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The Role of the Laity: An Examination of Vatican II and Christifideles Laici | Carl E. Olson

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G.K. Chesterton once observed that the process of "discovering" the Catholic Faith is most enjoyable, "easier than joining the Catholic Church and much easier than trying to live the Catholic life."

How right he was! It did not take much time, as a former Evangelical Protestant, to see that no little confusion existed among many of my fellow Catholics about a variety of issues, including essential matters like the nature of the Church and what it means to be a Christian. And I did not have to wait long to stumble upon an expression of this confusion. Following the Easter Vigil Liturgy in 1997, during which my wife and I were confirmed and received Holy Communion, there was a reception in the parish hall. Jim, a cradle Catholic and a regular extraordinary Eucharistic minister, introduced himself and offered his congratulations. Upon discovering that both my wife and I were converts from Protestantism and that our families had been less than pleased about our decision to become Catholic, he shook his head sympathetically and offered this thought: "I look at it like this: everyone in the world is in a different boat on the ocean of life, but we are all going to the same place, regardless of which boat we are in." He was visibly pleased with his analogy, apparently missing the irony of his remark. If what he said was true, why did I bother even becoming Catholic? And what was the point of being Catholic?

Subsequent conversations with various Catholics have revealed that this sort of sincere indifferentism is not only common, but is apparently considered by many to be a good thing, the result of some strange entity called "the spirit of Vatican II." Although most Catholics are bothered when their children or relatives leave the Church, many see it as "none of our business" and carry on, perhaps puzzled but quietly accepting the "private decisions" of those involved. Most would never contemplate talking about the matter with the ex-Catholic; fewer still would consider talking about their Catholic beliefs with non-Catholics.

Simply put, far too many Catholics have bought into the modern perspective that insists religious beliefs are private and the sharing of such beliefs should not take place in public. According to this sentiment, discussions of such "personal" matters in public are not only insensitive, they are also raw displays of arrogance which decent people cannot tolerate. And this view, quite common in American parishes, is even held by some as the official stance of the "post-Vatican II" Church.

Paralleling this indifferent attitude towards those outside the Church is an increased insistence on lay involvement in the liturgy and in "ministry." Being an extraordinary Eucharist minister is no long "extraordinary"; instead it has become absolutely commonplace. In some parishes lay people give homilies, grant blessings and even--with the priest's approval-- stand around the altar during the consecration. While some of the abuses are obvious to even nominal Catholics, most of the laity seem content to go with the flow, limiting their public expression of faith to Sunday Mass and keeping silent the rest of the week. It would seem that they should be doing more with their faith in the "real" world--but exactly what?

What is the problem?

The Second Vatican Council repeatedly outlined and clarified the role of the laity. But one hears very little, if anything, about it at a parish level. The average lay person, it appears, vaguely perceives Vatican II as a Council which opened the doors of the Church to the spirit of modern world, especially in the areas of liturgy and ecumenism. While there is some truth to this, the Council did much more. But first it is instructive to read the warnings of the Council Fathers and Pope John Paull II regarding an essential element at stake in this matter of the role of the laity: our salvation.

Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, makes a clear and serious connection between the laity's life as Catholics in the world and their eternal destination:
This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. . . . The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation. (GS 43, emphasis added).

Two common errors are highlighted and discussed here: the shirking of responsibilities by those who would focus on their heavenly home at the expense of earthly duties, and those who, due to a legalistic understanding of their faith, divorce it from their everyday life. It hardly takes a sociologist to observe how common these problems, particularly the latter, are in Catholic parishes in North America.

This second problem, along with a newer and equally serious concern, was addressed by John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, written immediately after the 1987 Synod of Bishops. The late Holy Father stated:
At the same time, the Synod has pointed out that the post-conciliar path of the lay faithful has not been without its difficulties and dangers. In particular, two temptations can be cited which they have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel's acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world. (CL 2)
The reference to an unbalanced focus by the laity on "Church services and tasks" is directed, at least in part, at the often hotly contested issue of "ministry." While Vatican II encouraged the laity to participate in ministry, the misuse and abuse of the term meant that a serious admonition and clarification was in order:
In the same Synod Assembly, however, a critical judgment was voiced along with these positive elements, about a too-indiscriminate use of the word "ministry", the confusion and the equating of the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood, the lack of observance of ecclesiastical laws and norms, the arbitrary interpretation of the concept of "supply", the tendency towards 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. (CL 23)
In some circles the word "ministry" has taken on a quality strongly resembling the all-encompassing and ambiguous use of it by certain Protestants. The desire to be associated with--or to even compete with--the ordained ministry has led to an abundance of "ministries" among the laity. What is particularly noteworthy is how so many of these ministries are focused on those people already in the Church and how so few look outward to those who are outside of the Church. With so many lay ministers alongside the priest it was inevitable that the lines between the priesthood common to all believers by virtue of baptism and the ministerial, ordained priesthood would become blurred.

And while Vatican II and the 1983 Code of Canon Law allowed, in cases of serious need, lay involvement in such acts as distributing Holy Communion, such involvement instead became the norm and, in some parishes, a seemingly sacred right. For example, a priest recently told me about his experience while filling in at Mass at a local parish. A few minutes prior to Mass the priest was approached by a layman who matter-of-factly stated that he was the "Eucharistic minister" and would be up at the altar with the priest. When the priest flatly told him that he was not, in fact, a "Eucharist minister"--only the priest can claim such a title--and that he would not be needed (since the parish was fairly small), the man left in fit of anger!

Episodes such as this reflect an inadequate, distorted or even nonexistent understanding of the laity's proper role within the Church. Unfortunately, many Catholics who desire to somehow be involved in their local parish immediately single out "ministries" that are visible and "up front", perceiving them to be the singular means of involvement available in their parish. In light of this it is little surprise to hear of small parishes where the number of extraordinary Eucharist ministers is quite disproportionate to the number of people in the pews. Meanwhile, those who remain outside of a "ministry" are left with the impression that there exists only a certain number of such positions and since those are filled, they are out of luck. Resigned (perhaps happily) to not having such a position and commitment, they incorrectly believe that weekly attendance of Mass is "good enough." But this is not the case at all, according to the Holy Father, since a "new state of affairs today both in the Church and in social, economic, political and cultural life, calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful. If lack of commitment is always unacceptable, the present time renders it even more so. It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle" (CL 3).

The necessary context

If the laity are called to be active, but there exists only so many positions within a parish, what are they to do? What is their role? In order to answer this question the identity of the laity must first be seen within the contexts of four important realities: the Eschaton, the Church, the true nature of ministry, and vocations.

The eschatological principle

When we step back and views history and eternity from the perspective given by divine revelation and the Church, we see there exists two cities, or kingdoms: the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God. The Christian is a citizen of both and as such has responsibilities to both. He is a member of the Church, which is the "on earth the seed and beginning of that kingdom" (CCC 541), that is, the kingdom of God. And he is also a human being, born into time and space and living in the kingdom of man. So the Christian lives in a certain tension, knowing his final end is with God but strongly aware of how real and serious life is in the temporal order.

But this temporal order will eventually pass away at the eschaton, the end of time, when the kingdom of God will at last be fully revealed. The relationship between the temporal order and the eschatological character of the Church is one of tension, but not of conflict. Because Christians are citizens of both kingdoms their actions in the temporal order have results and meaning for the eschatological end of the Church. Thus Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, asserts the importance of the laity's life and work within the temporal order in relation to eternity:
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. They live in the world, that is, they are engaged in each and every work and business of the earth and in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life which, as it were, constitute their very existence. 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. Thus, especially by the witness of their life, resplendent in faith, hope and charity they must manifest Christ to others. 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 laity are called to work in the temporal order in a specific manner befitting their "secular character." The word "secular" is used by the Church to recognize that the laity are "in the world" and have--as members of the Church--a specific and unique role in the kingdom of man, as John Paul II explained:
To understand properly the lay faithful's position in the Church in a complete, adequate and specific manner it is necessary to come to a deeper theological understanding of their secular character in light of God's plan of salvation and in the context of the mystery of the Church. Pope Paul VI said the Church "has an authentic secular dimension, inherent to her inner nature and mission, which is deeply rooted in the mystery of the Word Incarnate, and which is realized in different forms through her members". The Church, in fact, lives in the world, even if she is not of the world (cf. Jn 17:16). She is sent to continue the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, which "by its very nature concerns the salvation of humanity, and also involves the renewal of the whole temporal order". Certainly all the members of the Church are sharers in this secular dimension but in different ways. In particular the sharing of the lay faithful has its own manner of realization and function, which, according to the Council, is "properly and particularly" theirs. Such a manner is designated with the expression "secular character." (CL 15).
The distinction between the two kingdoms is essential for a proper understanding of the unique nature of the ordained priesthood and the ministry of priests. Priests, by virtue of their ordination, are a living witness to the sacramental realm and the reality of the Incarnation. In addition, priests and religious give witness to the eschatological character of the Church, as John Paul II also discussed:
In turn, the ministerial priesthood represents in different times and places, the permanent guarantee of the sacramental presence of Christ, the Redeemer. The religious state bears witness to the eschatological character of the Church, that is, the straining towards the Kingdom of God that is prefigured and in some way anticipated and experienced even now through the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. (CL 55).
So while the ministerial priesthood is focused upon the sacraments and, together with the religious, shows forth the eschatological, or supernatural, character of the Church, the laity are to be focused on the temporal order in keeping with their "secular character."

But doesn't this threaten the laity's status in the Church? How can the laity be important to the Church if their work is supposed to be mostly outside of it?

The context of the Church

It seems that not a few Catholics view the Church--as they know it in the form of their local parish--as a sort of companion piece to the schools, the clubs, and the various institutions they involve themselves in. For example, a priest who was asked to fill in at a mission parish (where the only Mass was on Saturday) during the Fourth of July weekend, tells of this experience: as he prepared for Mass a lady approached him and kindly informed him to not expect much of a crowd. "Why?" he asked. "Well, there's a special Fourth of July baseball tournament and fireworks display and many of the parishioners will be there" she replied. "But this is the only Mass around here this week!" he exclaimed, "How can they miss it? Where are their values?" She did not know what to say, but admitted that she "hadn't thought of it like that"!

This compartmentalized view of the Church, which often relegates one's duties as a Catholic to the same sphere as sporting events and social activities, is hardly uncommon. The local parish (and by extension the universal Church) is seen as a "community"--but in what sense? The Church is a community, but what kind of community and for what purpose does it exist? The Second Vatican Council answers these questions in many places, including in Gaudium et Spes, which states:
While helping the world and receiving many benefits from it, the Church has a single intention: that God's kingdom may come, and that the salvation of the whole human race may come to pass. For every benefit which the People of God during its earthly pilgrimage can offer to the human family stems from the fact that the Church is "the universal sacrament of salvation", simultaneously manifesting and exercising the mystery of God's love for man. (GS 45).
Seeing the Church as "the universal sacrament of salvation" (a reference to Lumen Gentium 48) and those in the Church as participants in the salvation of the world should cause us to consider the implications. Does this mean that being the "People of God" might not be quite as comfortable as we would like? Could it be that attending Mass once a week might not be enough? John Paul II noted that this fact about the Church carries great responsibilities, for "all the members of the People of God--clergy, men and women religious, the lay faithful--are laborers in the vineyard. At one and the same time they all are the goal and subjects of Church communion as well as of participation in the mission of salvation. Every one of us possessing charisms and ministries, diverse yet complementary, works in the one and the same vineyard of the Lord" (CL 55).

It is understandable that people lose sight of the bigger picture in the midst of their daily lives. It is easy for us to set aside this evangelistic mission of the Catholic Church because we have a difficult time relating it to our particular parish. But the late Pontiff stated that for "an adequate participation in ecclesial life the lay faithful absolutely need to have a clear and precise vision of the particular Church with its primordial bond to the universal Church" (CL 25). The parish is not some fragment of the universal Church, nor is the universal Church the sum of all the parishes added together.

Rather, the Church--at both the parish and universal level--is a communion with Christ and each member of the Body whose totality can never be seen in the sum of its parts. And it is this mystery which must be encountered and entered into in order for the role of the laity can be further clarified: "Only from inside the Church's mystery of communion is the 'identity' of the lay faithful made known, and their fundamental dignity revealed. Only within the context of this dignity can their vocation and mission in the Church and in the world be defined" (CL 8). This mystery of the Church is rich and dynamic, demanding full and active participation. As Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, explains, "the organic union in this body and the structure of the members are so compact that the member who fails to make his proper contribution to the development of the Church must be said to be useful neither to the Church nor to himself" (AA 2).

Read Part Two of "The Role of the Laity"


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