The laity are called to become a leaven of Christian living within society.
– Pope Francis
The Church exists for the spreading of God’s kingdom and to enable men share in Christ’s saving redemption so that through them the world may know Christ.
In summary, the Church has at least a threefold mission: to announce the Kingdom of God, to work here and now to bring it about, and to show by the quality and character of her own life as a community what the Kingdom is all about and what is to be the final destiny of humankind and of all history.1
Every activity that is directed towards the achievement of the mission of the Church is referred to as the apostolate. Every member of the Church is called to the apostolate. When one considers that the clergy and religious are less than one percent of the Church while the rest, the laity, makes up more than ninety-nine percent of the Church, one sees that achieving the mission of the Church depends a lot upon the laity. The problem is that a large number of the laity have little knowledge of the apostolate.
The Church was founded for the purpose of spreading the Kingdom of Christ throughout the earth for the glory of God the Father…All the activity of the Mystical Body directed to the attainment of this goal is called the apostolate, which the Church carries on in various ways through all her members. For the Christian vocation by its very nature is also a vocation to the apostolate…Indeed the organic union in this body and the structure of the members are so compact 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 (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 2).
If then, each member of the Church bears the same responsibility for the apostolate, is there a task that is proper to the laity?
Not only must we answer this question in the affirmative, but we must say in the same breath that the task assigned to the layperson is the fundamental work of the Church, which is the work of Christ himself to redeem the world.2
It is Christ Himself who assigns the apostolate to the laity. This takes place at Baptism, when the baptized becomes a member of the Church. If the laity is to effectively carry out their task, they must be united to Christ for only so can they bear fruit. “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
The lay person is a child of God who lives in a secular world. His own destination and the destination of the temporal order may seem to be in tension but are not in conflict because everything tends to Christ. The lay person therefore should contribute to directing the temporal order so that the world is renewed through his apostolate. The lay man is born into a family, works, engages in science, government, culture, and commerce. It is into these arenas that the lay man should bring the spirit of Christ. It is his vocation. But there are common misunderstandings that many lay members have about their role which jeopardizes the mission. One of them is that some lay members of the Church see themselves as helpers and the clergy as the Church. In this error they forget that they make up more than ninety-nine percent of the Church. Something else which shows a misunderstanding is the restriction of the apostolate by many lay persons to cooperation with the clergy within the Church. Many see their apostolate as ending in participation within groups in the Church or working in the Finance Committee or Parish Pastoral Council. There is no doubt that all this is important but it is not the main mission of the laity. To correct this, I believe we have to get serious with lay formation. Vatican II is clear on the importance of raising a mature laity:
The Church has not been truly established, and is not yet fully alive, nor is it a perfect sign of Christ among men, unless there exists a laity worthy of the name working along with the hierarchy. For the gospel cannot be deeply imprinted on the talents, life and work of any people without the active presence of lay people. Therefore, even in the very founding of a Church, the greatest attention is to be paid to raising up a mature Christian laity.3
One cannot help noticing a sort of apathy among the laity today. A good number of Catholics are passive. But the same Catholics take their business or career serious. You see Catholics making tremendous contribution in medicine, navy, real estate but they make no meaningful contribution in the Church. When Catholics view the Church as service centre where “services” like funeral, wedding, baptism takes place, then there is a problem. In 1946, Pope Pius made this statement about the laity:
The faithful and more especially the laity, are in the front line of the Church’s life; it is through them that she is the vital principle of human society. In consequence they, above all, ought to have an ever more clear consciousness, not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church, that is, the community of the faithful on earth under the guidance of its common head, the pope, and of the bishops, in communion with him. They are the Church; and therefore from the earlest days of her history the faithful, with the approval of their bishops, have joined together in particular societies interested in various manifestations of life.4
This write-up continues in the next post.
- As quoted in Kurien Kunnumpuram, SJ, Called to Serve, 2012, St. Pauls, Mumbai, pp. 149-150.
- Michael Sweeny, OP, Lay Collaboration in the Mission of the Church, Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, www.dspt.edu/lay-collaboration-in-the-mission-of-the-church.
- Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church, n. 21.
- Kurien Kunnumpuram, SJ, Called to Serve, 2012, St. Pauls, Mumbai, p. 78