Last Updated:Saturday - 12/11/2010
October 30, 2000
Laity's role in evangelization
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
In 1975, 10 years after the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI gave us Evangelii Nuntiandi, his apostolic exhortation on evangelization in the modern world.
In North America the "hippie" era or drug culture was beginning to wind down and make way for an era of unprecedented materialism dubbed the "yuppie" era. A lot of baby boomers were trading their shredded jeans for business suits and BMWs. The world was changing swiftly and the cultural milieu with which Gaudium et Spes (see last week's article) had encouraged us to work in proclaiming the good news, was becoming increasingly complex.
It remained true that the Gospel needed to be presented as relevant to the context of the times, so that it would be heard. But the challenges mushroomed as the paradigms for modern living shifted with alarming speed.
Fresh counsel on evangelization in the modern world was needed and so in 1974 the general assembly of the World Synod of Bishops devoted itself to the theme of evangelization. True to the council's spirit of collegiality, Pope Paul VI presented the results in his pastoral exhortation the following year.
The text quickly identifies the three "burning questions" which emerged at the synod, questions that seem well-suited to today's cultural milieu:
The document re-affirms the council's emphasis on preaching and proclaiming the never-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ in the context of an ever-changing frame of reference for human living.
If the Gospel was as alive as Christians knew it to be, it needed to be seen as a fresh and vibrant response to the issues of the day. Were Catholics up for the challenge, the document seemed to ask, of showing the modern world that the message of Jesus was as indispensable now as it ever had been?
What did this document have to say about the role of laity? Paragraph 70 reemphasizes the special form of evangelization belonging to laity because of their vocation "in the midst of the world."
It listed such areas as "the vast and complicated world of politics, society and economics, but also the world of culture, of the sciences and the arts, of international life, of the mass media (and) other realities which are open to evangelization, such as human love, the family, the education of children and adolescents, professional work, suffering."
It seemed like the laity had their hands more than full. Therefore it was with some relief that we read the clarification that the "primary and immediate task . . . to establish and develop the ecclesial community" was not for the laity but was rather the specific role of the pastors.
However, in paragraph 73, on diversified ministries, the document also acknowledges the ever-growing fields of lay involvement - "working with their pastors in the service of the ecclesial community, for its growth and life, by exercising a great variety of ministries according to the grace and charisms which the Lord is pleased to give them."
Pope Paul VI goes on to express "a great inner joy" at the sight of this creative collaboration between clergy, religious and laity strengthening the evangelizing vigour of the Church.
The document cites Church origins as a source confirming a diversity of ministries while at the same time noting the necessity of allegiance to a unified vision of Church in collaboration with its pastors.
Now that another quarter century has elapsed since Evangelii Nuntiandi it is interesting to look back and see some of the forms of lay ministry within an ecclesial setting recognized at that time:
"These ministries, apparently new but closely tied up with the Church's living experience down the centuries - such as catechists, directors of prayer and chant, Christians devoted to the service of God's Word or to assisting their brethren in need, the heads of small communities or other persons charged with the responsibility of apostolic movements – these ministries are valuable for the establishment, life and growth of the Church, and for her capacity to influence her surroundings" (n. 73).
So we see that a number of lay ministries that are still flourishing today had begun to unfold in the first decade after the council.
The topic of this 1975 exhortation, Evangelization in the Modern World, remains at the heart of our concerns today as Catholic Christians. How can we present the Gospel message in a way that speaks to the issues and the people of our times?
We present the Gospel in many ways: by who we are, how we live, how we worship and how we work. The laity's consciousness of their involvement in all these areas continued to grow in the final decades of the 20th century.
In 1987 Pope John Paul gathered a synod of bishops to look at the vocation and mission of the laity 20 years after the council and then produced an extensive exhortation on this topic called Christifideles Laici, which we will look at next week.
As the baby boomers contemplated the vicissitudes of encroaching middle age, the Church also felt called to reassess the lay ministry "child" of Vatican II to see what sort of being was coming of age.
(Second in a series – Adela Torchia is director of the Lay Pastoral Leadership Program at Newman College.)
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