The Second Vatican Council was unprecedented in the strong emphasis it gave to the role of the laity in Christ's saving mission. Not only was there a chapter on the laity in one of the council's chief documents – the Constitution on the Church – but there was also a specific document on the laity.
That document, The Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (Apostolicam Actuositatem), was one of the least controversial matters to go before the council.
A draft document was introduced in early October 1964 and, after a week of discussion, Apostolicam Actuositatem was sent back for revisions. Once those were made, the decree was passed almost unanimously with little further discussion in November 1965.
Despite the relative lack of controversy, the discussion did not take place without some retrograde views being expressed. Cardinal Michael Browne, a curial official, asked that the decree include an explicit statement that the laity must obey their parish priest.
As well, a bishop from Croatia asked for the document to say that "the first and principal task" of the laity is to produce enough children so that there will be no shortage of religious vocations.
Neither of those views made it into the final document.
Nor, for that matter, did the view of Bishop Eugene D'Souza of Bhopal, India, who saw clericalism as the main hindrance to the renewal of the Church. He asked that laity replace priests in the Roman Curia and the Holy See's diplomatic service.
One view that was accepted was expressed by Victoria Bishop Remi de Roo, who on behalf of 15 Canadian bishops, said the involvement of the laity in the Church is essential for carrying out God's plan. The laity, first, complete creation through their work and, second, that work is raised to the level of an apostolate because the laity are part of the People of God.
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Edmonton Archbishop Anthony Jordan was committed to renewing the role of the laity.
This notion that the natural and the supernatural are inseparable is the foundation of the Decree on the Laity.
Several times, the decree made statements such as that the role of the laity is "to have the Gospel spirit permeate and improve the temporal order" (AA 2). Lay people are not to be passive Sunday pew-sitters; they are to bring the Gospel to bear in their workplaces, families and other endeavours.
They are to be a leaven – an almost-hidden ingredient in bread which causes it to rise and give it its "breadness" to the fullest degree. By bringing the Gospel to society, laity enable every community and institution to become fully alive, thus giving glory to God.
Lay people receive no special consecration from the Church for their tasks in society. They are empowered through the Holy Spirit given in Baptism and Confirmation.
Empowered for what though?
Perhaps the two papal documents of the post-Vatican II of greatest relevance for the laity are Pope John Paul II's 1981 documents Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) and Familiaris Consortio (The Community of the Family).
It is in the workplace and in the home that the vocation of the laity to be transformers of culture can be most fully realized.
Two things are key to the realization of this understanding of the laity as leaven in society.
First, the apostolate of lay people "depends on their living union with Christ" (AA 4). This living union is nurtured by prayer, especially active participation in the liturgy, and by growing closer to Christ through the activities of ordinary life. Again, there is no separation between faith and ordinary life.
Second, laity must receive "training." Such training must be many-sided – it includes spiritual formation and a solid grounding in Catholic doctrine.
Moreover, it must be practical. Each person must learn to see, judge and act in their own unique situation "in the light of faith."
This call to see, judge and act is an allusion to Catholic Action, a prominent and multi-faceted lay movement in which lay people met in groups to discuss concrete situations in their lives and how they could bring the Gospel to bear on them.
Catholic Action was founded by a Belgian priest (later a cardinal), Father Joseph Cardijn and rapidly spread throughout the Catholic world. While founded by a priest, Catholic Action emphasized the initiative of the laity in making their own decisions about their lives rather than being dependent upon their pastor's direction.
The need for adequate formation of the laity was crucial for the see-judge-act model to be effective.
Indeed, much has been done since Vatican II. In Edmonton, Archbishop Anthony Jordan founded Newman Theological College and the Western Catholic Reporter explicitly for this purpose. Catholics also have taken an interest in the Bible, and many now take part in Bible study groups and other types of faith formation.
Yet, while there has been an explosion in lay ministries and other lay activities within the Church, we still have not, in my opinion, given enough attention to helping the vast majority of lay people to be leaven in a secularized society.
To a large degree, the supernatural and the natural have been left as separate realms. Vatican II's beautiful and powerful vision of the laity is that we would permeate society with the spirit of the Gospel.
Yet, if we look at the media, politics, health care, family life, education and other aspects of Western society, it is clear that Vatican II's vision of the laity is still a long way from coming to fruition.
Making that vision a reality is one of the most significant pieces of unfinished business from the council.