Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Vatican II on the Church: Lay Holiness

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 10, 2010 | In On the Documents of Vatican II

If the first two chapters of Lumen Gentium contain the most controversial passages and the third contains the Council’s most important doctrinal exposition, the fourth and fifth are vital to the Church’s mission in a very different sense. These chapters address a topic too often neglected in earlier periods by stressing the vital part that lay people play in the body of Christ and the fact that all Christians, not just the “professionals”, are called to be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect. In the Church, holiness is job one—for everybody.

In Chapter 4 (“On the Laity”), the Council said the laity are called, as “living members” of the Body of Christ, “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” (33). Then, in a key passage, the Council went on to identify the essence of the lay apostolate by which the laity are to answer this call:

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. 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. 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…. (33)

The Council pointed out that the laity can “also be called in various ways to a more direct cooperation in the apostolate of the Hierarchy” and that “they have the capacity to assume from the Hierarchy certain ecclesiastical functions” (33), but it is quite clear that the Council did not intend that these extraordinary forms of “cooperation in the apostolate of the Hierarchy” (such as the liturgical functions of lector and Eucharistic minister) should cause the laity to be cast as miniature clergy instead of being encouraged to engage in their own proper apostolate, which is the transformation of the social order in Christ.

Instead, starting with the principle enunciated by St. Paul that “all things are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor 3:23), the Council makes the usual and proper focus of the lay apostolate refreshingly clear:

The faithful, therefore, must learn the deepest meaning and the value of all creation, as well as its role in the harmonious praise of God. They must assist each other to live holier lives even in their daily occupations. In this way the world may be permeated by the spirit of Christ and it may more effectively fulfill its purpose in justice, charity and peace. The laity have the principal role in the overall fulfillment of this duty. Therefore, by their competence in secular training and by their activity, elevated from within by the grace of Christ, let them vigorously contribute their effort, so that created goods may be perfected by human labor, technical skill and civic culture for the benefit of all men according to the design of the Creator and the light of His Word…. Moreover, let the laity also by their combined efforts remedy the customs and conditions of the world, if they are an inducement to sin, so that they all may be conformed to the norms of justice and may favor the practice of virtue rather than hinder it. (36)

This chapter concludes with the Council’s insistence that “the laity have the right, as do all Christians, to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church.” This relates especially to the word of God and the sacraments (rights which were too often denied through heterodox teaching and illicit liturgies in the generation following the Council). The laity are also, “by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church” (37).

From this chapter’s stress on the vital role of the laity in the People of God, Chapter 5 on “The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church” follows logically. Important as the concept is, the chapter simply moves through each group in the Church briefly commenting on how true holiness produces an effective witness to Christ proper to each group: Bishops; priests; deacons; married couples; single persons (including widows); laborers; and the poor, infirm and sick. Any number of divisions could have been used; they come together to make the point enunciated at the end of the section:

Finally all Christ’s faithful, whatever be the conditions, duties and circumstances of their lives—and indeed through all these—will daily increase in holiness, if they receive all things with faith from the hand of their heavenly Father and if they cooperate with the divine will. In this temporal service, they will manifest to all men the love with which God loved the world. (41)

As the principle means of becoming holy, the Council identified the use of the sacraments, “frequent participation in the sacred action of the Liturgy”, prayer, self-abnegation, “lively fraternal service”, and the “constant exercise of all the virtues” . The chapter concludes with a special discussion of the immense value of martyrdom and virginity (including celibacy) for the Kingdom of God (42). Thus, “all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation so to strive.”

Previous in series: Vatican II on the Church: The Bishops
Next in series: Vatican II on the Church: Eschatological Identity

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Cory - Jan. 22, 2018 7:10 PM ET USA

    I also encourage people to watch The Myth of the Council of Jamnia and the Origin of the Bible

  • Posted by: Cory - Jan. 22, 2018 7:05 PM ET USA

    One more book that will strip that “the historical-critical fog” is TheCase for Jesus by Dr Brant Pitre. A must read. And he does have credentials.

  • Posted by: barbara_gnt5374 - Mar. 12, 2010 7:40 PM ET USA

    For those who may be ill or disabled in some way and the associated difficulties and sufferings: Chapter 5: "she exhorts them, moreover, to contribute to the welfare of the whole people of God by associating themselves freely with the passion and death of Christ."(107) All to often we are viewed as objects of/for ministry, rather than having a ministry & dignity (I prefer apostolate) of our own and an intrinsic call to that apostolate & spirituality and one that is largely undeveloped, overlooked.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 11, 2010 9:45 AM ET USA

    An absolutely essential point is made here that identifies the central issue for Holy Mother Church. "The laity have the receive the spiritual goods of the Church." The salvation of souls is the priority. The faithful have this right, proceeding from the duty to offer to God his due worship and from the Church's primary vocation to "transmit through the ages the salvation effected by Jesus Christ." -Leo XIII. They can even be "obliged to express their opinion on those things...."