The renewal of the lay apostolate is linked to an awareness of the charisms the Holy Spirit gives all the baptized to build up the Church.
The role of lay Christians in preparing the future for the Church and human society was the subject of the Holy Father's catechesis at the General Audience of Wednesday, 21 September. Focusing on the role of the sacraments in Christian living, the Pope discussed the need for appropriate doctrinal and spiritual formation on the part of the laity. The Holy Father's talk was the 102nd in the series on the mystery of the Church and was given in Italian.
1. A great hope enlivens the Church on this eve of the third millennium of the Christian era. She is preparing to enter it with an intense effort to renew all her forces, among which is the Christian laity.
The more vivid awareness that lay people have been acquiring of their own mission in the Church's life, in conjunction with a notable development of ecclesiology, is a positive reality in the history of the last century. Too often in the past the Church seemed to lay people to be identified with the hierarchy, so that their attitude was rather that of someone who must receive and not of someone called to action and a specific responsibility. Fortunately, today many realize that, in union with those who exercise the ministerial priesthood, lay people too are the Church and have demanding tasks in her life and growth.
2. It was the Church's Pastors themselves who invited the laity to assume this responsibility. In particular, Pius XI's promotion of Catholic Action opened a decisive chapter in the development of the laity's work in the religious, social cultural, political and even economic fields. The historical experience and doctrinal development of Catholic Action provided new incentives, opened new perspectives, kindled new fires. The hierarchy proved more and more favorable to lay action, even to that kind of apostolic mobilization often sought by Pius XII, who in his 1952 Easter message urged and invited: "At the priests' side let the laity speak, who have learned to penetrate hearts and minds with words and love. Yes, bearers of life, permeate every place, factories, workshops, fields: wherever Christ has a right to enter" (Discorsi e radiomessaggi di Sua Santita Pio XII, vol. XIV, p. 64). Pius XII's appeals invigorated many initiatives of Catholic Action and of other associations and movements, which increasingly spread the activity of lay Christians in the Church and in society.
The marvels of Pentecost are renewed
The subsequent interventions of Popes and Bishops, especially at Vatican II (cf. Decree Apostolicam actuositatem), at the Synods and in many post-conciliar documents, increasingly confirmed and promoted a reawakening of the laity's ecclesial awareness, which today is a source of hope for the Church's growth.
3. It is possible to speak of a new lay life, rich in immense human potential, as a historically observable and verifiable fact. The true value of this life comes from the Holy Spirit, who abundantly bestows his gifts on the Church, as he has done since the beginning on the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:3-4- 1 Cor 12:7f). In our day too, many signs and great witness have been given by individuals groups and movements generously dedicated to the apostolate. They show that the marvels of Pentecost have not ceased, but are renewed abundantly in the Church today. It is obvious that in addition to a considerable development in the doctrine of the charisms there has also been a new flowering of active lay people in the Church: it not by chance that the two facts have occurred at the same time. It is all the work of the Holy Spirit, the effective and vital source of everything in the Christian life that is really and authentically evangelical.
4. As everyone knows, the Holy Spirit's action is not displayed only in impulses and charismatic gifts, but also in the sacramental life. From this aspect too we can joyfully recognize that many signs of progress have been noted in the value put on the sacramental life of lay Christians.
There is a trend to appreciate Baptism better as the source of the whole Christian life. Further progress must be made in this direction, in order better and better to discover and exploit the riches of a sacrament whose effects extend throughout one's whole life.
It will also be appropriate to put greater stress on the value of the sacrament of Confirmation, which, by a special gift of the Holy Spirit, bestows the ability to give an adult witness of faith in Christ and to take up one's own responsibilities more consciously and deliberately in the Church's life and apostolate.
Making the most of the sacrament of Marriage is of primary importance for the sanctification of the spouses themselves and for the formation of Christian homes, on which the future of God's People and of all society depends. Groups and associations for deepening marital spirituality are working in this direction. Tireless and unceasing progress must also be made along these lines.
A more intense, conscious and active participation by the laity in the Eucharistic celebration allows us to see a vigorous affirmation of witness and apostolic involvement in Christian communities. Here one always finds the living source of union with Christ, of ecclesial communion and of zeal in evangelizing.
Perhaps in recent years less attention has been paid to the sacrament of Reconciliation. We must hope that more intense efforts will be made once again to esteem the reception of this sacrament from which derive not only the gift of spiritual healing that comes from God, but also a new fervour in one's interior life and a new clearness of vision and sincere commitment to Church service. However, we must not forget that in the case of serious sin, sacramental confession is necessary for receiving the Eucharist.
5. As these simple observations on the situation of the laity in the Church today show, promoting the apostolate of the laity requires a corresponding development in their formation (cf. Christifideles laici, n. 60). This primarily means cultivating the spiritual life. It is a joy to observe in this regard that the laity increasingly have at their disposal suitable means to grow in this way: from prayer groups and spiritual associations in many parishes, to meetings for reading and discussing the word of God, days of recollection and courses of spiritual exercises. Religious radio and television broadcasts are also an effective tool for faith enrichment and for giving direction to the Christian people in their spiritual life and worship.
6. In our world, marked by widespread growth in the cultural level of various classes of people, lay persons involved in Church-related tasks have an ever greater need of good doctrinal formation (cf. Christifideles laici, n. 60). Here too it is a pleasure to see notable progress: many lay people are seeking a greater understanding of the doctrine of the faith. The increased number of institutes for religious studies is significant. Theology courses and conferences, which were once reserved to those preparing for the priesthood, have become more and more open to the laity. These courses and conferences are attended not only by those who must be certified in religious education, but many others who desire a more complete formation, which will benefit their family, friends and acquaintances. Another sign of hope is the deep interest with which the Catechism of the Catholic Church has been received in various parts of the world.
7. Progress in the doctrinal formation of the laity has also been made with regard to a better knowledge of the Church's social teaching. Those who are involved—at all levels—in economic and political life must be inspired by the principles of this teaching in their programes of action. We would like to see the progress achieved thus far to continue increasing. Unfortunately the Church's social teaching is too little known. It is the responsibility of today's socially and spiritually well-trained Christian laity to seek appropriate ways to apply these principles, thus making an effective contribution to building a society of greater justice and solidarity.
Laity are actively involved in missionary efforts
8. While arousing a feeling of gratitude to the Lord, who is ever wondrous in his gifts, the promotion of the laity's life in the Church also justifies an outburst of new hope. Christian lay people are also sharing more and more actively in the Church's missionary effort. The prospects for preaching the Gospel in the world today depend considerably on their contribution. In the laity the face of God's People is revealed in all its splendour, a people on the way to their own salvation and, precisely for this reason, committed to spreading the light of the Gospel and bringing Christ to life in the minds and hearts of their brothers and sisters. We are sure that the Holy Spirit, who has developed the spirituality and mission of lay people in the Church today, will continue his activity for the greater good of the Church tomorrow and forever.
L'Osservatore Romano September 28, 1994