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Vatican II on the Lay Apostolate: Mission

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 30, 2010

What role do the laity play in the Church’s apostolic activity? Are they simply to follow the detailed instructions of those set over them in the Church hierarchy? Do they have an apostolic mission in their own right? These are the questions answered by the Second Vatican Council’s twelfth document, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem). While the document seems almost ordinary to those who have since become thoroughly accustomed to the lay apostolate, it appeared almost revolutionary in the more clericalist Catholic atmosphere of the mid-20th century.

Issued on November 18, 1965, Apostolicam Actuositatem begins immediately with the assertion that “the apostolate of the laity derives from their Christian vocation and the Church can never be without it.” Moreover, “modern conditions demand that their apostolate be broadened and intensified” because of increasing population, progress in science and technology, and the “serious danger to Christian life” occasioned by an increasing autonomy in many areas of life which has unfortunately involved “a degree of departure from ethical and religious order” (1).

For summary purposes, I will divide the document into two parts. In the first of two installments, I'll cover the mission of the laity outlined in the first three chapters; and in the second and final installment, I'll discuss the implementation of that mission as covered in the remaining chapters.

Chapter I, “The Vocation of the Laity to the Apostolate”, first defines “apostolate” as all activity of the Mystical Body directed to the goal for which the Church was founded, namely “the spreading of the kingdom of Christ throughout the earth for the glory of God the Father, to enable all men to share in His saving redemption, and that through them the whole world might enter into a relationship with Christ.” Thus the “Christian vocation by its very nature is also a vocation to the apostolate”, so much so that “the member who fails to make his proper contribution to the development of the Church must be said to be useful neither to the Church nor to himself” (2).

The Council teaches that for the laity, this mission or apostolate grows from their share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ, and it must be “directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel” (2). Each one engages in the apostolate through “the faith, hope, and charity which the Holy Spirit diffuses in the hearts of all members of the Church.” The exercise of this apostolate is also rooted in whatever special gifts the Holy Spirit confers on each (3), and it is further shaped according to each one’s state of life, state of health, and professional and social activity. Above all, “the success of the lay apostolate depends upon the laity’s living union with Christ” (4).

In the second chapter, entitled “Objectives”, the Council Fathers note that Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with salvation, “includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order,” which Christ intends to raise up and make into a new creation (5). For this reason, lay persons are both to offer the witness of their way of life and to look for specific opportunities to announce the gospel to unbelievers and to instruct and strengthen believers. In a passage which balances the Council’s frequently positive outlook on many human developments, the Fathers also emphasize a harsh necessity:

Since, in our own times, new problems are arising and very serious errors are circulating which tend to undermine the foundations of religion, the moral order, and human society itself, this sacred synod earnestly exhorts laymen—each according to his own gifts of intelligence and learning—to be more diligent in doing what they can to explain, defend, and properly apply Christian principles to the problems of our era in accordance with the mind of the Church. (6)

“All those things which make up the temporal order” are to be touched and transformed by this apostolic activity: the family, culture, economics, the arts, the professions, laws, international relations, every human good and all legitimate human development, for these “not only aid in the attainment of man’s ultimate goal but also possess their own intrinsic value.” Moreover, these values must be recovered in our technocratic era, in which many “have fallen into an idolatry of temporal things and have become their slaves rather than their masters” (7).

Thus the whole Church must work to make people “capable of rectifying the distortion of the temporal order and directing it to God through Christ.” And here we come to a critical distinction and perhaps the critical point the Council wishes to make about the lay apostolate: While pastors must teach the principles and offer the spiritual aids by which the temporal order may be renewed, “the laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation” [emphasis added]. And they must take up this obligation with true and obvious charity, which is one of the signal marks of the Kingdom of God (7).

Chapter III, “The Various Fields of the Apostolate”, briefly identifies the spheres of potential action for the lay apostolate, such as church communities, the family, youth, and the social order at the local, national and international levels (9). It discusses the need for the laity to work harmoniously with their priests in the building up of the parish (10). It goes on to discuss the importance of cultivating a sense of apostolic mission in youth (12), and the need to “infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and the structure of the community”(13), always attempting to serve the true common good through participation in public affairs by those “adequately enlightened in faith and Christian doctrine” (14).

In a prophetic central paragraph in this chapter, the Fathers take special notice of the importance of apostolic activity undertaken by married couples and entire families together, to manifest “the indissolubility and sacredness of the marriage bond”, to affirm “the right and duty of parents and guardians to educate children in a Christian manner”, and to defend “the dignity and lawful autonomy of the family.” In addition, the apostolate of the family can include adoption, hospitality, education, work with adolescents, formation of engaged couples, catechetical work, and support for families in need (11).

Thus is the mission of the laity given not only a universal definition but a particular emphasis for our times. In the remaining chapters, Apostolicam Actuositatem covers the forms of the apostolate, relations between the hierarchy and the laity, and proper apostolic formation. These will be considered in the second part of this summary.


Previous in series: Vatican II on Divine Revelation
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  • Posted by: makrupa8733 - Sep. 01, 2010 11:09 AM ET USA

    I will be forwarding this to my son as he and I are beginning to engage in a dialogue. Living in this culture is VERY dynamic and Vatican II spells out clearly how we should act. Life is not boring or as Fulton Sheen said "Life is worth living!" Krupa

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