The great 19th-century English convert, Blessed John Henry Newman, was a great proponent of the laity’s role in the Church. Once, when asked by his bishop what the clergy should think of the laity, Newman famously quipped, “Well, we’d look rather silly without them.”
A century later, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), influenced in part by the writings of Cardinal Newman, announced that one of its goals was “to impart an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 1). Therefore, the Council charted a plan for renewal on the premise that every baptized Christian has a crucial role to play in the life of the Church. In other words, holiness isn’t the exclusive domain of “professionals” (i.e., priests and religious), but rather the goal of every human life. This principle became known as the “universal call to holiness” and was discussed at length in chapter V of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium).
Given the centrality of this theme, the vocation of lay people to holiness and to participation in the Church through the renewal of the family and society informs every conciliar document. However, in the 1965 Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem), the Council addressed the subject directly.
When my children were young, I would go into their room at night and sprinkle them with holy water. Depending on how trying of a day it was, I would give them an extra sprinkle or two or three. (Sometimes I would be tempted to bathe them in holy water!) As I went through this ritual, I would ask them, “Whose child are you?” to which they would reply, “God’s.” The point was to link their being Christians to their being children of God through the waters of Baptism. And, as Vatican II stresses, it’s our shared Baptism–deepened through the sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist–that provides the basis for the entirety of the Christian life.
“The laity derive the right and duty to the apostolate from their union with Christ the head; incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body through Baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation, they are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord Himself. They are consecrated for the royal priesthood and the holy people (cf. 1 Peter 2:4-10) not only that they may offer spiritual sacrifices in everything they do but also that they may witness to Christ throughout the world. The sacraments, however, especially the most holy Eucharist, communicate and nourish that charity which is the soul of the entire apostolate” (no. 3).
This is a broad topic, but here are a few thoughts to consider:
(1) Call to holiness means a call to apostolate. We notice that the document is not called the “Decree on the Holiness of the Laity.” Our pursuit of holiness cannot be seen in isolation from our participation in the Church, which exists to bring all men and women into full communion with Christ. Lay Catholics build up the Church through word and example in the midst of the world.
(2) It’s apostolate, not ministry. True, we often use “apostolate” and “ministry” interchangeably, and in fact “ministry” is the more commonly used term, especially in Protestant circles. Yet Vatican II intentionally refrains from using the term “ministry” in connection with the laity, as that term is ordinarily reserved for the sanctifying and teaching functions of the ordained. “Apostolate” is what we are all called to do by virtue of our Baptism. Here we see the Church balancing the “universal” call to build up the Church with the specific call of ordained ministers, whose participation in the one priesthood of Christ differs from that of the laity in essence and not merely in degree (Lumen Gentium, no. 10).
(3) It’s not about doing “Church” things. In recent decades the Church has seen an explosion of lay liturgical “ministries” as well as the growth of lay positions in the institutional Church (like mine!). These are good things in themselves, so long as we understand that when the Church calls for an active, engaged laity, she is speaking primarily of the role of the laity outside of the church building and church offices. The idea is not to have lay people look more like priests or religious–and certainly not more “lay bureaucrats”–but to encourage laity to “be what they are”: agents of the Gospel in the midst of the world. As Pope Pius XII noted back in 1946, laity must be “on the front lines of the Church’s life.”
(4) Renewing the temporal order. Priests minister to us, so that we in turn can bring Christ to the world. When the Church calls the laity to “renew the temporal order,” she is not being abstract, but very specific. We are called to evangelize our families, workplaces, social networks, and public places. Occasionally this may be a little more dramatic, but more often it takes place in the ordinariness of daily living, which when united with Christ becomes extraordinary and redemptive.
(5) It’s all about being united with Christ. Consider this analogy: Imagine there’s a mishap on an airplane and the craft begins losing cabin pressure. In the face of such a calamity, most of us would want to be courageous and help as many of our fellow passengers as possible. Yet, if we don’t use our own air mask first, in a matter of seconds we’ll be of no use to anybody. We would be among the first casualties. Similarly, our first responsibility as Christians is to open our own hearts to Christ each day, allowing Him to change us and work through us. Only then does “apostolate” happen!
How do you understand your baptismal vocation to holiness and to mission?