The rich variety of lay organizations, communities and movements reflects the gifts and callings of the Holy Spirit to build up the Church
The apostolate of the laity was the topic of the Holy Father's catechesis at the General Audience of Wednesday, 23 March. The Pope expressed his appreciation of the "new breadth and variety" of the modern associations of the faithful, which are in conformity with "the Church's universal mission that seeks to instill the spirit of truth, charity and peace in peoples." The Holy Father's address was the 87th in the series on the mystery of the Church and was given in Italian.
1. In giving the lay apostolate a new impetus, the Second Vatican Council took care to declare that the first, basic and irreplaceable form of activity for building up the Body of Christ is that undertaken by individual members of the Church (cf. Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 16). Every Christian is called to the apostolate, every lay person is called to give personal witness and to share in the Church's mission. This presupposes and involves personal conviction, arising from faith and the sensus Ecclesiae that faith kindles in souls. If one believes and intends to be Church, one cannot fail to be convinced of one's "unique task which cannot be done by another and which is to be fulfilled for the good of all" (Christifideles laici, n. 28).
One can never do enough to inculcate in the faithful an awareness of their duty to co-operate in building up the Church and advancing the kingdom. Lay people also have the task of imbuing temporal realities with the Gospel. Opportunities for involvement are many, especially in the family, at work, in professional life and with recreational and cultural groups, etc.; and there are many people in the world today who wish to do something to improve life, to make society more just, to contribute to the good of their fellow men and women. For them, the discovery of their Christian mission in the apostolate could be the highest development of the natural vocation to the common good, which would increase the validity, motivation, nobility and even perhaps the generosity of their activity.
Church encourages both individual and group apostolates
2. But there is another natural vocation that can and must be expressed in the ecclesial apostolate: that of associations. On the supernatural level, the human tendency to associate is enriched and raised to the level of fraternal communion in Christ: "a sign of the communion and unity of the Church in Christ, who said, 'Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them' (Mt 18:20)" (Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 18).
There is no doubt that this ecclesial tendency towards group apostolates has a supernatural origin in the "charity" that the Holy Spirit instills in hearts (cf. Rom 5:5). However, its theological value matches the sociological need that in the modern world leads to the organization of combined efforts in order to reach preestablished objectives. Even in the Church, the Council states, "only a wellknit combination of efforts can completely attain all the aims of the modern apostolate and give its fruits good protection" (Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 18). It is a question of combining and harmonizing the activities of those who aim at influencing the spirit and mentalities of people in various social conditions with the Gospel message. It is a question of putting into practice an evangelization that is able to exert an influence on public opinion and on institutions; and to reach this aim, well-organized group action is required (cf. ibid.).
3. The Church therefore encourages both individual and group apostolates, and with the Council declared lay people's right to form associations for the apostolate: "While preserving intact the necessary link with ecclesiastical authority, the laity have the right to establish and direct associations, and to join existing ones" (ibid., n. 19).
The link with the ecclesiastical authorities implies a fundamental desire for harmony and ecclesial co-operation. But it does not prevent the associations from having their own autonomy. If in civil society the right to establish an association is recognized as an individual right based on man's freedom to join others to achieve a common aim, in the Church the right to found an association for religious purposes, for the lay faithful too, springs from Baptism, which in every Christian entails 'the possibility, duty and strength for active participation in the Church's communion and mission (cf. Christifideles laici, n. 29). The Code of Canon Law speaks of this in the following way: "The Christian faithful are at liberty freely to found and to govern associations for charitable and religious purposes, or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world; they are free to hold meetings to pursue these purposes in common" (can. 215).
4. In fact, in the Church lay people are increasingly making use of this freedom. Truly, in the past there was no lack of associations of the faithful, organized in the ways possible at the time. But there is no doubt that today the phenomenon has new breadth and variety. Along with the ancient fraternities, Misericordiae, pious sodalities, third orders, etc., we are witnessing the development everywhere of new kinds of associations. These groups, communities, movements pursue a great variety of aims, methods and fields of action, but always with a single fundamental purpose: the spread of Christian life and co-operation in the Church's mission (cf. Christifideles laici, n. 29).
Far from being an obstacle, the diversity of associations is rather an indication of the supreme freedom of the Holy Spirit, who respects and encourages the diversity of aspirations. Temperaments, vocations, abilities, etc. that exist in people. However, it is certain that in variety it is always necessary to preserve the concern for unity, avoiding rivalry, tension, and the tendency to monopolize the apostolate or to a superiority excluded by the Gospel itself. The spirit of participation and communion should always be fostered among the various associations in order truly to contribute to spreading the Gospel message.
5. The criteria that make it possible to recognize the ecclesial nature, that is, the genuinely Catholic character of various associations are:
a) the primacy given to the call of every Christian to holiness and
to the perfection of charity as the goal of the Christian vocation;
These criteria should be followed and applied at the local, regional and national levels, and even through international ties between cultural, social and political institutions, in conformity with the universal mission of the Church, which seeks to instill the spirit of truth, charity and peace in peoples, in States, and in the new communities of which these are composed.
The relations of lay associations with the ecclesiastical authorities can also receive particular recognition and approval when this is deemed appropriate or even necessary by reason of their extension or their type of involvement in the apostolate (cf. Christifideles laici n. 31). The Council pointed out this possibility and its fittingness for "associations and undertakings aiming immediately at a spiritual goal" (Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 24). As regards cases of "ecumenical associations" with a Catholic majority and a non-Catholic minority, it is the task of the Pontifical Council for the Laity to determine the conditions for their approval (Christifideles laici, n. 31).
Evangelization and sanctification is purpose of Catholic Action
6. Among the forms of group apostolate, the Council expressly and particularly cites Catholic Action (cf. Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 20). Even in the various forms which this has taken in the different countries and with the changes that have occurred over time, Catholic Action is distinguished by the extremely close link it maintains with the hierarchy; this is not the least of the reasons for the abundant fruit it has produced in the Church and in the world throughout the many years of its history.
The organizations known by the name of Catholic Action (but also by other names and of a similar type) have as their purpose to evangelize and sanctify one's neighbour, to form Christian consciences, to have an influence on morality and to instill a religious spirit in society. The laity assumes responsibility in communion with the Bishop and priests. They act "under the superior direction of the hierarchy which can authorize this co-operation, besides, with an explicit mandate" (ibid.). The degree of their capacity to build the Body of Christ depends and will always depend on the extent of their fidelity to the hierarchy and their ecclesial harmony. At the same time, experience shows that, if on the basis of their own action dissent is sown and a conflicting attitude is taken almost as a general policy, not only is the Church not built up, but a self-destructive process is begun that frustrates the work and generally brings about its end.
The Church, the Council and the Pope hope and pray that in the group forms of the lay apostolate and especially in Catholic Action, the radiance of the ecclesial community in its unity, its charity and its mission to spread faith and holiness in the world may always be recognized.
L'Osservatore Romano March 30, 1994