need particular people doing different roles. What a boring service it would be if every member had the same skillset. In a time where I feel an immense sense of division, I think we need to remember the importance of diversity. We need all types of people to make the world go around.


    1. Danielle – I never thought of my community as having a diversity of skillsets. I never thought of the role of an alter-boy as being a skill. Yes, there was training and I had jobs to do during the service, but it was all rather regular. It never occurred to me that I learned something at the services, but your comment made me realize that I actually did learn a great deal. Thank you. I feel as though I just had an epiphany of sorts.

  3. I also recall having a love for a physical part of my religious space. I always liked being near the Ark (where the torah is kept). I feel like having these spaces that have a mystical hold over us maintains a wonder and engagement with our faith. I also like thinking about how the lay people are vital, because without them the priest would be with no congregation.

  4. Hi Ethan, I really enjoyed how you showed the progression of thought (from child to now) about what it means to be active in your faith and I think its sentiments are echos by many children who attended Church. Although I was Luthern, most of my friends were Catholic growing up and I remember being so jealous at how much show was in their masses compared to the minimalistic nature of my services. Your statements on the role of the lay-person are extremely universal as well and not just among people who follow the Christian faith, but for everyone who wants to be part of an informed and welcoming society! Thanks for sharing

  5. Ethan,
    I really enjoyed reading your post!! Your account of how you’d try to participate and engage with mass reminded me of my own way of engaging during my weekly Sunday visits to the Gurdwara. Although we may practice different traditions in how our Sundays to our places of worship, the desire to feel spiritually connected with The Creator is very much a shared sentiment. When I’d go to Gurdwara, I’d sing a Shabad, a stanza from the Guru Granth Sahib Ji (our holy book), while playing the harmonium. There was a time in the morning, 10 AM, that was open for anyone who wanted to sing a Shabad. My mom would bring us every week to sing. Sometimes we didn’t want to go, since no one else would be there. Shabads are not songs, but we learned them like that. So as children, the depth of what we were doing didn’t come easily. Listening to Shabads allows people to meditate because not only are the words beautiful but because they are sung in classical Indian music accuracy. With time, I became more skilled in playing the harmonium, singing the Shabads became a form of meditation I also was able to do. This allowed me to feel connected, feel close to holiness.
    In terms of how of how my experiences extend to how I may be as a fellow, I think that learning to find holiness in a place that I’m not familiar with will be valuable because it’ll allow me to create a deep connection with others. Sharing with someone how and why the traditions you do in your faith and for them to understand the value is so powerful and transformative and I hope that we’ll able to create some of these experiences during our time in the fellowship!

  6. Hi Ethan!

    First off I appreciate you explaining the purpose for Catholic mass for I never knew what it was about, but now I have an understanding of it and i appreciate you sharing your story with us! I too as a kid tried my best to be active in congregations at my local mosque. Of course as a young kid I was not able to do as much as the older folks in the Mosque, however, me trying to be active as a kid gave me a sense of community with my local mosque. As I grew older I began taking on more important roles and began understanding why we do what we do in my Mosque. I too believe that the fellowship will help me with my religious connection as well as my connection with other religions that I didn’t have before, and that is something I am looking forward to. Once again, thank you for sharing your story and I am looking forward to learning more about Catholicism and other religions during my time in the fellowship.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences Ethan! I love the way you said “I now understand that the purpose of the mass is not to be physically near the tabernacle, but spiritually near it.” As a Muslim, I love how I also relate to your catholic experiences. I took a gap year before beginning my freshman year at UW Madison. During this time, I spent a full year learning about my faith in a program in Chicago. This program took place in a beautiful mosque filled with spiritual teachers learned in all different areas of my faith. Leaving this seminary, I was heart broken. I had that spiritual high for so long, and developed such strong connections that were fortified by the common faith we shared. I had to learn that I didn’t need to be there physically to stay connected, but rather I needed to stay connected spiritually. This is one of the reasons I joined CRGC! To continue these conversations and keep me tied to my faith. Thank you again for your words!

  8. Hi, Ethan! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog post. While I grew up Catholic, attending mass regularly, I had never heard of the tabernacle before. After your description, I made a mental map of my own childhood church and realized that it did, indeed, have one, but I simply had not noticed it. I also wanted to comment on your clear commitment and dedication to contributing to your church community. As a child, I sat passively in the aisles, usually arguing with my brothers and almost never paying attention. With this being said, I greatly appreciate and respect your want to play an active role during mass. In fact, it’s inspiring me to do the same when in-person mass can become a reality again! To answer your question, I played a very minimal role the community at my church. The only significant role I played was partaking in the Nativity Scene in elementary school by being a sheep and playing the piano for mass several times. Thank you for sharing this experience — it really resonated with me and made me realize that I would like to play a more active role in my church.

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