returned from visiting Croatia, where a controversial referendum was held on
December 1 amending the constitution to define marriage as a union of a man and
a woman. The results surprised many foreign observers: 66 percent of voters
were in favor of the proposal.
media outlets asserted that the campaign in support of the resolution was
organized and promoted by “reactionary” officials from the Catholic Church, the
truth is that the referendum and its results were all entirely the handiwork of
grass-roots activistsmothers and fathers, young couples, and the mass
mobilization of thousands of families of different faiths. In short, it was lay
peoplenot priests or religiouswho orchestrated it all.
Francis Arinze’s new book, The
Layperson’s Distinctive Role,
explores precisely this topic: the role of lay people in politics, society, and
the Church. In this, it is a timely and necessary book.
begins by explaining that the word “laity” comes from the
Ancient Greek word for people, laos, and describes some of the earliest forms of
Christian communities that arose in the wake of Our Lord’s Passion and
Resurrection. However, he stops short of offering a historical survey of the
rise of religious orders and communities and, instead, focuses on the key
documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)
that clarified the duty, role, and
apostolate of the lay faithful “in the Church and in the
starts with a look at the main Church documents in which the role of the laity
has been defined, clarified, and elaborated upon. These documents include those
from the Council such as Gaudium et Spes,
the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, and the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity Apostolicam Actuositatem. In addition, he considers various papal documents such as Pope
Paul VI’s 1974 exhortation Evangelii
Nuntiandi and Blessed John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici, issued after the
1987 Synod of Bishops on the vocation and mission of the lay faithful. These
documents provide “the major orientation for our times on the role of the lay
faithful in the Church and in the world,” according to Arinze.
Of course, this understanding of the layperson is quite modern. For centuries, the common assumption was that priests and
religious were called to lives of sanctity, with little focus on the laity.
But, in recent decades, especially at the Council, the Church began to
emphasize that the call to holiness was for everyonethe clergy, religious, and
laity. As Arinze
points out, “[e]veryone in the Church shares in the Church’s mission according
to each person’s vocation.” And this can be through the vocation to Holy
Orders, the vocation to the consecrated life, or the heroic vocation of the lay
faithful. It is not insignificant to note that 99.9 percent of the Church’s
members belong to this latter category.
that it took a long time for most people to accept this new understanding of
the role and duty of the lay faithful in the life of the Church. There was more
than a little resistance. Religious institutions like Opus Dei, for examplewhose
special charism focuses on the lay faithfulwere initially viewed with much
suspicion: their message that even laypeople could aspire to sanctity, and that
all walks of life and all roles in society were important for the life of the
Church, seemed scandalous.
drawing on Church documents and offering a few exegetical comments on certain
passages from the Gospels, Arinze does us a favor, helping to clarify exactly
how the Church sees my role as a lay person within the life of the Church and
in secular society. I finished it feeling encouragedeven emboldenedto go out
and participate more fully in, say, the life of my local community and
neighborhood, and to help bring religious faith back to the public square, from
which it has been banished over the last several decades.
spends quite a bit of time considering the public or political realm. On the
one hand, he points out that although it is the lay
faithful that have the duty to work in the world of politics and effect changes
for the common good and the good of society, the Church also has a role herean
indirect duty, he says“to contribute to the purification
of reason and the reawakening of moral forces.” To be sure, the Church’s
priests and officials have done this, in some countries more than in others,
often sacrificing their own lives in defense of a higher good.
emphasizes that the laity have a unique role to play in the broader and
long-term “evangelization of politics and government.” By this, Arinze
means simply that the lay faithful should strive continually to bring “the
spirit of Christ into the various spheres of the secular order.” He elaborates
on this point further: “This is another way of saying that politics and
government should respect God’s plan, should obey the natural law.”
Such a message may surprise some of us, accustomed as we are
to the exaggerated division between church and state that exists in the United
States. Mind, Arinze is not advocating a reunification of church and state or
some form of “Catholic integralism”; far from it. He is simply reminding the
lay faithful that they have a duty to live the spirit of Christ in every sphere
of human activity, to be an alter
Christus and essentially to sanctify the secular world and do the work of
Actually, some might find Arinze’s treatment of the nature of
“apostolate” a bit wanting. He says quite simply that “[b]y apostolate, we mean
the mission of the Church, the motive of Christ in founding his Church. It is
to spread the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ.” The cardinal could have
gone further on this point; for instance, he could easilyand for our great
profithave made reference to the seminal work L’Âme de
Tout Apostolate (The Soul of the Apostolate) by
Jean-Baptiste Chautard. Beginning with its first edition in 1907, that work
explained to generations of faithful how prayer is central to apostolic work
and how “the preaching of the fundamentals of the Faith by people imbued with
the interior life” was one of the most effective ways to “save” the world.
Arinze cites so many passages of different Church documents to establish the
authority of things, I found the book at times a bit repetitive. But this may
have been unavoidable as the different documents referred to necessarily
overlap, with one building on the intimations of a preceding one or elaborating
further on a theme mentioned previously.
For a more
detailed treatment of what the lay vocation entails in the modern world, one
could turn to Living the Call: An
Introduction to the Lay Vocation, written by Michael Novak and William E.
Simon, Jr. and published in 2011. That book meanders through the lives of
various exemplary people, provides numerous vignettes of how lay people can
deepen their inner lives, and offers tips on how to better be in the presence
of God. But for a very brief and very sound introduction to the role of the layperson
and his distinctive duty in the world and in the life of the Church, Arinze’s book
are far more important than many of us may think. They have a great and grave
responsibility to help the Church, complementing it in its activities and in
its sacramental actions, but also supporting and sharing its message in those
spheres of life in which laypersons can have a great impact. And through his
activities, the layperson can help sanctify the whole of life, no matter what
his station in life.
We should remember this as we go about our day to day activitiesand
always keep in mind not just a sense of divine filiation, but a sense of
responsibility. We are called, after all, to be saints.
Layperson’s Distinctive Role
Francis Cardinal Arinze
Ignatius Press, 2013
118 pages, $9.95