The MOST Theological Collection: The Holy Spirit and the Church

"Chapter 4: The Laity"


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§30. Everything said about the People of God pertain to all within the Church. But some things should be said particularly about the laity.

§31. The word laity includes all not in Holy Orders, or in Religious Life. The laity, in their own way, share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ.

It is proper to the laity to engage in temporal affairs and to direct them according to God's will. - We are far here from the attitude of some politicians and judges who think they can leave their religious principles behind in their work. -The laity contribute to the sanctification of the world from within, like a leaven. Of course this implies that they are not merely conformed to the ways of the world - as so many strive earnestly to be. Especially should their life should be a witness to Christ. Cf. Romans 12:2 "Do not be conformed to this world, rather be transformed having your minds made new so as to see what is the will of God what is good and well-pleasing and perfect."

§32. There is a wonderful diversity in the Church, like that of which St. Paul spoke in 1 Cor 12, and Rom 12:4-5, in describing the various parts of the body, as a parallel to varied functions within the Mystical Body of Christ. In a way there is a real equality among all members, in that all are needed, and all should contribute to the building up of the Mystical Body, and to sanctifying the world. St. Paul says [Gal 3. 28] that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female. In context, Paul means this to refer to striving for salvation by faith. We may not extend this so as to say there is equality in all other respects - such as with or without Holy Orders, or to prove ordination of women. Paul is referring as we said just to working for salvation by faith.

All are called to holiness, even though not all follow the same path. Our Lord said (Mt. 5:48): "Be you perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Pius XII in his Encyclical for the third centenary of St. Francis de Sales, wrote: "Let no one think that this invitation is addressed to a small very select number, and that all others are allowed to stay in a lower degree of virtue... this law obliges everyone, without exception." It was specially suitable for Pius XI to write this on the anniversary of St. Francis de Sales, for he had splendidly explained in his Introduction to the Devout Life (1. 3) that even though the ways of the spiritual life are varied in varied states, yet all are called to be perfect, and so it is possible in all states of life. Of course, the perfection of the Father is infinite - therefore the command means in practice that we can never say we have advanced far enough - there is still an unending road to travel which we can never complete. Paul VI wrote (To 13th National Congress of the Italian Feminine Center, Feb. 12, 1966: "Christian marriage and the Christian family demand a moral commitment. They are not an easy way of Christian life, even though the most common, the one which the majority of the children of God are called on to travel. Rather, it is a long path toward sanctification." (This idea is developed in OFP, chapter 16).

The laity are brothers of Christ, and of those in Holy Orders. St. Augustine said (Sermon 340)"When it frightens me that I am for you, then it consoles me to think I am with you. For I am a bishop for you; with you I am a Christian. The one is the name of an office, the other of grace. The one is a danger, the other, salvation." Cf. Wisdom 6. 5-6: "Judgment is stern for the exalted. The lowly persons may be pardoned out of mercy, but the mighty shall be mightily tested." Cf. Ezekiel 3. 17-21, where God told the prophet that he was a watchman. If he did not warn the wicked, God would demand an accounting.

§33. The lay apostolate used to be defined as a sharing in the apostolate of the hierarchy. Vatican II broadens this, with a two part teaching: (1)"The apostolate of the laity is a sharing in the saving mission of the Church. The laity are appointed to this apostolate by the Lord Himself, through Baptism and Confirmation." This means the laity are to make the Church "present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only by means of them that the Church can become the salt of the earth. This means, again, a life of witness, a life different from that of people of the world. (2)In addition, there are special works under the direction of the authorities - this is what the term lay apostolate used to mean. Laymen can even be appointed now to some ecclesiastical offices, those that do not need ordination.

The Encyclical of John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio (Dec. 7, 1990, §§ 37-38, Vatican translation) spells out the need for the laity to be a leaven in the world. It refers to these areas as like the Areopagus on which St. Paul spoke in Athens: "The first Areopagus of the modern age is the world of communications... . the younger generation is growing up in a world conditioned by the mass media... . it is not enough to use the media simply to spread the Christian message and the church's authentic teaching. It is also necessary to integrate that message into the 'new culture' created by modern communications... . Pope Paul VI said that 'the split between the Gospel and culture is undoubtedly the tragedy of our time' [compare the culture of pagan Rome and even Greece, permeated with a religion, even though a false one] and the field of communications fully confirms this judgment. There are many other forms of the 'Areopagus' in the modern world... commitment to peace, development and the liberation of peoples; the rights of individuals and peoples, especially those of minorities; the advancement of women and children; safeguarding the created world... . We must also mention the immense 'Areopagus' of culture, scientific research and international relations which promote dialogue and open up new possibilities... . the so-called 'religious revival' - is not without ambiguity, but it also represents an opportunity. The church has an immense spiritual patrimony to offer mankind... . It is the Christian path to meeting God, to prayer, to asceticism and to search for life's meaning. Here too there is an 'Areopagus to be evangelized." LG adds, "Thus every layman, from the gifts given him, is a witness and at the same time a living instrument of the mission of the church herself 'according to the measure of the giving of Christ'' (Eph 4:7). (The "measure of giving" refers to the charismatic category of graces, as the context in Eph shows. It does not refer to the sanctifying category, in which God has bound Himself by the covenant to offer graces leading to salvation without limit (for the title of the price paid by Christ is infinite, and for each individual person as Gal 2:20 shows - cf. Church in Modern World §22 "Each one of us can say with the Apostle, 'The Son of God loved me, and gave himself for me." Hence there is an infinite objective title in favor of each individual. So God will always offer the graces of salvation, without limit - though a person may make self hardened by repeated mortal sins, so as to be unable to be open to receive the graces offered).

In contrast, the graces of the charismatic category are aimed primarily not at the salvation of the recipient - though indirectly they may help that - but at some benefit for the Church. Here the principle is that the Spirit blows where He wills. And one may not even be in the state of grace and have even a miraculous gift such as healing the sick, as we learn from Mt. 7, 22-23: "Many will say to me on that day: Have we not cast out devils in your name, prophesied in your name, done many mighty works in your name, and then I will say to them: Depart from me, you workers of iniquity. I never knew you."

§34. LG gives further clarification (we saw it above in LG 10) of the role of laity in offering "spiritual sacrifices". It says that all the works, prayers, family life [here let us recall the words we cited in LG 32 from Paul VI about marriage as a long path to sanctification], daily work etc. can all be spiritual sacrifices if they are taken as the will of God, and as a means of bringing the spirit of Christ into everything. Really, in a very basic sense, God needs no one - by His omnipotence He can accomplish anything. However, there is a distinction - some things He can accomplish directly only by an extraordinary intervention, that is, by miraculous means. It would be inconsistent for Him to act in an extraordinary way ordinarily. So in that area He, in a sense, needs human work, for we can do these things without miracles.

I had a grandfather who was very indulgent. He used to tell me to phone him on New Years's day, and if I could say Happy New Year before he did, he would give me a dollar [this was in the 1920s, when a dollar was worth several times what it is worth today] - it was a setup of course. He wanted to give me the dollar, and liked to do it in a such a way that I seemed to have earned it. In a somewhat parallel way, our Father in Heaven likes to provide titles for His gifts (cf. OFP chapter 4 and St. Thomas Summa I. 19. 5. c). So He has us do the things He could not do without a miracle - and at the same time these provide a title in good order for Him to give His gifts. Some of these things are intrinsically of a higher order than others - yet the most important thing is to do His will. A motto I used to see on an office wall said: "When the one Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He writes not that you won or lost, but how you played the game."

LG adds that these spiritual sacrifices are most suitably offered at Mass, along with the offering of Christ's obedience - for in these we are obeying the will of the Father. It is good to take a few moments before each Mass to ask ourselves what we have done in carrying out His will since the last Mass. If we have done well, we can join it with the obedience of Christ, to form the one great offering of the obedience of the Whole Christ. We could also look ahead to the coming day. Sometimes we will see something in which we will find it hard to do the will of the Father. So we ask: Do I really mean to do it? If not, I had better get out of here - this is no place for me.

§35. This section speaks of the prophetic office of Christ. The laity share in it by their witness to His principles as a leaven in the world - of which LG 33 already spoke. As an aid in this Christ gives all the sensus fidei- which was spoken of in LG 12, a sort of passive infallibility.

People show themselves children of the promise if they make the most of the present time (St. Paul says that the days are evil: Eph 5. 16 - he means the world is run on principles often the opposite of those of Christ - and the evil spirits do have great influence) - trying to live with the outlook we shall all have when we emerge for the tombs on the last day. Then we shall see what really counted - and what did not. Hence in Col. 3. 1-5: "If then you have been raised up with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Think of the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, your life, will be manifested, then you too will be manifested with Him in glory. So mortify your members that are upon the earth - sexual looseness, uncleanness, lust... ." etc. This is the syn Christo theme - the center of Paul's teaching: We should live with Christ, die with Christ, be buried with Him, rise with Him, ascend with Him. In His life, two phases - first, a hard life, suffering and death, second, glory. The more we are like Him in phase one, the more we shall be like Him in phase 2. As a result, 2 Cor 4, 17-18: "What is at present light and momentary in our troubles, is working beyond all measure, an eternal weight of glory for us, who do not look to the things that are seen, but the things that are not seen." Cf. also Romans 8:18. To the extent that one really lives with such an outlook, he will be a witness to Christ within the world - but this, again, is far different from trying to be just like the world. The laity also bear witness to Christ towards their children, in family life.

LG 35 urges the laity to express their eternal hope (looking forward to the future life) by "continual conversion." John Paul II spoke of this in Redemptor Hominis §20: "Without this constant ever renewed endeavor for conversion, partaking of the Eucharist would lack its full redeeming effectiveness and there would be a loss, or at least a weakening of the special readiness to offer God the spiritual sacrifice in which our sharing in the priesthood of Christ is expressed in an essential and universal manner." (We saw details of this "spiritual sacrifice" above in §§ 34 and 10. We notice too that daily Communion without this constant effort will not only bring no gain, but instead a loss. So many receive out of mere routine, with no preparation, no thanksgiving. It would be much better for them to receive only at times, and then do it well. When St. Pius X urged frequent Communion, he had in mind the special efforts people of his day made before receiving. He would surely not be pleased with the routine and sluggishness we see today.

Marriage is specially important in this matter. Cf. again chapter 16 of OFP and Pius XI, Casti connubii DS 3707:"This mutual interior conformation of the spouses to one another, this constant concern to perfect one another, in a certain very true way, as the Roman Catechism teaches [II. 8. 13] can even be called the primary cause and reason for marriage, if however, marriage is not taken strictly as an institution to rightly procreate and educate children, but more broadly, as a sharing, familiarity and society of all of life."

§36. Christ reached His reign- "all power is given to me in heaven and on earth"- by obedience. So all are to share in His kingly role by self-abnegation, in imitation of Him, so as to reign in mastery of self by overcoming sin. Cf. St. Augustine's interpretation of Apocalypse 20 (City of God 20. 9) where he takes the 1000 reign of the just on earth with Christ to mean their reign over sin during the 1000 years from the ascension to the parousia, that is, in all the present period of time.

LG also hopes that people may work so that the goods of this earth may serve the real needs of people more properly and may be justly distributed. Let them also work so that the things of the world may not be an inducement to sin.

Let them also, while distinguishing between their lives as members of Christ, and as members of human society, realize that "no human activity, not even in temporal things, can be withdrawn from the rule of God." So again, politicians and others who think they can leave Christ's principles behind in their public work are very wrong. LG says there is an "unhappy teaching that tries to build society without regard for religion, and seeks to restrict the religious freedom of its citizens". This refers not only to communistic nations, but also hints at what The Declaration on Religious Liberty will teach in § 1 - that men and societies have an obligation to the true Church, and that there is to be freedom of religion not in the sense of having a right to be wrong (as right is a claim ultimately given by God to have, to do, or to call for something. God gives no one a claim to be wrong), but in the sense of having a right not to be punished or coerced for being wrong in religious beliefs, within due limits. Just as individuals as individuals must serve God, so also states as states must do so. How far is the U. S. from this now when religion in any form is being kept out of public life! Pagan Rome did better. It worshipped false gods, but at least religion permeated everything, so that the chief officers of the state had both the right and the duty to consult the omens for the will of the gods before any public event such as a meeting of the senate or assembly, a session of court, even the beginning of war.

§37. The laity have the right to receive the help of spiritual goods in abundance from their pastors. They should make known their needs with that freedom and confidence that are suitable to children of God and brothers of Christ. They should do this with respect, and with obedience to lawful commands.

Pastors should willingly listen to them and make use of what is good in their advice. They should assign duties to them, if the laity wish them (apostolate) and should leave them a reasonable amount of freedom in carrying things out, and even leave room for suitable lay initiative. Many good things will come from this arrangement.

§38. Each layman is to be a witness before the world to the resurrection and life of Christ - in the sense explained above of the syn Christo theme.