The Lay Apostolate

By Rev. Richard McBrien
The Tidings
January 24, 2003

The tragic sexual-abuse crisis that has afflicted the Roman Catholic Church over these past 12 months has had at least a few good effects. One of its most positive byproducts has been the awakening of many lay Catholics to their own responsibilities for the life, mission, and ministries of the church.

The founding and rapid growth of Voice of the Faithful is only one case in point. All across the United States, Catholic lay women and men are newly energized and eager to seize whatever opportunity arises to contribute to the betterment of their faith community.

To be sure, the direct involvement of the laity in the internal governance of the church is hardly a new idea, but it has been lying dormant for too long a time. As terrible as the sexual-abuse crisis continues to be, it may prove in the long run to have been a felix culpa ("a happy fault"), the reference in the Easter Vigil liturgy to the sin of Adam and Eve which gave us, in turn, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.

As I pointed out in a column last summer, the Second Vatican Council called upon the laity almost 40 years ago to exercise more meaningful responsibilities as members of the church: "As sharers in the role of Christ the Priest, the Prophet, and the King, the laity have an active part to play in the life and activity of the Church" (Apostolicam Actuositatem, Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, n. 10).

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) was just as specific. The laity share equally, although in different ways, with the hierarchy, clergy, and religious in the three-fold mission of Christ - of teaching, ruling, and sanctifying (n. 30).

Pastors, the council declared, "were not meant by Christ to shoulder alone the entire saving mission of the church toward the world." They must recognize the ministries and charismatic gifts that the laity also have and they must work with the laity so that all according to their proper roles may cooperate in this common undertaking with one heart."

Vatican II urged that pastoral councils, made up of laity, religious, and clergy, and presided over by the bishop, be established in every diocese (Decree on the Bishop's Pastoral Office in the Church, n. 27), and that bishops not only seek the advice of laity but also "allow [them] freedom and room for action," encouraging them to "undertake tasks on [their] own initiative" (Lumen Gentium, n. 37).

"The Church," the council declared, "has not been truly established, and is not yet fully alive, nor is it a perfect sign of Christ [in the world], unless there exists a laity worthy of the name working along with the hierarchy" (Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity, n. 21).

The same spirit of collaboration must exist at the parish level as well. The council urged parish priests to listen to their parishioners "willingly," to take their opinions and recommendations seriously, and to "recognize their experience and competence in the different areas of human activity" (Presbyterorum Ordinis, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, n. 9).

The laity, therefore, are not restricted to the temporal order alone, leaving the bishops and priests to manage the affairs of the church without lay involvement (or "interference"). On the contrary, the laity "exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders" (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, n. 5).

In laying down these clear principles for direct lay involvement in the internal life of the church, the council was hardly engaged in some form of reckless innovation. It was retrieving rather than creating a tradition. Those bishops who have denied Voice of the Faithful the use of church property to hold their meetings have set themselves squarely against the very teachings of the church they have sworn themselves to uphold.

On Jan. 24, the Catholic Church (and the Church of England as well) celebrates the feast of St. Francis de Sales (d. 1622), one of the church's greatest pioneers and promoters of the lay apostolate and of the spirituality that should undergird it.

The author of the classic "Introduction to the Devout Life," Francis de Sales insisted that the way of spiritual perfection is not only for the elite few, nor does it require great austerities or withdrawal from the everyday life of the world.

Vatican II reinforced those views, entitling the fifth chapter of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, "The Call of the Whole Church to Holiness."

Francis de Sales would have gladly embraced the council's teachings on the laity. So should we all.

Father Richard P. McBrien is the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.


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