Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
January 25, 1999
Laity: Don't abandon the world
This week marks the 10th anniversary of the release of one of the most important and most neglected documents since the Second Vatican Council - Pope John Paul's exhortation Christifideles Laici (The Lay Members of Christ's Faithful People). Indeed, given that lay people comprise more than 99 per cent of the members of Christ's Body, it may well be the most important post-Vatican II Church statement.
In the Western world, we have had an explosion in lay ministries since the council which was unanticipated by the council fathers. While not critical of this trend, Christifideles Laici does express reservations about it going too far. These reservations are sometimes interpreted as fearful turf protection by the clergy. But that interpretation is a serious misinterpretation.
The council and Christifideles Laici interpret the role of the laity not in terms of having more lay people in the sacristy, but in terms of the unique and irreplaceable role of laity in bringing Gospel values into the world.
The council's greatest contribution was to see the Church not as an isolated, pristine city on a hill, but rather as Christ's Body in solidarity with all people. Its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World began by proclaiming that "The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time . . . are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well."
It is lay people who are the primary instruments of the Church's solidarity. And it is the primary role of lay people to be in solidarity with the wider world. If we retreat into the sacristy, we are abandoning that solidarity, abandoning the world to forces which are not of the Gospel. Our fear of the world and our lack of trust in God's help make us a reactionary force rather than Spirit-filled transformers of life and society.
As lay people, we are called to be priests, prophets and kings. But our priestly, prophetic and kingly ministries are different in nature that those of ordained ministers.
The role of the priest is to offer sacrifices. And Vatican II described the priestly role of the laity in terms of "all their works, prayers and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit - indeed even the hardships of life if patiently born."
The prophetic role of the laity is performed by proclaiming Christ through word and deed "in the ordinary circumstances of the world." And the council described the laity's kingly role as rectifying "the institutions and conditions of the world when the latter are an inducement to sin, that these may be conformed to the norms of justice."
In the light of all this, Christifideles Laici described one of the two main temptations facing the laity as "the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and task that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world" (n. 2).
Laity have a great call to transform the world with Gospel values. And yet in recent years, the assumption has been widespread that not only should ordained men be in the sacristy, but also as many religious and lay people as possible. This new clericalism is so contrary to the letter and spirit of Vatican II that it is mind-boggling that anyone could see it as a product of the council. If anything, this adulation of the sacristy as the only place of any religious interest is a hangover from pre-Vatican II times.
Christifideles Laici is another clear reminder of the sacred value of family, work, volunteer involvement and political activity. The essential role of the baptized Christian is to take the sanctuary into the world, into those places faraway from sacristies and steeples where clergy rarely reach.
This is the glorious vocation to love God and neighbour in the ordinary circumstances of life so as to gather up all things in Christ. Without an appreciation of this vocation, the role of the laity will be undervalued and the Church's rich social teaching will remain a well-kept secret.
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