A bishop speaks with two lay women during a meeting of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in 1962. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)
A revolution in the
Church’s thinking and practice regarding the Catholic laity has been underway
for the past century or more. This striking development in theology and
pastoral policy received by far its biggest boost up to now from the Second
Vatican Council, although the development itself actually began well before
Vatican II, and its full scope and significance have yet to appear.
An incident from
the early 1950s helps set the Council’s contribution in historical context. At
the time, I was attending a Catholic high school for boys run by a religious
order whose members worked hard to attract promising students to the
priesthood, especially as priests of that particular order.
In those halcyon
days of plentiful clerical vocations, these efforts often met with success. I
wasn’t attracted myself, but a number of my friends and classmates went from
high school straight into the seminary. Some became priests and have
persevered, and some did not.
I take it for
granted that similar efforts to recruit for the priesthood and religious life
also were going on back then at other Catholic schools. Why not? I hope it’s
still like that. But at my school and, I suspect, many others, another form of
recruitmentfor the lay apostolatewas also underway.
In those years we
students were strongly encouraged to attend a week-long program called the
Summer School of Catholic Action run by the Jesuits at Fordham University in
New York and other Catholic college campuses around the country. In the summer
between my junior and senior years, I talked my parents into letting me go. I
wasn’t as keen on Catholic Action as on seeing New York, but together with
several hundred other boys and girls from Catholic high schools up and down the
East Coast, I took in enough of the program that week to get the message.
As best I recall it
now, the message was something like this:
people are needed to help the priests and religious save the world. Catholic
teenagers should study hard, attend Catholic colleges, maybe even graduate
school or law school or medical school, get excellent educations, become
professional people good at their jobs, and then put it all to workeducation,
job, all the restin the service of Christ the King for the conversion of the
heathens who surround us and the Christianizing of secular culture. That’s
Despite the allure
of the Empire State Building and Broadway, more of that message may have sunk
in than I realized at the time.
By then, of course,
Catholic Action had been around for at least half a century. It took off in the
1920s and 1930s, apparently as a Church-supported response to fascism, Nazism,
and communism. Pope Pius XI, its most notable champion, earned the name “Pope
of Catholic Action” for his efforts on its behalf.
The movement made
an impact some places in Europe and Latin America. Although it wasn’t so well
known in the United States, in the 1930s and 1940s a number of groups and
programs sprang up inspired by Catholic Action thinking. The “summer school” at
Fordham was one of these.
Catholic Action in
its day marked a giant step forward in the Church’s thinking about the laity.
Giving lay men and women meaningful roles in the mission of the Church was something
new back then. But Catholic Action also had a serious built-in limitationits
own official definition of lay apostolate.
Time again, you
found something like this in the literature of Catholic Action: “The apostolate
of the laity is a participation in the apostolate of the hierarchy.” Which is
to say that the right and duty to share in the mission of the Church is a
concession to the laity on the hierarchy’s partsomething that comes to them on
loan, so to speakand in the end what lay people do by way of apostolate
naturally is decided by the clergy.
Sixty years ago, I
suppose, people were prepared to take all that for granted.
Then came the
Second Vatican Council and its paradigm shift in the official vision of lay
people. This is found especially in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and in the Decree on the
Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam
Actuositatem, and it has two central points: first, lay people are called
to be saints; second, lay people are called directly by Christ to take part in
the apostolate, in the mission of the Church.
Chapter V of the
Constitution on the Church, “The Call to Holiness,” says this:
is therefore quite clear that all Christians in any state or walk of life are
called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love, and by
this holiness a more human manner of life is fostered also in earthly
society….The forms and tasks of life are many but holiness is one….Therefore
all the faithful are invited and obliged to holiness and the perfection of
their own state of life. (Lumen Gentium,
It wasn’t that the
Church hadn’t previously urged lay people to lead holy lives and offered them
the meansindeed, that was done from the start. For too long, though, the
emphasis was on minimal, legalistic goals for the laitymake your Easter duty,
try to avoid mortal sin, get to Mass on Sundays and holy days. But now: “the
fullness of Christian life and…the perfection of love.” That would have blown
the mind of the British monsignor who a century earlier remarked that the
“province of the laity” was “to hunt, to shoot, to entertain.”
The Constitution on
the Church discusses lay apostolate in Chapter IV, “The Laity.” The crucial
statement is this:
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. (Lumen Gentium, 33)
participation in the mission of the Church is by no means necessarily a sharing
in the apostolate of the clerical hierarchy. The Catholic Action model still
had its place (lay people “can be called…to more immediate participation in the
apostolate of the hierarchy,” the constitution says). But the laity have an
apostolate that is properly their ownan apostolate to which they’re called
directly by Christ in baptism and confirmation and which, as the constitution
says, is “communicated and nourished” by the Eucharist and the other
Lumen Gentium makes another point about lay apostolate
that’s turned out to be of exceptional importance in light of postconcilar
developments concerning lay ministry. The
apostolate proper to Catholic lay people, it says, doesn’t take place
within the structures and institutions of the Church, but out thereout in the
secular world. The laity have “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” (ibid.).
Here and there, of
course, some people had said that for years, but up to this time the response
had been underwhelming. “You’ve come a century too soon,” a curial official
told Father Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, when he attempted to
explain the new group a few years earlier. Now visionaries like Escriva were
vindicatedby an ecumenical council, no less. “Epoch making,” exclaimed a lay
auditor at Vatican II.
The Decree on the
Apostolate of the Laity develops and expands a number of these points. Of
particular importance is what it says about individual apostolate, which it
calls “the starting point and condition of all types of lay apostolate” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 16), and about
Speaking of the
latter, it declares that lay people, “while preserving the necessary link” with
ecclesiastical authority, possess “the right to establish and direct
associations, and to join existing ones” (ibid.,
19). The Church, it notes approvingly, has “very many apostolic enterprises
owing their origin to the free choice of the laity and run at their own
discretion” (ibid., 24). It might
have been difficult to say what many of these were, but the approbation was
welcome just the same.
The sixth chapter
of the decree, “Training for the Apostolate,” supplies an overview of its subject
arguably more noteworthy today than it was then, considering the currently
prevailing neglect of apostolic formation of the laity. It comes down to this:
for the apostolate should begin from the very start of a child’s education. But
it is more particularly adolescents and youth who should be initiated into the
apostolate and imbued with its spirit. This training should be continued all
through life. (Apostolicam Actuositatem,
A noble ideal,
which is now sadly ignored.
since the Council include the publication in 1983 of the new Code of Canon Law
for the Western Church, with its fairly extensive treatment of lay people’s
rights and duties; the 1987 general assembly of the world Synod of Bishops,
which focused on the laity, and the subsequent publication of Blessed John Paul
II’s post-synod document Christifideles Laici (“The Lay Members
of Christ’s Faithful People,” dated December 30, 1988 and released January 30,
1989); and the Catechism of the Catholic
Church, which Pope John Paul promulgated in 1992.
All these documents
assume and build on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, while Christifideles Laici also adds important
insights about personal vocation and about the pros and cons of lay ministry.
John Paul II was
hardly the first person to speak of personal vocation and apply the idea to the
laityamong others, St. Francis de Sales and Cardinal Newman had done the same.
But John Paul was the first pope to make personal vocation a central theme of
his teaching and work out the idea at length, as he does in Christifideles Laici.
fact, from eternity God has thought of us and has loved us as unique
individuals. Every one of us he called by name.... However, only in the
unfolding of the history of our lives and its events is the eternal plan of God
revealed to each of us. Therefore, it is a gradual process; in a certain sense,
one that happens day by day. (Christifideles
This has important
practical consequencesfor example, with regard to formation.
fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful is an ever-clearer discovery
of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live so as to fulfill
one’s mission. (ibid.)
elements of this formation process John Paul lists as “receptive listening” to
God’s word and to the Church, fervent and constant prayer, the help of a wise
spiritual director, and discernment that involves applying one’s God-given
talents to the circumstances of the world around one.
On lay ministry, Christifideles Laici combines approval
with a cautionary note.
Vatican II had
pointed the way to lay ministries, and Pope Paul VI in a 1972 document greatly
expanded the possibilities for lay people to perform these roles of properly
ecclesial service. By the time John Paul II wrote, however, problems had begun
to emerge. These he listed as:
too-indiscriminate use of the word “ministry,” the confusion and the equating
of the common priesthood [i.e., the priesthood of the faithful or baptismal
priesthood] and the ministerial priesthood, the lack of observance of
ecclesiastical laws and norms, the arbitrary interpretation of the concept of
“supply” [i.e., the circumstances in which a shortage of priests requires that
lay people to take on some ministerial functions], the tendency toward a “clericalization” of the lay faithful and the
risk of creating, in reality, an ecclesial structure of parallel service to
that founded on the Sacrament of Orders. (ibid.,
John Paul adds that
ministries and other roles performed in the Church by lay people “ought to be
exercised in conformity with their specific lay vocation,” which is precisely
the evangelization of the secular order (ibid.).
As the popularity of lay ministries has grown in American parishes in recent
decades, it’s fair to ask whether this point has been heeded oras seems
likelypretty often ignored.
The teaching of the
Second Vatican Council concerning the laity was an enormous and lasting
achievement, particularly when seen in conjunction with Blessed John Paul II’s
contributions in Christifideles Laici.
The doctrine is clear. But there is much work to do when it comes to forming
Catholic lay people for the great task assigned to them by Vatican II in the
name of Christ and his Churchthe work of proclaiming the gospel to an
indifferent and often hostile secular world.
Speaking of the laity’s role, Pope Benedict says lay
women and men “should not be regarded as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy, but,
rather, as people who are genuinely ‘co-responsible’ for the Church” (Message
to the International Forum of Catholic Action, August 10, 2012). Here is an
understanding of the laity’s role from which both they and the clergy stand to
benefit greatly. It deserves close study and development. Thanks in large part
to the Second Vatican Council, the revolution in thinking and practice
concerning the laity clearly has come a long way. It still has a long way to