THE ROLE OF THE LAITY IN THE CHURCH
Anthony Fox OFM Conv., National Assistant SFO - Oceania
Relentless and pervasive change is occurring everywhere. The Catholic Church has not been immune to this crisis. Cardinal Martini once said, "This is 1996, but some people are talking as though it were 1966, or even 1866."
The laity are now evermore the hope of the Church. We have to recognise that the laity are in the world and know the world, are better educated and prepared than ever before.
The spiritual giants in the history of our Church met various crises in their age with boundless courage and faith. St. Augustine used to say: "When you have said, 'it is enough', you are dead!"
In the last century, an English convert asked his new bishop: "What was the role of the laity in the Catholic Church?" He got the bland reply: "To pray, to pay and to obey!"
It is so important, in every situation, in every crisis, that we be realists, that we face up to the reality of the Church and of people in general. We have to deal with the fallen and the sinful, not a world of super-humans and angels, but a world of stunted humanity, a world of souls without longing, without passion, without striving, without suffering, without surprises or desires, in word, a world without love.
Two polemics have evolved since Vatican II:
1) the clericalization of the laity;
2) the secularisation of the clergy and religious life.
Anouk Meyer, a French mother and a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, said, "The priestly vocation and the marriage vocation are complementary ways of building the Church. In the family, we have the experience of being unique, of being loved for our own sake. The family does not develop in an isolated manner, but must be directed to others. The mission in matrimony and the family consists in generating day after day the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries of the Rosary of life, saying yes to God, yes to love, yes to life."
Our past century was the most secularised in history, and yet it is classified as the "century of martyrdom", in which lay men and women have not been afraid to lose their own life out of love for the poor.
The Pope, in his encyclicals, in his travels, and in his speeches, has continually urged Catholics to play active roles in meeting the modern challenges of the world. He said: "Humanity is rich with potential and expectations, imperilled however by multiple traps and dangers."
The Pope encourages lay Catholic activism. He has also said, "Do not be afraid to accept this challenge. If you live Christianity without compromises, you can set the world on fire."
The mission of the laity is enormous. As we need holy priests and religious, the Church also needs lay men and women to be holy.
We must never forget that the fruits of the apostolate depend on the depth of the spiritual life, on the intensity of prayer, of continual formation, and a sincere adhesion to the directives of the Church.
We all need to make an examination of conscience to meet the challenges of being Church in our own era:
1) What have I done with my baptism and confirmation?
2) Is Christ really at the centre of my life?
3) Do I have time for prayer in my life?
4) Do I live my life as a vocation and mission?
In our widespread atmosphere of secularisation, many of those ordinary men and women in the pews on Sunday have the temptation to distance themselves from the Church and allow themselves to be compromised and contaminated by indifference and allow culture to dominate rather than faith.
Pope John Paul II has said: "The vocation and mission of the faithful can only be understood in the light of a renewed awareness of the Church as the sacrament or sign and instrument of intimate union with God, of the unity of the whole of mankind and of the personal duty to adhere more closely to her" (Address to the Congress of Catholic Laity, November 26, 2000).
The greatest evil facing the ordinary men and women in the pew is indifferentism. From my own pastoral experience, many Catholic parents are bothered when their children or a relative leaves the Church. Many, however, see it as "none of their business", and carry on, perhaps puzzled, but quietly accepting the "private decisions" of those involved. Most would not contemplate talking about the matter with the fallen-away Catholic. Fewer would consider talking about their Catholic faith with non-Catholics or even non-Christians.
In Australia, many consider religion and religious belief private, and the sharing of such beliefs should not take place in the public forum. There is a tendency to limit public expression of faith to Sunday Mass and to keep silent the rest of the week. The Second Vatican Council outlined and clarified the role of the laity. The ultimate calling of all us, both laity and clergy, is salvation!
Gaudium et spes (the Pastoral Constitution of 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: "Two common errors are highlighted here: the shirking of the 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."
Pope John Paul II addressed these concerns in Christifideles Laici, written after the 1987 Synod of Bishops. He wrote, "At the same time, the Synod has pointed out that the post-Conciliar path of the lay faithful has not been without difficulties and dangers. In particular, two temptations can be cited which they have not always known 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 legitimising the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the gospel's acceptance from actual living of the gospel in various situations in the world" (CL 2).
There are many Catholics who wish to be involved in their local parish life that are not visible and upfront and believe incorrectly that weekly attendance at Mass is 'good enough.' We need the visible and upfront people in our parishes and in all parts of the Church, but there is a such a need for men and women who wish to serve their parish and the Church through the hidden life. We have forgotten their contribution and what it can achieve "out there". We should not allow anyone to remain idle. It can be said that these people could be the active-contemplatives of their parishes, as there exists so many positions.
Revelation and Holy Mother Church show us there exists two kingdoms that we have to balance in our lives: the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven. The baptised Christian is a citizen of both kingdoms and as such has responsibilities to both. The baptised person is a member of the Church. This person is also human, born in time and space and living in the kingdom of this world.
We live in a tension, knowing our final end is with God, but strongly aware of how real and serious life is in the temporal order. The layman and woman are called to work in the temporal order in a manner befitting their secular character.
The word, 'secular', has developed negative meanings. It 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 this world. "In particular, the sharing of the lay faithful has its own 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). It seems that some Catholics view the Church, as they know it in the form of their local parish, as a sort of companion piece to the primary school, or clubs and organizations, etc. There is a danger of compartmentalizing the Church, to relegate one's duties as a Catholic to the same sphere as sporting events and social activities (First Communion, Confession, Graduation, etc).
We say, so naturally, that the Church is a community. What do we mean?
"While helping the world and receiving many benefits from it, the Church has a single intention: that God's kingdom may come, and 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, 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" and those in the Church as participants in the salvation of the world should cause us to pause. The implications are quite serious. Does this mean that being "the people of God" might not be quite as comfortable as we like? Could it be that attending Mass once a week might not be enough for the ordinary lay man and woman? The Church carries great responsibilities for all the members of the people of God - clergy, men and women religious, the lay faithful - who are all labourers in the vineyard.
It is understandable that people lose sight of the bigger picture in the midst of their daily lives. All of us by our baptism are commissioned to take up the evangelising mission of the Church. The parish is not some fragment of the universal Church, nor is the universal Church the sum of all parishes added together. The Church, at both the parish and the 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.
Of all the teachings of Vatican II that lost prominence in the years, has been the call or vocation to holiness. A continual emphasis on holiness as the essential basis for the Christian life permeates the writings of the Council. "Holiness is the greatest testimony of the dignity conferred on a disciple of Christ. The Second Vatican Council has significantly spoken of the universal call to holiness. It is possible to say that this call to holiness is precisely the basic charge entrusted to all the sons and daughters of the Church by a Council which intended to bring renewal of Christian life based on the gospel." (CL 16). This vocation to holiness orients the whole Church, both laity and clergy.
The laity's call to holiness is to change the world from the inside, permeating it with truth and light. By bringing the Church to the world, the lay man and woman bring the world in contact with the Church, the Body of Christ. "The 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" (LG 33).
Growth in holiness means aligning and ordering one's whole being to the divine life given to us at baptism. Without such an ordering of the heart, soul and mind, one cannot begin to discern the will of God or be open to his call.
Holiness leads to wholeness
It is in holiness that the members of the Church become who they are called to be, and it is in holiness that equality becomes a reality. Holiness is the building block fashioned in the waters of Baptism and meant for the good of the body of Christ. This gift and response is at the heart of true community.
"The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of countless numbers of lay people, both men and women, busy at their work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unclaimed by the world, unknown to the world's great personages, but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring labourers in the Lord's vineyard" (CL 17).
The mission of the Church never changes, but our understanding of how best to live the gospel in a specific culture does develop and change. We are to proclaim Christ and to fill the temporal order with light and with the salt of the gospel: lay men and women play an essential role in this task.
A Protestant convert once told me that one thing he noticed about cradle Catholics was their reticence in sharing their faith and bearing witness among other believers, or even in the midst of their own Catholic family and friends!
Pope John Paul II has been consistent in his pontificate and continues to highlight our need for evangelization. This sentiment has not come out of a vacuum. We are called to be "little Christs", anointed ones, who being fed by the Eucharist, go into the world and make the Church visible and the gospel lived.
This work of evangelization requires formation and training. It takes many forms, from the silent witness of one's actions, to the use of the mass media, to the ordinary conversations of daily living.
We can see by this presentation that the laity has a powerful and specific and unique vocation that they must pursue and fulfil in order for the Church to grow and permeate the world.
This vocation is entrenched in the holiness infused into us at baptism and nourished in the Eucharist. It shows us that we are the members of the Body of Christ, the Church, and that we belong to the head of the body, Jesus Christ. The laity are often called to help the ordained in various ways in the Church. Their central focus must be through their call to holiness by changing the kingdom of this world and manifesting the truth of the joys of the kingdom of heaven.