Vatican II calls on laity to step up

Feature Cecily McNeill With parishes being asked to discuss the way they operate and perhaps join with neighbouring parishes in some areas of ministry, it is timely to look at…


Cecily McNeill

With parishes being asked to discuss the way they operate and perhaps join with neighbouring parishes in some areas of ministry, it is timely to look at the Second Vatican Council’s ‘earnest exhortation to laity to take an active role’ in parish life.

The Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People – Apostolicam Actuositatem – calls on lay people to fully share in the activity as well as the life of the Body of Christ.

‘The council…makes to all the laity an earnest appeal in the Lord to give a willing, noble and enthusiastic response to the voice of Christ who, at this hour, is summoning them more pressingly and to the urging of the Holy Spirit’ #33.

The decree opens by comparing the church to the human body which comprises myriad working parts.

‘In the organism of a living body no member plays a purely passive part…’ Just as all parts of the human organism are active, so too does the Body of Christ rely on the active working of members among which exist ‘such a unity and solidarity that a member who does not work at the growth of the body to the extent of their possibilities must be considered useless both to the church and to themselves’ #2.

On the spirituality of lay people the decree speaks of ‘the love that comes from God prompting them’ to put aside ‘all ill-will and deceit, all hypocrisy, envy and slander’ (1Pet 2:1) and, in so doing, attract people to Christ. ‘Divine love, “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5) enables lay people to express concretely in their lives the spirit of the Beatitudes’ #4.

Lay people are called to work alongside priests to further the mission of the church to announce to the world by word and action the message of Christ and to bring to the world the grace of Christ. This is mainly achieved through the ministry of the word and of the sacraments. Though this is committed in a special way to the clergy, ‘it leaves room … for a highly important part for the laity, the part namely of “helping on the cause of truth” (3Jn:8). It is in this sphere most of all that the lay apostolate and the pastoral ministry complete each other’ #6.

Chief among the fields of apostolic action are church communities, the family, the young, the social environment, national and international spheres #9. With the parish as an ‘outstanding example’ of community apostolate bringing together all the human diversities, the laity should work with the priests to bring before the ecclesial community their own problems, world problems, and questions regarding salvation, to examine them together and solve them by general discussion.

The decree stresses that people are social in nature #18 and work better in groups. The laity accomplish the church’s mission in the world principally by a blend of conduct and faith which ‘makes them the light of the world’, … ‘by that fraternal charity that makes them share the living conditions and labours, the sufferings and yearnings of their brothers and sisters and thereby prepare all hearts, gently, imperceptibly for the action of saving grace; by that full awareness of their personal responsibility in the development of society which drives them on to perform their family, social and professional duties with Christian generosity’ #13.

The decree directs the hierarchy to ‘favour the lay apostolate’ and to ‘direct the exercise of the apostolate to the common good of the church’. The church’s mission is often more effectively fulfilled when apostolic enterprises are run at the laity’s own discretion but it warns that ‘no enterprise must lay claim to the name “Catholic” if it has not the approval of legitimate ecclesiastical authority’ #24.

Bishops, parish priests and other clergy are reminded of the special role lay people play in building up the church #25, and the decree calls for lay people to educate themselves in the faith.

Training should have a ‘solid grounding in doctrine: theology, ethics and philosophy’ and ‘genuine human values’ should be paramount especially ‘the art of living and working on friendly terms with others and entering into dialogue with them’ #29.

It should be practical as well as theoretical. Every layperson should actively undertake their own preparation for the apostolate and, as they mature, ‘self-awareness expands and so allows each one to get a clearer view of the talents with which God has enriched their life’ #30.

‘The council rejoices at initiatives [in establishing institutes of learning] now flourishing in certain regions; it desires to see them take root in other places too, wherever the need for them makes itself felt’ #32.