Lumen Gentium starts with the revival of the concepts of the Church as mystery, a sacrament, and the People of God. Instead of dwelling on the structures and government of the Church the document focuses on our call as a people united with one another and with God to bring about the reign of the Kingdom here on earth and in heaven.
Through their baptism all the faithful are seen to have a common call to share in the mission of Christ. All are called to be priest, prophet and king. All share in the common priesthood and the call to holiness based on love of God and love of neighbour.
Within this general baptismal call there are different roles and specific ways of living out the call such as the ordained ministry, the laity, and religious. No particular way is seen to be better or more holy than others. Each part of the Church shares in the mission in its own way. Lay people are shown to have their own vocation in their ordinary family and working lives. This reclaims the rightful place of lay members of the Church as among the People of God.
Looking back at the early Church we can see that the baptised belonged to a community that believed everyone had personal gifts which they could use for the benefit of the whole community and its mission. People were called to use these different gifts, but there was not a distinction of importance; it was all part of the one body. St Paul writes ‘Just as each of our bodies has several parts and each part has a separate function, so all of us in union with Christ, form one body, and as parts of it we belong to each other. Our gifts differ according to the grace given us.'[Rom 12:4-6]
By the third century this idealised equality had been lost. The word laos no longer applied to all the People of God, but only to those who were not exercising some priestly function. Over the centuries all power and authority in the Church came to be vested in the clerics. They were seen to be dealing with the sacred and the holy. The lay people who were very active participants in the early Church now became subordinate and inactive. They were seen to be less holy. They were expected to be obedient to the authority of the Church and its clerics.
Gradually, during the 19th century and into the 20th, the Church hierarchy and theologians began to re-evaluate the role of the laity. Enlightened thinkers such as Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) and the founders of the Society for Catholic Action saw that the lay people should be empowered for a mission of their own. The three popes named Pius who preceded John XXIII were promoters of the participation of the laity in the mission of the Church. These changes in thinking formed the background for Vatican II’s new way of looking at the Church and the role of the laity.
The role of the laity as equal members of the Church is woven through much of Lumen Gentium. Chapter four looks specifically at the laity. As well as sharing in the common baptismal call of all the faithful, the laity are seen to have a particular role in the Church. Rather than being lesser because of their place in the secular world, the laity are seen to have their vocation in helping to bring about the kingdom of God in the world. ‘Now the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth.’ (LG 33)
The laity are to find their holiness in their ordinary married and family life, in their work and social life. All of their lives give a witness to Christ to the world. They are also called to be active in caring for creation and promoting justice and peace and the common good. Making a difference out in the world is the primary call. The laity are also seen to have spiritual and practical gifts to offer within the Church. The ordained and lay people are encouraged to work more closely together to share the responsibility of ministry and management.
This shift in the Church’s thinking has led to a huge change in church life. Lay people are active in liturgical and pastoral ministries for building up the Church. They perform leadership and management functions for the Church. They are particularly involved in education in Catholic schools and catechetical work. There has been a huge increase in interest in studying the Bible and theology, and in lay led movements. Laity are involved in issues such as social justice, peace, protection of life, and the dignity of all people. They are also involved in politics and the media. These are ways of carrying out the Church’s mission in the world.
During the years since Lumen Gentium was promulgated there have been many church documents dealing with the role of the laity. These have affirmed the primary vocation of the laity is to take the light of Christ to the world, in order to sanctify the world. Marriage and family life are seen as very important, the fundamental way of sharing in the life and mission of the Church. The phrase the ‘domestic Church’ (LG 11) was reused in Familiaris Consortio 1981 (FC 21) and by The Pontifical Council for the Family in 2001. Pope John Paul II calls lay people to ‘re-evangelise our culture’ and to be involved in the world in a new way in Christifdelis Laici, 1988.
The role of the laity is one of the areas explored in Ecclesia in Oceania. This 2001 document covers the main conclusions and recommendations of the Oceania Synod in Rome in 1998. Our New Zealand bishops were part of this meeting of bishops from the Pacific area. They restated earlier church teaching on the laity. ‘It is the fundamental call of lay people to renew the temporal order in all its many elements.’ (EO 137) The synod also pledged support for lay people working to bring God to the world. ‘In this way the Church becomes the yeast that leavens the entire loaf of the temporal order.’ (EO 43) Young people are called to be ‘salt of the earth and the light of the world’ (Mt 5:13, 14) and to share in the life and mission of the Church. The importance of marriage and family life is restated with a commitment for greater pastoral support. The positive contribution of women and the new ecclesial movements in the Church concludes the section on the laity.
In recent years both the Palmerston North and Wellington dioceses have been training lay leaders to work in the pastoral areas that have been formed because of our shortage of priests. These lay leaders have a special role in the Church as servants to their communities. Their work will be to help keep the liturgical and pastoral ministries of the Church functioning. The mission of the Church at large and of the majority of lay people continues to be to make a difference in the world. The Wellington Church, in the prayer for their Pentecost Synod in 2006, prays
‘As salt, may we refresh and enrich
the world you greatly love.
As light, may we shine in faithful
witness to joy and hope.’
Mary Bennett is on the Palmerston North Diocesan Leadership Training Programme. Thanks to tutor Elizabeth Julian rsm and Bishop Peter Cullinane for suggested changes.