Cardinal Arinze on the Role of the Laity

An interview with the former head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Cardinal Francis Arinze grew 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 Invisible Hand, Celebrating the Holy Eucharist , and Meeting 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 from Catholic World Report 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 2-7.

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 laity?

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 that!);

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);

c. to 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 deacons.

Other liturgical ministers are people like altar servers, acolytes, lectors, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.

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 mothers;

b. being model doctors, lawyers, architects, etc.;

c.being model politicians and statesmen and women;

d. being 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 secular areas.

CWR: What today are the main impediments to the laity better realizing and accomplishing the tasks that are unique to their calling?

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 apostolate:

b. ignorance 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”;

d. the lay apostolate seen as power struggle between clerics and lay people. This could make the clergy afraid and the laity unnecessarily aggressive;

e. the lay apostolate seen as parallel authority in the Church or as a threat to the clerics;

f. fear 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”;

g. Fear 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;

b. clerics and laity cooperate in inner-Church affairs;

c. in the secular area, the laity are to take on full responsibility;

d. from 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;

e. the laity are not pastors in the Church. Bishops and priests are the pastors. The lay apostolate is not power struggle in the Church;

f. when 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;

g. Jesus 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.

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