The Laity: Christ’s Leaven in the World

COMMENTARY: 50 Years After the Vatican II Decree Apostolicam Actuositatem

Second Vatican Council in session
Second Vatican Council in session (photo:

On Nov. 18, 1965, the Second Vatican Council formally approved the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem. This document occupied an extremely important moment in the history of the Church, as it marked the first time an ecumenical council addressed the apostolic mission of the laity.

Vatican II was very clear that the laity constitute a true state of life in the Church, at least in the broad sense, as their consecration is more general and oriented to the secular world. However, this recognition of a lay state is to be understood as referring to “state” in the broad sense of the term.

“The state of the laity is used in place of condition and mission (terms which occur a little further on), so that the honor of constituting a state is recognized for the laity at least in the broad sense” (synopsis, Doctrinal Commission on Lumen Gentium, 467).

The Council wanted to make clear that all are called to participate in holiness, but each according to a specific charism. This is also true of the laity. In addition to this holiness, all the faithful are called upon to participate in the mission of the Church.

“Christ conferred on the apostles and their successors the duty of teaching, sanctifying and ruling in his name and power. But the laity, likewise, share in the priestly, prophetic and royal office of Christ and have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 2).

In baptism, one not only receives sanctifying grace, all of the virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but also an indelible mark also called the “character.” This causes a new relation to Christ, our Redeemer, in baptized souls, by which they share in his threefold office as priest, prophet and king. This character is deepened in confirmation, but it receives its most complete expression in holy orders.

Vatican II defines the laity as those who share the consecration of the character of baptism but have not implemented it by the deepening of the character or by living it in a special, unusual way. “The term ‘laity’ is here understood to mean all the faithful, except those in holy orders and those who belong to a religious state approved by the Church” (Lumen Gentium, 31).

The Church chose a special document to embrace a renewal of the mission of the laity partially because of a growing secular culture, which more and more compromises the truth of both reason and revelation. The renewed mission of the laity is precisely to be a leaven of the Catholic truth in the temporal order. Clergy and religious influence the temporal order, but their mission is more to the ecclesial order, and they cannot, as a result, normally be greatly immersed in the temporal order.

“The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation. Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church, and motivated by Christian charity, they must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal order” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 7).

As the laity are to sanctify the world from within, it would be equally a mistake for clergy to become “hyphenated priests,” occupied mostly in secular pursuits, or for laypeople to be clericalized so they take over all functions in the liturgy and the parish except actual consecration of the Eucharist. Instead, they have a mandate in the body of Christ to sanctify the professions, with special attention to family life. This apostolate is the implementation of their threefold conformity to Christ as priest, prophet and king, begun in the character received in baptism.

The priesthood of the laity is lived in their active participation in the liturgy, especially the Mass. This active participation is primarily a spiritual one, in which they morally offer themselves with Christ in the Offertory and receive support for their daily transformation in Christ in the Consecration and Communion. Though the Church has encouraged the laity to enter formally into the ritual of the Mass by acting as lectors and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, laypeople exercise their proper and characteristic dignity in transforming the secular world of the family and the professions, where they find their proper place. The laity live in the world and work in it; they sanctify the world. The laity exercise the true priesthood of the faithful. One of the principal places where they sanctify one another and the Church is in marriage. The ministers of marriage are the couple, and baptized spouses are each the minister of sanctification for the other.

In the professions, they have a prophetic role by which they teach the Catholic truth by word, but also by deed. They are, in every true sense of the word, the salt of the earth as they make the Church present everywhere by personal contacts. This would be true even for widows and widowers and even for children.

This prophetic character is witnessed in a special way in the family. Together, husbands and wives form a “domestic church” with their children. They are the first apostles of their children and accordingly have a right and duty to teach them the faith.

The religious actions that the laity do in the Church are normal and necessary. They are the regular, orderly way in which the society of the Church carries on the saving of the world. The consecration of the world through the actions of the laity is not due to the actions themselves, but to the attitude of the one who does them. This attitude is looking at the world from God’s point of view, under the aspect of eternity, which is the true perspective of faith.

The kingly character is shown in the ruling of their own lives in charity. For this reason, the Council strongly recommended that pastors provide opportunities for the laity’s spiritual formation. This is so that they may be sure they not only know the truth, but also implement it in prayer as the foundation of their apostolate to consecrate the world. The Council thus encourages the lay faithful to be true, active ministers in the mission of the Church and ensure that the world will be leavened from within.

The Council quoted Ephesians 4:15-16: “Practice the truth in love, and so grow up in all things in him who is the head, Christ. For from him the whole body — being closely joined and knit together through every joint of the system, according to the functioning in due measure of each single part — derives its increase to the building up of itself in love.”

Pope John XXIII said that this text should be written above the doors of the Council.

Dominican Father Brian Mullady, the author of Light of the Nations,

is a mission preacher and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles

 College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.