Reflections on Lumen Gentium, Part XXX

CHAPTER IV

THE LAITY

30. Having set forth the functions of the hierarchy, the Sacred Council gladly turns its attention to the state of those faithful called the laity. Everything that has been said above concerning the People of God is intended for the laity, religious and clergy alike. But there are certain things which pertain in a special way to the laity, both men and women, by reason of their condition and mission. Due to the special circumstances of our time the foundations of this doctrine must be more thoroughly examined. For their pastors know how much the laity contribute to the welfare of the entire Church. They also know that they were not ordained by Christ to take upon themselves alone the entire salvific mission of the Church toward the world. On the contrary they understand that it is their noble duty to shepherd the faithful and to recognize their ministries and charisms, so that all according to their proper roles may cooperate in this common undertaking with one mind. For we must all “practice the truth in love, and so grow up in all things in Him who is 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”.(190)

190 Eph. 4:15-16.

After discussing the functions of the various members of the hierarchy, the Council Fathers turn their attention to the role of the laity in the Church.

Our modern culture is somewhat hostile to the notion of different people having different roles in a society or an organization. Today, even the obvious differences between males and females are challenged, or willfully denied by those who demand a radical egalitarianism that sees different as meaning unequal. But, most of this is simply hot air spewing out of the mouths of those who contradict in their every day lives the words they speak to insistently, and loudly. For differences in roles and functions is as much a part of our nature as is our fundamental equality. Neither can be denied without consequence. The Church is not so foolish as to even try to deny the equality of all persons and the natural differences that exist in the various roles they play in society and in the Church.

“Due to the special circumstances of our time the foundations of this doctrine [the condition and mission of the laity] must be more thoroughly examined.” This is an important statement. The last few decades have often been called the age of the laity in the history of the Church, and the Council Fathers were responding to the changes that were taking place, both in society as a whole and in the Church. Many Catholics wrongly think that the decline in the number of priests and religious began after Vatican II, and those critical of the Council will often cite it as the cause of that decline. But, the decline in those entering the priesthood and religious life, especially in Europe, preceded the Council by a fair number of years. That decline hadn’t hit the U. S. much prior to the years after the Council, which is why the theory likely holds more weight in the States. But, in truth, the Council Fathers were responding in their consideration of the “condition and mission of the laity” to a reality that had already impacted many of their local churches.

Since the Second Vatican Council there has been an explosion of ministry opportunities for lay Catholics. Work once assumed by priests, brothers, and women religious has been taken up by lay Catholics. Perhaps no where is this more evident than in the Catholic schools. Formerly the exclusive domain of women and men religious, the vast majority of those who teach and administer the Catholic school system today are lay women and men. The same is true in almost every ministry conducted under the auspices of the Church, from food pantries and soup kitchens, to hospital ministry and parish religious education, from youth ministry and home visitations, to Bible studies and street evangelization.

What the Council Fathers say next is critical: “For their pastors know how much the laity contribute to the welfare of the entire Church. They also know that they were not ordained by Christ to take upon themselves alone the entire salvific mission of the Church toward the world. On the contrary they understand that it is their noble duty to shepherd the faithful and to recognize their ministries and charisms, so that all according to their proper roles may cooperate in this common undertaking with one mind.” Here the Council Fathers recognize that wise pastors will be aware of and respectful toward, as well as take advantage of, the contribution of the laity to “the entire welfare of the Church.” The responsibility to bring the saving message of Jesus Christ to the world does not rest on the shoulders of pastors alone. Rather, the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News of Jesus is a “common undertaking” of both religious and lay faithful. The lay faithful would do well to be cognizant of this, as well, for far too many regard the mission of the Church as the work of priests and sisters, failing to assume their own responsibility, even when it comes to passing on the faith to those for whom they are directly responsible: their children. It’s not unusual, even today, for lay Catholics to drop their children off at the Catholic school door, or even for barely once a week CCD classes, and assume their responsibility in passing on the faith is fulfilled.

Most pastors today, I think, have embraced the role of the laity in the life of the Church. Most pastors rejoice when lay men and women step up to take on a greater role in the life of the parish. It is the laity themselves who haven’t caught on quite yet to their responsibility toward the “common undertaking” of the salvific mission of the Church. The problem is much worse among Catholic lay men than Catholic lay women. There is no shortage of Catholic lay women who are active in the life of the parish and in the schools and in the various other ministries the Church adopts in the effort to bring the gospel message and the grace of Christ to their communities. But, where are the men? Indeed, in many parish staff photos, the only man in the picture is the priest (and maybe the maintenance guy). Yes, many men have been ordained permanent deacons in recent decades, but the Church needs men who are not only “official” representatives of the Church, but those whose lives are transformed by the message and grace of Christ in the everyday world of work, school, sports, and especially in passing on the faith to youth. Fathers, in particular, need to step up to the plate, take the faith seriously, and be seen by their children as desiring to live the faith faithfully.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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