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Vatican II on the Lay Apostolate: Implementation

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 31, 2010

The first part of my summary of the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) covered the special mission of the laity, as discussed in the document's first three chapters. The document continues in its final chapters to consider the various forms, relations, and preparations that are necessary for the success of this mission. This second and final installment will summarize these reflections on the implementation of the lay apostolate.

In the fourth chapter, “The Various Forms of the Apostolate”, the Council emphasizes that “the individual apostolate, flowing generously from its source in a truly Christian life, is the origin and condition of the whole lay apostolate, even of the organized type, and it admits of no substitute” (16). For this reason, lay persons must remember that they “can reach all men and contribute to the salvation of the whole world by public worship and prayer as well as by penance and voluntary acceptance of the labors and hardships of life whereby they become like the suffering Christ” (16).

The Fathers also emphasize the special need for a strong and active laity in all those places where the freedom of the Church’s ordained ministers is restricted by hostile authorities (17), and they stress the need in all instances for united effort (18) and the formation of effective associations (19). Wherever possible, the formation of formal apostolic associations working in cooperation with the hierarchy (often called “Catholic Action”) is highly recommended. Thus lay persons can take charge of their own organizations to facilitate the organic action of the laity to fulfill the Church’s apostolic aims (20).

Chapter V, “External Relationships”, briefly discusses the need for proper relations between laity and the hierarchy, such that “the hierarchy should promote the apostolate of the laity, provide it with spiritual principles and support, direct the conduct of this apostolate to the common good of the Church, and attend to the preservation of doctrine and order.” While many associational relationships are possible, no project may claim the name “Catholic” unless it has obtained the consent of the lawful Church authority (24).

While the laity has as its special province the renewal of the temporal order, the hierarchy nonetheless plays an important role. Thus with respect to temporal works and institutions, the bishops are to “teach and authentically interpret the moral principles to be followed in temporal affairs”, and they have the right to judge “whether or not such works and institutions conform to moral principles” and to decide “what is required for the protection and promotion of values of the supernatural order” (24). At the same time, however, “bishops, pastors of parishes, and other priests of both branches of the clergy should keep in mind that the right and duty to exercise this apostolate is common to all the faithful, both clergy and laity, and that the laity have their own roles in building up the Church” (25).

As is typical throughout the Council documents, the Fathers call for the establishment of councils to assist the apostolic work of each diocese, as well as a secretariat for this purpose at the Holy See (26).

The final chapter, “Formation for the Apostolate”, emphasizes the need for a flexible formation characterized “by the distinctive secular and particular quality of the lay state” which nonetheless teaches the layman to “perform the mission of Christ and the Church by basing his life on belief in the divine mystery of creation and redemption and by being sensitive to the movement of the Holy Spirit”. Such formation must include “a solid doctrinal instruction in theology, ethics, and philosophy adjusted to differences of age, status, and natural talents” (28). In this way

the lay person engages himself wholly and actively in the reality of the temporal order and effectively assumes his role in conducting the affairs of this order. At the same time, as a living member and witness of the Church, he renders the Church present and active in the midst of temporal affairs. (29)

In addition, Apostolicam Actuositatem stresses the important role of parents in raising children in such a way that the “whole family in its common life…should be a sort of apprenticeship for the apostolate” (30). In the final section of this chapter, the document recognizes that a special formation is required in a materialistic age, in which the laity should “not only learn doctrine more diligently, especially those main points which are the subjects of controversy, but should also exhibit the witness of an evangelical life in contrast to all forms of materialism” (31). It also recommends training the laity “in the right use of things and the organization of institutions, attentive always to the common good in line with the principles of the moral and social teachings of the Church”, so that by learning Catholic social doctrine, they may be more capable of applying it properly to specific cases.

The concluding “Exhortation” reaffirms that “through this holy synod, the Lord renews His invitation to all the laity to come closer to Him every day, recognizing that what is His is also their own, to associate themselves with Him in His saving mission” (33). It is a tribute to the growth of the lay apostolate since 1965—both because of the teaching of the Council and as a result of the unfortunate vacuum created by widespread failures among members of the hierarchy—that this invitation no longer sounds strange or even revolutionary, as it did to many in the ecclesiastical context in which the Council met.


Previous in series: Vatican II on the Lay Apostolate: Mission
Next in series: Vatican II on Religious Freedom

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