33. The laity are gathered together in the People of God and make up the Body of Christ under one head. Whoever they are they are called upon, as living members, to expend all their energy for the growth of the Church and its continuous sanctification, since this very energy is a gift of the Creator and a blessing of the Redeemer.
The lay apostolate, however, is a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself. Moreover, by the sacraments, especially holy Eucharist, that charity toward God and man which is the soul of the apostolate is communicated and nourished. Now the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth (2*). Thus every layman, in virtue of the very gifts bestowed upon him, is at the same time a witness and a living instrument of the mission of the Church itself “according to the measure of Christ’s bestowal”.(197)
Besides this apostolate which certainly pertains to all Christians, the laity can also be called in various ways to a more direct form of cooperation in the apostolate of the Hierarchy (3*). This was the way certain men and women assisted Paul the Apostle in the Gospel, laboring much in the Lord.(198) Further, they have the capacity to assume from the Hierarchy certain ecclesiastical functions, which are to be performed for a spiritual purpose.
Upon all the laity, therefore, rests the noble duty of working to extend the divine plan of salvation to all men of each epoch and in every land. Consequently, may every opportunity be given them so that, according to their abilities and the needs of the times, they may zealously participate in the saving work of the Church.
197 Eph. 4:7.
(2) Cfr. Pius XI, Litt. Encycl. Quadragesimo anno 15 maii 1931: AAS 23 (1931) p. 121 s. Pius XII, Alloc. De quelle consolation, 14 oct. 1951: AAS 43 (1951) p. 790 s.
(3) Cfr. Pius XII, Alloc. Six ans se sont ecoules, 5 oct. l9S7: AAS 49 (19S7) p. 927. De mandato et missione canonica, cfr. Decretum De Apostolatu laicorum, cap. IV, n. 16, cum notis 12 et 15.
I want to focus my reflection on this paragraph on two things the Council Fathers have to say about the role of the laity in the life of the Church:
“The lay apostolate, … , is a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself.”
“Now the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth”
First, the laity in the Church participate in an apostolate. The word apostle means “sent out.” The laity, then, are sent out into the world to “participate in the salvific mission of the Church.” That means the laity are not removed from the work of salvation, the work of bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to all. Rather, the laity are involved in that work, commissioned to the work of bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to others by virtue of their baptism and their confirmation. What is more, the laity are commissioned, not by the pope, or by the bishops, or by their pastor, but by the Lord Himself! The Lord Himself confers the grace of baptism and confirmation, so it the Lord Himself Who commissions the laity to the salvific mission of the Church.
This means a couple of things to me: First, while the laity work with the ordained pastors of the Church, and never against them (for doing so would cause division in the Body of Christ), the laity are not expected to wait for their pastor or bishop to call them to participate in the Church’s mission. Rather, they ought to be approaching the pastor or the bishop for counsel and guidance on where their gifts can best be used. While the laity do not receive permission from the pastor or bishop to participate in the mission of the Church, it is the responsibility of the pastor and bishop to pastor the People of God, so any public ministry ought properly be carried out in accord with the ordained pastors of the Church. It does no one good for someone to go off on their own track. This increases the danger that one will get lost in their own priorities, confusing their personal agendas with the Church’s mission. But, again, the laity are gifted with many talents, and ought to be prepared and eager to put those talents at the disposal of the Church’s mission, even in the public ministries of the Church.
Second, where the laity can be especially effective is in reminding the ordained pastors of the Church, respectfully, when they seem to have lost their own way or have forgotten the admonition of St. Paul to Titus to “teach what befits sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). A few times over the years, not many, I have felt the need to approach my pastor about a decision he has made and recommended that the decision be reconsidered, or about something he has said from the pulpit. Sometimes he has agreed, and sometime he has not. But, I always felt that I had been listened to. I always approach privately, keeping my concerns between the two of us, and often in writing. I have always received a respectful response, even when my pastor disagrees. But, what if I had approached him in a hostile way, demanding that he see things my way, and threatening to write or call the bishop to denounce him? (I have never written a bishop to denounce or criticize one of his priests). What if I had brought my concerns to him publicly, in front of a crowd, embarrassing him and almost forcing him to defend himself and his decision? Most matters can be handled with gentleness and, frankly, most matters are not as crucial to the life and sanctification of the People of God as we might be tempted to think at the time. Yet, even on those matters of vital importance, there remains the duty to be respectful.
(Some people here, given recent headlines and their own propensity to see everything in the Church in terms of the abuse scandal, will admonish me for what they will think is me recommending a soft approach when someone learns of a priest who is abusing children. They should approach the priest privately, they will accuse me of saying. They should show the priest respect, or show the bishop respect, even if the bishop disagrees and sees no need for action, they will accuse me of saying. Please. Child abuse is a crime. As such, it ought to be reported to the proper civil authorities. If you know of a priest, or anyone, for that matter, who is abusing children, you need to call the police, not write a respectful email to the priest asking that he reconsider his decision to abuse children!)
As well, if the laity regard it as their responsibility to admonish their pastors when necessary, they ought also regard it their responsibility to support them with a kind word or gesture, and especially with their prayers. I said above that I have never written a bishop to denounce or criticize one of his priests. That makes me think, I have never written a bishop to commend or praise one if his priests, either! That needs to be fixed. Priests are people, and everyone appreciates a pat on the back every once in a while. Priests deserve the support of their flock, just as the flock deserve the support of their priests.
Another area where the laity are especially well-placed to participate in the salvific mission of the Church is in the home. This seems obvious, but it’s too often neglected. As spouses, we ought to be about being Christ for our husbands or wives. As parents, we have the duty to raise our children in the faith, to be the presence of Christ to them and to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to them. In fact, our mission to our family is our primary mission, even before we start taking on activities in the parish. Our priorities are backwards if we are always seen at church and rarely seen at home. I recall speaking with a woman many years ago who was regarded by all as a pillar of the parish. Her teenage daughter, however, said that she had never seen her mother pray. Here was a woman who was a devout and active Catholic, who certainly rightly saw herself as participating in the salvific mission of the Church at the parish level. But, what about her own home? How is it that one so devout, so active, so faithful had neglected the salvific mission of the Church in her own home, at least in the crucial area of teaching her child to pray and witnessing to the value of prayer by her actions?
Another area where the laity are especially well-placed to participate in the salvific mission of the Church is in the workplace. How do we treat our co-workers? How do we treat our supervisors, or those under our authority? How dedicated are we to putting in an honest day’s work? When our co-workers look to us, do they see one who reflects the priorities and the values and virtues of the Gospel in our language, our demeanor, our dress, our helpfulness and teamwork? All of these are opportunities to witness to the Gospel, even if words are never spoken or conversation about religion never directly brought up.
Priests and bishops are not members of our families (though they’re certainly members of their families), and they don’t generally follow us to work. So, home and work are two of “those places and circumstances” where only through the laity can the Church become the salt of the earth.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.