At this Tanzanian parish, lay leaders show the way - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Members of small Christian communities of Transfiguration Parish in the Mabatini neighborhood of Mwanza gather outside for early morning scripture reflection and prayer. Photo by Sean Sprague

At the risk of offending faithful Vatican news junkies, I don’t usually find myself hooked by media surrounding a Synod of Bishops. However, during the recent special Synod for the Amazon, my interest was piqued by some of what I heard coming out of the synod hall in Rome.

Just the other day, Vatican News sources reported on a synod discussion about the role of the laity and the potential for the elevation of women into clerical roles in the church. One line of the summary particularly caught my attention: “Thanks to the laity, the church is manifesting itself as a church moving outward, distancing itself from clericalism.”

Transfiguration Parish, a Maryknoll Society-founded parish in Mabatini. Photo by Jerry Fleury

I was struck by this sentence not because of anything particularly radical contained within it, but because of the relevance it holds in my own life and work here in Tanzania. The Parish of the Transfiguration in Mabatini is a perfect example of the way laypeople are stepping up as leaders of the church and distancing the church from pervasive clericalism.

Living and working at our Maryknoll parish here, I am unfailingly impressed by the various prayer and catechism groups, small Christian communities and choirs that are meeting on any given day at the parish or in the homes of parishioners. Catechists from the parish visit the sick, teach the tenets of the faith and are available to answer questions from parishioners in need. Lay leaders organize celebrations, feast days and group prayer to help those in the community to be not just connected, but deeply embedded in the fabric of the parish.

Much of the strong reliance on lay leadership in the parish can be attributed to its first pastor, Maryknoll Father Jim Eble. In discussing the origins of the community health project in which I work, Father Jim shared with me his vision for the parish when it began. He told me that he wanted to create an “ecology of transformation” for the Mabatini community and all those that the parish reaches in various ways. To achieve this, the role of the laity is not just an afterthought, but an essential link in creating an environment that allows people to encounter the living God amidst difficult circumstances in their lives.

The beauty of the Parish of the Transfiguration lies in the ability of its devoted lay leaders and its Maryknoll priests and brother to work together to create a thriving parish that encourages us all to offer our own transformation in the spirit of the God who leads us.

We hear in the U.S. about declining church attendance, the closing of parishes and a general secularization of our culture. If there is a solution to be offered, the Parish of the Transfiguration shows us that putting power and responsibility in the hands of faithful lay leaders is a major part of building—or even rebuilding—our church.

A woman prays at a charismatic worship service in the community center of Transfiguration Parish. Photo by Sean Sprague


Sam Janson
Sam Janson served as a Maryknoll lay missioner in Mwanza, Tanzania (Class of 2018). He is studying for his master of public health degree at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.