Unleash the Laity


A pre-Vatican II spirit remains strong in the Church.

But it might not be the one you first think of.

The Second Vatican Council sought to change Catholics’ understanding of their vocations. The message: Lay people aren't adjuncts to priests; lay people are to sanctify the world. What happens inside church walls shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of Christian life — the Mass is the source and summit of a faith life spent elsewhere.

Simply put: Vatican II sent lay people to take the Gospel to the great wide mission field outside church walls.

But many in the Church had a hard time adjusting to this change in paradigm. Perhaps they still thought of what happened inside church walls as the most important thing. At any rate, when the Council called for more lay involvement, they assumed it meant more lay involvement inside the church.

At their November meeting in Washington, D.C., the U.S. bishops approved “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry.” The document is not particular law in the Church, but a set of suggestions and optional guidelines.

A guide on how to treat lay people who work for the Church is fine and needed. After all, there are more than 30,000 lay men and women working in American parishes, and the number is growing. They are the lifeblood of parishes — and thus of the faith.

But we should be careful to avoid conflating lay and priestly roles. If we steer lay people who want to do more for the Church toward priest-like roles, we send a pre-Vatican II message: “If you want to be more active as a Catholic, you need to be a minister, like a priest.”

Just as bad, we say to young men who may have vocations: “You don't need a radical commitment to a new form of life to be a minister.”

We need to learn the language of Vatican II that says: “Lay people needn't imitate the priest or duplicate his efforts. They are to bring Christ to the world they live in, socialize in and work in.”

But don't take our word for it. Take the Pope's — not just one Pope, but two, along with eight Vatican dicasteries. In 1997, Pope John Paul II promulgated an instruction “On certain questions regarding the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the Sacred ministry of the priest.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI, was one of the Vatican prefects who signed it.

The instruction acknowledges lay roles inside the Church “in the teaching of Christian doctrine, for example, in certain liturgical actions in the care of souls,” and even allows for temporarily expanded lay roles in emergencies.

But it said that lay people's fundamental vocation is “in their personal, family and social lives by proclaiming and sharing the gospel of Christ in every situation in which they find themselves.” It even said that lay people can't properly be called ministers — except “extraordinary ministers” in certain situations.

Some suggested that the document was only meant to apply to certain European dioceses where lay people had been made chaplains. In a March 11, 1997, article in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Ratzinger said it was also meant for North America. Pope John Paul II reiterated that in his Jubilee-Year ad limina addresses to U.S. bishops.

It's important to get this right — because parish life is vitally important, more important than we sometimes give it credit for. Catholicism is as much about community as it is about conquering the world.

Cardinal Ratzinger said the Church must clearly define roles or risk “falling into a ‘Protestantization’ of the concepts of ministry and of the Church.” He also said that “a loss of the meaning of the sacrament of Holy Orders” and “the growth of a kind of parallel ministry by so-called ‘pastoral assistants’” is causing confusion about the special identity of ordained priests.

Cardinal Ratzinger said that the instruction explains the three types of tasks and services proper to the laity:

— making Christ present in the world through activities in society.

— working for Catholic institutions and organizations.

— temporarily performing functions normally reserved to a priest “in special and serious circumstances, concretely because of a lack of priests and deacons.”

In the end, the best way to promote the proper understanding of lay roles in the Church is to fully live our own. To that end, find the first of our four Advent Guides on the back page of this issue. Clip them out, pass them on, and spread the word.

Use them as a Vatican II lay person — the kind whose faith impacts the culture.