A half-century ago, at the Second Vatican Council, the role of the laity was taken up for the first time in the church’s history at an ecumenical council. Congar had remarked that, for the ecclesial role proper to the laity to come fully into view, the hierarchy had to come to two realizations: first, there is a world out there; and, second, it is not the church. The council, as we well know, added to the care of souls a more fundamental duty of the church: to incarnate the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.
So it is that we read in the first encyclical of St. John Paul II:
The Church wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life, with the power of the truth about man and the world that is contained in the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption and with the power of the love that is radiated by that truth. (Redemptor hominis, 13)
Given that this is, in truth, the single purpose of the church, then the ecclesial role proper to the laity comes into focus. It is to proclaim the Gospel in every area of secular engagement by transforming the very structures of society according to the plan of God:
The laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. (Lumen gentium, 31, emphasis added)
This suggests a different paradigm, one in which the laity are “coresponsible” with the hierarchy in the church’s mission:
Indeed, the Church is directed and guided by the Holy Spirit, who lavishes diverse hierarchical and charismatic gifts on all the baptized, calling them to be, each in an individual way, active and coresponsible. (Christifideles laici, 21)
There are therefore two paradigms reflected in the documents of Vatican II. On the one hand, when the council emphasizes the church’s mission, we read of the indispensable role of the laity in the apostolic vocation of the church:
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.… 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 itself “according to the measure of Christ’s bestowal.” (Lumen gentium, 33, emphasis added)
Notice that the laity are commissioned to the apostolate, not by the delegation of their bishops or priest-pastors, but by the Lord himself. They have a fully ecclesial role as “living instruments of the mission of the church,” coresponsible with their pastors. On the other hand, when the council reflects on the “care of souls,” the laity seem to be regarded merely as a resource to the clergy, when all else fails:
Moreover, the care of souls should always be infused with a missionary spirit so that it reaches out as it should to everyone living within the parish boundaries. If the pastor cannot contact certain groups of people, he should seek the assistance of others, even laymen who can assist him in the apostolate. (Christus dominus, 30)
According to this paradigm, which has so much shaped the lay imagination in the modern church, the laity act according to the delegation of their pastors—especially, apparently, when their pastors have no other recourse. The alternative paradigm that the council proposes speaks of coresponsibility in the church’s mission. Real coresponsibility would require at least four things.
First, if we are really coresponsible for the mission, then we must be equally responsible for it. The clergy are not more responsible for the mission of the church than the laity are.
Second, if we are coresponsible, then our tasks for the sake of the mission must be seen to have equal dignity. If, for example, it is my responsibility to offer a seminar and your responsibility to set up the chairs, then we cannot be said to be coresponsible for the outcome. My contribution has greater dignity that yours. If, however, it is my responsibility to lull the participants to sleep and yours to pick their pockets, then we can truly be said to be coresponsible for the outcome.
Third, we must have equal voice in discerning the mission. We must learn to take counsel together and to discuss the way in which the church’s mission is to be fulfilled in our parishes and dioceses. So, for example, we read:
The lay faithful should accustom themselves to working in the parish in close union with their priests, bringing to the Church community their own and the world’s problems as well as questions concerning human salvation, all of which need to be examined together and solved through general discussion. (Christifideles laici, 27)
Fourth, we must learn to exercise mutual accountability for the sake of the church’s mission. Whereas the pastor has personal responsibility for the governance of the parish, he is nonetheless accountable to our Lord, in whose place he presides. Similarly, in the exercise of their apostolate to the world, lay men and women are accountable, not to the pastor, but to the Lord who has commissioned them. Together accountable to our Lord, pastor and laity are accountable to each other.
This mutual accountability is expressed, most particularly, in the manner in which both the ordained and the lay faithful participate in the priesthood of Christ. We read in Lumen gentium:
The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. Therefore all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. (Lumen gentium, 10, emphasis added)
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