Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
October 21, 2002
Laity's leaven elevates faith, life
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II changed our Church in ways that no other council attempted: It dealt not only with dogma, but also with the very life of all Christians.
The most immediate fruits of the council were in the liturgy. Mass was celebrated in the vernacular, the priest celebrated facing the people, the people responded vocally in a dialogue with the priest and there was a greater emphasis on Scripture.
And that was only the Mass. Liturgy was revised for all the sacraments with perhaps the most successful revisions being Baptism, Anointing of the Sick and the restored Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
More problematic have been attempts at the renewal of Confession which has fallen into disuse, and Confirmation, a sacrament about which there is much confusion.
But the council went much further than revising the liturgy. It, first of all, gave a much broader notion of the Church itself which at times had come to be identified with the hierarchy. Vatican II presented the notion of the Church as communio. This notion, as Pope John Paul II has stated, "has its foundation in the very mystery of the triune God and extends to all the baptized, who are thereby called to full unity in Christ."
"Communio" avoided putting the institution at the centre of the idea of the Church, focusing instead on the lived union among the faithful and God. This emphasis led the council fathers to speak of the call to holiness of all believers. Previously, we may have tended to think of holiness as something reserved for priests and religious, while laity just needed to be "good enough." We were objects of the Church's mission, rather than participants in it.
There has been more than a little confusion about what it means for lay people to be participants in the Church's mission. Too often, it has boiled down to lay people being given "ministries" and left at that. Yet, Vatican II's Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity does not use the term "ministry" at all in relation to the laity, while it uses "apostle," "apostolate" and similar terms 168 times.
That certainly should be a clue as to how lay people are to respond to the call to holiness. So should the decree's statement that the lay "apostolate is exercised when they work at the evangelization and sanctification of men; it is exercised too when they endeavour to have the Gospel spirit permeate and improve the temporal order."
We are to be the "leaven in the dough" that causes that dough to become something grander and fuller than it ever was previously.
To date, the notion of the lay apostolate has remained pretty much unexplored territory. The worst illustration of this omission has been the frequent sight of Catholic politicians favouring liberalized abortion laws while claiming they are personally opposed to abortion. The council's teaching would demand something better than that, as well as an end to the widespread tendency to separate faith from other aspects of life.
Which brings us back to Confirmation. In 1980, Pope John Paul told a group of young people in Ireland: "Each one of you is individually called by Christ to be part of his kingdom and to play a role in his mission of salvation. These are the great realities of your Baptism and your Confirmation. Having called you by name, God sends you forth to accomplish what he wants you to do."
Confirmation ought to be seen as the sacrament of the apostolate and preparation for Confirmation as the privileged time for Christian service called for by the Decree on the Laity. Theologian Germain Grisez says, "At Confirmation, a child of God comes to share in the life of the Church as one not only redeemed by the Lord Jesus, but redeeming with him."
Here is one of the great unfulfilled promises of Vatican II - that the masses of the laity will pursue the call to holiness through their personal apostolates. It is then that we will see renewal in the Church, but also in the world around us, the world which we are called to permeate with the spirit of the Gospel.
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