Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, retired prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, is pictured at his Vatican residence Feb. 12, 2013. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
up in Nigeria, and in 1965 became the youngest bishop in the world at
the age of 32. He was the first African cardinal to head a Vatican
office and served as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship
and the Discipline of the Sacraments from 2002 to 2008. He is the
author of several books, including the autobiographical God's
the Holy Eucharist
Jesus and Following Him
all published by Ignatius Press.
Cardinal Arinze's newest
book is The
Layperson's Distinctive Role
(Ignatius Press), and he recently, via e-mail, answered questions
about that book.
CWR: How did the Second Vatican Council, and then Bl.
John Paul II, seek to address the role of the laity? What was
distinctive about that approach compared to the pre-conciliar era?
Cardinal Arinze: The Second
Vatican Council addressed the role of the laity by teaching that this
role is based on Baptism by which the laity “are made one body in
Christ and are established among the People of God” (Lumen
Gentium, 31). The principal passage on this
is LG 31. This teaching is discussed in greater detail in LG 32-37
and also in Gaudium et Spes
43 and in Apostolicam Actuositatem
Blessed John Paul II, particularly in his postsynodal
apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici,
bases the lay apostolate on the mystery of the
Church. “I am the
vine and you are the branches” (Jn 15:5; CL 20). The lay people
are sharers in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly mission of Jesus
Christ (CL 29). A secular character is peculiar to the laity. So
this great Pope states: “Thus for the lay faithful, to be present
and active in the world is not only an anthropological and
sociological reality, but in a specific way, a theological and
ecclesiological reality as well” (CL 15).
Distinctive about both approaches is that both Vatican
II and Bl. John Paul II consider the lay faithful primarily as called
to evangelize the secular order. Before Vatican II many in the
Church defined the lay apostolate as a participation in the
apostolate of the hierarchy (i.e. of the clergy).
CWR: What are the essential features of the
layperson's role compared to the roles of the clergy and religious?
What are some of the most common misunderstandings of the role of the
Cardinal Arinze: The
essential feature of the layperson’s role is the vocation to bring
the spirit of Christ into the arenas of secular life from within,
i.e. into the family, work and profession, trade and commerce,
politics and government, mass media, science and culture and national
and international relations.
The role of the clergy is different. It is to celebrate
the sacred mysteries, to preach the Word of God and to gather the
people of God together.
The role of the religious is to show, by lives of
witness based on the three vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience,
that the attraction of the grace of Christ is more powerful than the
attraction of earthly realities.
Some of the more common misunderstandings of the role of
the laity are:
a. to see the lay apostolate as a participation in the
apostolate of the clergy (it can be that, but it is much more than
b. to regard the clergy as the Church and the laity as their helpers
(forgetting that the laity are 99.9 percent of the Church. See the
book in reference, chapter I, footnote 2);
restrict the lay apostolate to cooperation with the clergy in what I
called “inner-Church affairs” (for example: work in the parish
council, in the diocesan council, in Church financial matters, in
catechetics, or as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. All
this is important, but is not the high point of the lay apostolate);
CWR: Is it proper, strictly speaking, to speak of
"lay ministry"? What is the language that best describes
the work of the laity in the Church and in the world?
Cardinal Arinze: The word
“ministry” in the wide sense can be understood as service of God
who is glorified by loving service given to people as authorized by
the pope or the local bishop.
Ordained ministry refers only to bishops, priests and
Other liturgical ministers are people like altar
servers, acolytes, lectors, and extraordinary ministers of Holy
Some people extend the word “ministry” to leaders of
Church choirs, Church wardens, catechists, etc.
Therefore the term “lay ministry” can be understood
in various ways and can be vague. Not acceptable is the idea of
trying by terminology to clericalize the laity or to suggest that
there is no difference between clerics and lay people.
When laypersons take on their own distinctive role in
the secular sphere as explained above, it seems better to refer to
them as witnesses of Christ, or as lay apostles.
CWR: What are some of the tasks better suited to the
laity than to the clergy? What can laity and clergy do to help each
other in their respective duties within and for the Church?
Cardinal Arinze: Some of the
tasks better suited to the laity than to the clergy are:
a. being exemplary husbands and wives, fathers and
model doctors, lawyers, architects, etc.;
model politicians and statesmen and women;
model pilots, business people, actors, actresses, trade unionists,
taxi men, bankers, etc.
Laity and clergy can do much good by cooperation in
inner-Church affairs. Clerics have to celebrate the sacraments for
the laity, give them suitable homilies, supply them with good
Catholic books, be able chaplains to lay apostolate organizations and
give good leadership in parish affairs. Clerics have to encourage the
lay faithful to take on their own distinctive role in secular
affairs, supply them with adequate and dynamic Church doctrine, and
then allow the laity to take on their own responsibility in those
CWR: What today are the main impediments to the laity
better realizing and accomplishing the tasks that are unique to their
Cardinal Arinze: Some
impediments to the laity better realizing and accomplishing the tasks
that are unique to their calling are:
a. ignorance on the part of some clerics or of some lay
people on what the Church teaches as distinctive of the lay
of correct and dynamic theology on the Church and on the differing
roles of laity, clerics, and religious;
c. fear on the part of clerics or of the laity if the laity are encouraged
to “take on their own distinctive role”;
lay apostolate seen as power struggle between clerics and lay
people. This could make the clergy afraid and the laity
lay apostolate seen as parallel authority in the Church or as a
threat to the clerics;
of the unknown shown in the spirit that says: “There is no need
to change. The clergy have given good leadership in the past and we
had better not experiment with the new ideas”;
shown in the following mentality: “The laity do not know theology.
This idea of ‘the layperson’s distinctive role’ is going to
bring confusion into the Church.” The response is: “If the laity
do not have enough theological formation, give it to them.” The
importance of theological and other formation is stressed in the
final chapter in my book. Let priest chaplains to the laity be
tip-top! We do not promote Church apostolate by ignorance.
CWR: What are some of the things readers will learn
about the role of the laity in reading your book?
Cardinal Arinze: In reading
this book, The Layperson’s Distinctive Role,
I hope that readers with take with them the following convictions:
a. Every baptized person has a share in the total mission
of the Church. Every Christian is called to evangelize, according to
the person’s state of life;
and laity cooperate in inner-Church affairs;
the secular area, the laity are to take on full responsibility;
clerics, the laity receive the strength given by the sacraments and
by dynamic exposition of Church doctrine, and then encouragement to
evangelize the secular order;
laity are not pastors in the Church. Bishops and priests are the
pastors. The lay apostolate is not power struggle in the Church;
we say “Church,” we mean all the baptized, that is, the laity
(who are 99.9 percent of the Church), the clergy, and the religious;
Christ is our Master. All of us, pope, bishops, priests, religious,
and laity are servants, brothers and sisters in the service of
Christ and our neighbour.