The Second Vatican Council teaches that the lay apostolate is essential to the vocation of every Christian in virtue of Baptism and Confirmation
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 2 March, the Holy Father returned to his discussion of the role of the laity in the Church's mission. In this talk he stated that the circumstances of the present day call for lay people's active involvement in the work of evangelization, particularly where they live and work. The Pope's catechesis was the 84th in the series on the mission of the Church and was given in Italian.
1. The laity's participation in the growth of Christ's kingdom is a historical reality in every age: from the gatherings in apostolic times, to the Christian communities of the early centuries, to the groups, movements, unions, fraternities and societies of the Middle Ages and the modern period, to the activities of individuals and associations that, in the last century and in ours, have supported the Church's Pastors in defending faith and morals in families, societies, social contexts and classes, at times even paying for this witness with their blood. The experience of these activities, often promoted by saints and supported by Bishops in the 19th and 20th centuries, have not only led to a deeper awareness of the laity's mission, but also to an ever clearer and more explicit conception of this mission as a true and proper "apostolate".
Pius XI spoke of the "laity's co-operation in the apostolate of the hierarchy" with regard to "Catholic Action": it was a decisive period in the Church's life. It led to a remarkable development along two lines: the organizational, which especially took shape in Catholic Action, and that of theoretical, doctrinal reflection, culminating in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which presents the apostolate of the laity as "a sharing in the Church's mission of salvation" (Lumen gentium, n. 33).
Apostolate of laity arises from their Baptism
2. The Council could be said to have given a clearer doctrinal formulation to the ecclesial experience that began with Pentecost, when all who received the Holy Spirit felt they had been given a mission to proclaim the Gospel, to establish and develop the Church. In the centuries that followed sacramental theology made it clear that all who become members of the Church through Baptism are obliged, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to give witness to the faith and to spread Christ's kingdom: a task that is strengthened by the sacrament of Confirmation, by which the faithful, as the Council says, "are under more pressing obligation to spread the faith by word and deed as true witnesses of Christ" (Lumen gentium, n. 11). In more recent times, advances in ecclesiology have developed the concept of lay involvement, not only in relation to the two sacraments of Christian initiation, but also as an expression of a more conscious participation in the Church's mystery in accordance with the spirit of Pentecost. This is another basic point of the theology of the laity.
3. The theological principle that "the Church can never be without the apostolate of lay people, arising as it does from their Christian vocation" (Apostolicam actuositatem, n. I), clarifies in ever fuller and more transparent fashion the need for lay involvement in our age. This necessity is further emphasized by certain circumstances that characterize the present time. For example, there is the population growth in cities, where the number of priests is always insufficient; mobility because of work, school, recreation, etc., which is a feature of modern society; the autonomy of many areas of society which make ethical and religious conditions more difficult and action from within more necessary; the sociological distance of priests from many areas of work and culture. For these and other reasons a new work of evangelization is required of the laity. On the other hand, the growth of institutions and of the democratic mentality itself has made and is making the laity more sensitive to the demands of ecclesial commitment. The spread and the rise in the average level of culture gives to many greater abilities in working for the good of society and the Church.
4. From the historical point of view then, one should not be surprised at the new forms that lay activity has assumed. Under the impulse of modern sociocultural conditions, greater attention has been paid to an ecclesiological principle which had previously been left somewhat in the background: the diversity of ministries in the Church is a vital need of the Mystical Body. All its members are needed for it to develop and it requires everyone's contribution in accordance with each one's various abilities. "The whole body grows and, with the proper functioning of the members..., builds itself up in love" (Eph 4:16). It is a "self-building", which depends on Christ, the Head of the Body (cf. ibid.), but requires the co-operation of each member. Hence in the Church there is a diversity of ministries in the unity of mission (cf. Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 2). Unity is not harmed by diversity but enriched.
5. There is an essential difference between ordained ministries and nonordained ministries, as I explained in the catecheses on the priesthood. The Council teaches that the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood differ essentially and not only in degree (cf. Lumen gentium, n. 10). The Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici notes that the ordained ministries are exercised in virtue of the sacrament of Orders, while the nonordained ministries, the offices and roles of the lay faithful "have their foundation in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, and for a good many of them, in Matrimony" (n. 23). This last statement has great value, especially for married couples and parents, who are also called to carry out a Christian apostolate particularly in their families (cf. CCC, n. 902).
The same Apostolic Exhortation points out that "pastors ought to acknowledge and foster the ministries, offices and roles of the lay faithful" (n. 23). A pastor of souls cannot expect to do everything in the community entrusted to him. He must put the laity's activity to the best possible use, with sincere esteem for their competence and availability. Although it is true that a lay person cannot replace the pastor in the ministries that require the powers given by the sacrament of Orders, it is also true that the pastor cannot replace the laity in areas where they have greater competence. Therefore he must promote their role and encourage their participation in the Church's mission.
6. In this regard what the Code of Canon Law prescribes must be kept in mind: "When the necessity of the Church warrants it", the laity can supply for certain of the clergy's activities (can. 230, §3); but as we read in the Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici, "the exercise of these tasks does not make pastors of the lay faithful"; they derive their "legitimacy formally and immediately from the official deputation given by the pastors, as well as from its concrete exercise under the guidance of ecclesiastical authority" (n. 23).
Laity have role in Christ's prophetic office
It should be immediately added, however, that the laity's activity is not limited to that of supplying "in situations of emergency and chronic necessity". There are areas of Church life in which, along with the tasks proper to the hierarchy the active participation of the laity is also desired. The first is that of the liturgical assembly. Certainly the Eucharistic celebration requires the action of someone who has received from the sacrament of Orders the power to offer the sacrifice in Christ's name: the priest. However, according to the Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici, the liturgical celebration "is a sacred action not simply of the clergy, but of the entire assembly". A community action. "It is, therefore, natural that the tasks not proper to the ordained ministers be fulfilled by the lay faithful" (n. 23). And how many lay people, children and adults, young and old, carry out these tasks extremely well in our churches, with prayers, readings, songs and various services inside and outside the sacred building! Let us thank the Lord for this reality of our time. We must pray that he will enable them continually to increase in number and quality.
7. In addition to the liturgy, lay people have their own duty to proclaim the word of God, since they have a role in Christ's prophetic office and hence a responsibility for evangelization. To this end they can be given particular functions and even permanent mandates, for example, in catechesis, in education, in managing and editing religious periodicals, in Catholic publishing, in the mass media, in various works and projects that the Church sponsors for spreading the faith (CCC, n. 906).
In every case we are talking about a sharing in the Church's mission, in the ever new Pentecost whose goal is to bring the entire world the grace of the Spirit who descended on the Upper Room in Jerusalem so that the marvels of God might be proclaimed to all nations.
L'Osservatore Romano March 9, 1994