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The Role of the Laity | Page 2 | Page 1

The meaning of ministry

What of the term "ministry"? We have already seen that the 1987 Synod of Bishops was concerned with the sloppy and ambiguous manner the term was (and is) being used, often due to a specific agenda (CL 23). It is apparent the bishops recognized that there exists a lacking comprehension of the eschatological principle and the difference between the priesthood common to all believers--realized in the sacrament of baptism--and the ministerial priesthood found only in ordained men and rooted in the sacrament of holy orders. Whether due to lack of knowledge or an overt agenda, this blurring of lines leads to disorder since a false structure of authority based in a sloppy understanding of "ministry" can develop and even result in opposition to the legitimate authority found in the hierarchical structure of the Church. Some of those involved in opposition incorrectly see everything within the context of "power," again demonstrating their skewed understanding of the Church and her authority. This "structure of parallel service" usually shows itself in abuses centered on the Mass, with lay people acting the part of the priest in a variety of ways, often with the permission or encouragement of the priest!

Most lay people who do such things have little understanding or interest in the Church's "single intention" of salvation for all of humanity (GS 45). They see, in their local parish, a certain number of actual or potential positions (including that of the priest) and believe they have as much of a right to such positions as any other person. Because they do not appreciate the difference between the sacramental and secular realms they miss how those in the ordained priesthood and those in the common priesthood compliment one another in their respective states and should be working together towards the common goal. This complementarity is not a side effect, but is an imperative for the Church:
In Church Communion the states of life by being ordered one to the other are thus bound together among themselves. They all share in a deeply basic meaning: that of being the manner of living out the commonly shared Christian dignity and the universal call to holiness in the perfection of love. They are different yet complementary, in the sense that each of them has a basic and unmistakable character which sets each apart, while at the same time each of them is seen in relation to the other and placed at each other's service. (CL 55).
In his critique of the situation, John Paul took both the laity and clergy to task, demanding care, attention and wariness in the difficult but necessary task of rightly defining ministry and how any particular ministry should be exercised:
Precisely to overcome these dangers the Synod Fathers have insisted on the necessity to express with greater clarity, and with a more precise terminology, both the unity of the Church's mission in which all the baptized participate, and the substantial diversity of the ministry of Pastors which is rooted in the Sacrament of Orders, all the while respecting the other ministries, offices and roles in the Church, which are rooted in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. In the first place, then, it is necessary that in acknowledging and in conferring various ministries, offices and roles on the lay faithful, the Pastors exercise the maximum care to institute them on the basis of Baptism in which these tasks are rooted. It is also necessary that Pastors guard against a facile yet abusive recourse to a presumed "situation of emergency" or to "supply by necessity", where objectively this does not exist or where alternative possibilities could exist through better pastoral planning. (CL 23).
The vocation crisis isn't just for priests!

We often hear about the "vocation crisis" and how it could potentially be solved in a number of ways: ordaining women, allowing priests in the Roman rite to marry, or allowing lay people do even more, such as actually presiding over Mass. Although there is a real crisis in regards to the number of priests, there is an equally grave--and related--crisis in area of lay vocations. The very fact that many Catholics do not know they have a vocation (or if they do know, they have no idea how to find out what it is) is proof of the problem.

A teaching and emphasis of the Second Vatican Council often ignored or pushed to the side is the call--the vocation--to holiness. A continual emphasis on holiness as the essential basis for the Christian life permeates the writings of the Council and is summed up well by the Holy Father:
We come to a full sense of the dignity of the lay faithful if we consider the prime and fundamental vocation that the Father assigns to each of them in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit: the vocation to holiness, that is, the perfection of charity. Holiness is the greatest testimony of the dignity conferred on a disciple of Christ. The Second Vatican Council has significantly spoken on the universal call to holiness. It is possible to say that this call to holiness is precisely the basic charge entrusted to all the sons and daughters of the Church by a Council which intended to bring a renewal of Christian life based on the gospel. (CL 16)
This vocation to holiness orients the laity towards their proper role: working in the temporal order for the kingdom of God. It is their duty to engage in a sort of sacred subversion by which they, grounded in holiness and filled with the Holy Spirit, change the world from the inside, permeating it with truth and light, just as Lumen Gentium indicates:
But by reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will. . . . It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are so closely associated that these may be effected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer. (LG 31)
Again, this engagement of the laity with the temporal order is not an option, but an appointment given by God, who desires all men to come to salvation. It is also the way in which the laity fully realize their true place and role in the Church. By bringing the Church to the world, the laity brings the world into contact with the Church, the Body of Christ:
The apostolate of the laity is a sharing in the salvific mission of the Church. Through Baptism and Confirmation all are appointed to this apostolate by the Lord himself. Moreover, by the sacraments, and especially by the Eucharist, that love of God and man which is the soul of the apostolate is communicated and nourished. The laity, however, are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth. Thus, every lay person, through those gifts given to him, is at once the witness and the living instrument of the mission of the Church itself "according to the measure of Christ's bestowal." (LG 33)
In light of this, one does not have to look far to see that matters are often not as they should be. Almost inevitably, the person who states "I want to do something for the Church" will look to do something in the local parish--not out in the daily grind of work, home and family. Certainly there is nothing wrong with being involved in the life of the parish. But the common assumption is that by being involved in various parish activities a lay person has done their duty and has, perhaps, even gone beyond the call of duty. But have they? Have the laity endeavored to do what John Paull II exhorted them to do?
It is no exaggeration to say that the entire existence of the lay faithful has as its purpose to lead a person to a knowledge of the radical newness of the Christian life that comes from Baptism, the sacrament of faith, so that this knowledge can help that person live the responsibilities which arise from that vocation received from God. In arriving at a basic description of the lay faithful we now more explicitly and directly consider among others the following three fundamental aspects: Baptism regenerates us in the life of the Son of God; unites us to Christ and to his Body, the Church; and anoints us in the Holy Spirit, making us spiritual temples. (CL 10)
The laity also need to recognize that ignoring the call to holiness and the specific, personal vocation which comes from it contributes to the crisis in vocations to the priesthood. Growth in holiness means aligning and ordering one's whole being to the divine life given to us at baptism. Without such an ordering of the heart, soul and mind, one cannot begin to discern the will of God or be open to his call, including the call to the priesthood or the religious life. Holiness leads to wholeness, and true vocations are based in the wholeness of recognizing who we are and whose we are: "Above all, each member of the lay faithful should always be fully aware of being a 'member of the Church' yet entrusted with a unique task which cannot be done by another and which is to be fulfilled for the good of all. . . . Such an individual form of apostolate can contribute greatly to a more extensive spreading of the Gospel, indeed it can reach as many places as there are daily lives of individual members of the lay faithful" (CL 28).

Call, Renewal, Evangelization

Building upon what has been examined so far, the role of the laity can be summarized in a three-part statement: The laity are called to the vocation of holiness for the purpose of renewing the temporal order by means of evangelization.

Called to the vocation of holiness

The Second Vatican Council consistently emphasized holiness, as noted above. At the heart of the Church's encounters with modernity, with other religions, and with her own identity is the reality of holiness--and the call of everyone in the Church to the vocation of holiness: "Therefore all in the Church, whether they belong to the hierarchy or are cared for by it, are called to holiness, according to the apostle's saying: 'for this is the will of God, your sanctification'" (LG 39). It is in holiness that the members of the Church become who they are called to be, and it is in holiness that all are equals:
Everyone in the Church, precisely because they are members, receive and thereby share in the common vocation to holiness. In the fullness of this title and on equal par with all other members of the Church, the lay faithful are called to holiness: "All the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity"(43). "All of Christ's followers are invited and bound to pursue holiness and the perfect fulfillment of their own state of life." (CL 16)
Holiness is the building block fashioned in the waters of baptism and meant for the good of the Body of Christ. The Church, in baptism, works as the "sacrament of salvation" and makes the sinner holy; the newly born child of God is called by that same baptism to build up the Church. This gift and response is at the heart of true community, rooted as it is in the divine life given to us by Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the laity, as part of this community of saints, are called to build the Kingdom of God in time and space:
The vocation to holiness must be recognized and lived by the lay faithful, first of all as an undeniable and demanding obligation and as a shining example of the infinite love of the Father that has regenerated them in his own life of holiness. Such a vocation, then, ought to be called an essential and inseparable element of the new life of Baptism, and therefore an element which determines their dignity. At the same time the vocation to holiness is intimately connected to mission and to the responsibility entrusted to the lay faithful in the Church and in the world. In fact, that same holiness which is derived simply from their participation in the Church's holiness, represents their first and fundamental contribution to the building of the Church herself, who is the "Communion of Saints". The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world's great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord's vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God's grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history. (CL 17).
For the renewal of the temporal order

For some Catholics the Second Vatican Council was an updating of the Church that supposedly resulted in changes to the Church's goals and focus. This is a drastic misreading. The Council was a renewal meant to aid Catholics in reappropriating and rediscovering the Church's goals and focus in a world that had changed dramatically in a short amount of time. The mission of the Church never changes, but our understanding of how to best live it in a specific culture does develop and change. That mission, according to Apostolicam Actuositatem, is to proclaim Christ and to fill the temporal order with the light and salt of the Gospel; the laity have an essential role in this task:
Christ's redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of men, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. In fulfilling this mission of the Church, the Christian laity exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders. These orders, although distinct, are so connected in the singular plan of God that He Himself intends to raise up the whole world again in Christ and to make it a new creation, initially on earth and completely on the last day. In both orders the layman, being simultaneously a believer and a citizen, should be continuously led by the same Christian conscience. (AA 5)
We cannot overstate the importance and centrality of the laity in this most pressing mission. According to Lumen Gentium, it is the laity's "special vocation . . . to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will. . . . There they are called by God that, being led by the spirit to the Gospel, they may contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties. . . . It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are so closely associated that these may be effected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer" (LG 31).

The Council Fathers taught that "the laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation," being led by the "light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church and motivated by Christian charity." This involves a permeation of culture, of society and of all aspects of the kingdom of man with the "higher principles of the Christian life" (AA 7). John Paul II wrote that "in particular the lay faithful are called to restore to creation all its original value" (CL 14). This task is not the priority of priests or religious; in fact, they are not qualified for, or capable of, such activity! Only the laity, because of their skills in the marketplace, in the institutions of society and in the everyday activities of men, can properly perform this crucial activity: "The apostolate in the social milieu, that is, the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives, is so much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be performed properly by others" (AA 13). In other words, the laity need to realize they have important work to do, and the time to start that work is now!

By means of evangelization

Many Catholic readily admit their reticence in sharing their faith and being a witness to non-Catholics--or even to their own Catholic family and friends. But John Paul II stressed repeatedly the need to evangelize, writing that the "The entire mission of the Church, then, is concentrated and manifested in evangelization" and "The lay faithful, precisely because they are members of the Church, have the vocation and mission of proclaiming the Gospel: they are prepared for this work by the sacraments of Christian initiation and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit" (CL 33).

The Holy Father's consistent call to evangelization did not come out of a vacuum--it is a reiteration of the Council's repeated call for the same. Lumen Gentium states that the laity "have the exalted duty of working for the ever greater spread of the divine plan of salvation to all men, of every epoch and all over the earth. Therefore may the way be clear for them to share diligently in the salvific work of the Church according to their ability and the needs of the times" (LG 33). Baptized into Christ, we are filled with his life and are called to be little christs--"anointed ones"--who, being fed by the Eucharist, go into the world and make the Church visible. This is very challenging and forces us to leave our comfort zones, as the Council Fathers indicate:

However an apostolate of this kind does not consist only in the witness of one's way of life; a true apostle looks for opportunities to announce Christ by words addressed either to non-believers with a view to leading them to faith, or to the faithful with a view to instructing, strengthening, and encouraging them to a more fervent life. "For the charity of Christ impels us" (2 Cor. 5 :14). The words of the Apostle should echo in all hearts, "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel" (1 Cor. 9:16). (AA 6).

This work of evangelization requires formation and training, time and effort: "[T]he laity must be specially formed to engage in conversation with others, believers, or non-believers, in order to manifest Christ's message to all men" (AA 31). It takes many forms, from the silent witness of one's actions to the use of modern media to the ordinary conversations of daily living. Whatever the means, lay people are to "announce Christ, explain and spread His teaching in accordance with one's status and ability, and faithfully profess it" (AA 16).

The lived faith brings life to the world

We can see, in looking at the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the writings of the present Pope (especially Christifideles Laici) that the laity possess a specific and unique vocation that they must pursue and fulfill in order for the Church to grow and to permeate the world. This vocation is rooted in the holiness infused into us at baptism and nourished in the Eucharist; it shows us that we are members of the Body of Christ, the Church, and that we belong to the Head of the Body, Jesus Christ. And so while the laity are often called to help the ordained in various ways within the Church, the central focus of the laity must be the temporal world, the culture and society they live in, of which they are an integral part. If the laity are not changing the kingdom of man, they are failing the kingdom of God: "Therefore, I have maintained that a faith that does not affect a person's culture is a faith not fully embraced, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived" (CL 59).

A slightly different version of this article appeared in the September/October 2000 issue of The Catholic Faith magazine.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Exploring the Catholic Faith! | An Interview with Diane Eriksen
Liturgical Roles In the Eucharistic Celebration | Francis Cardinal Arinze
Walking To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory
Liturgy, Catechesis, and Conversion | Barbara Morgan
Understanding The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas Bushman, STL
The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality | Mark Brumley
Have You Heard? On Catholic Social Teaching | Mark Brumley The Real Reason for the Vocation Crisis | Rev. Michael P. Orsi

Carl E. Olson
is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.

He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers.

He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California with his wife, Heather, and two children. Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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