Church is also where laity are

By  Bernard Daly, The Catholic Register
  • August 26, 2008

In much of the news coverage relating to the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States last spring, it was noted that he “bonded” with the American people, even though some had expected to feel negative towards him.

In particular, Fr. Thomas Rosica (Register, May 11) summed up the visit by recalling St. Ambrose’s declaration: Ubi Petrus ibi ecclesia — “wherever Peter is, there is the church.”

When Ambrose wrote this in the late 300s, he was battling the Arians, at a time when many bishops succumbed to the Arian heresy while laity kept the faith with the pope. Cardinal John Henry Newman made this fact the basis of his famous 1859 thesis, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, which flowed from his larger history, Arians of the Fourth Century.

Newman’s thought was highly influential in Vatican II teaching about the church, which includes but expands what Ambrose said. In particular, Newman’s views on the lay faithful are reflected when Vatican II taught, as never before, about the role of laity in the church.

Vatican II developed Pius XII’s February 1949 teaching that “the laity should be aware they not only belong to the church but they are the church.”

Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church begins with a chapter on the mystery of Christ’s continuing presence in the church today. As Ambrose might have said: Ubi Spiritus ibi ecclesia — “Where the Spirit is, there is the church.”

Chapter II is entitled “The People of God.” It teaches, among many other truths, that through Baptism the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood “each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ” (LG, 10).

Chapter III spells out how the ordained priesthood is called to serve the church; it grounds what Ambrose said: Ubi Petrus ibi ecclesia.

Chapter IV then expands Vatican II teaching in a way that prompted John Paul II to make an astonishing observation: “The council, in particular, with its rich doctrinal, spiritual and pastoral patrimony, has written as never before on the nature, dignity, spirituality, mission and responsibility of the lay faithful.”

That is, never before, in almost 2,000 years, did the church teach about the laity the way Vatican II did! John Paul II said this in section 2 of his now largely ignored 1988 apostolic exhortation, Christifideles Laici, “Christ’s lay faithful.”

Vatican II not only spoke “as never before” about the laity. John Paul II emphasized that the council addressed the non-ordained positively: “In giving a response to the question ‘Who are the lay faithful?’ the council went beyond previous interpretations which were predominantly negative. Instead it opened itself to a decidedly positive vision and displayed a basic intention of asserting the full belonging of the lay faithful to the church and to its mystery” (CL, 9).

So, we can also say, Ubi laici ibi ecclesia, “Where the laity is, there is the church.”

Section 5 of Vatican II’s Decree on the Lay Apostolate gives this very succinct summary of the church’s mission: “(It) is not only to bring men the message and grace of Christ but also to permeate and improve the whole range of the temporal.”

All church members have this mission, both laity and ordained hierarchy. While the hierarchy leads in bringing the world the message and grace of Christ, it is the “special vocation” of the laity “to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (LG, 31).

Why is it, then, that this clear teaching about the laity’s special secular vocation is so largely ignored in today’s church? I have yet to hear a homily or read a catechetical article that emphasized the laity’s secular vocation.

At almost every Eucharist one now sees laity as readers and communion ministers, joining priests to play their respective roles in bringing people “the message and grace of Christ.”

However, John Paul II warned that this service can be “a temptation” for laity — “the temptation of being so strongly interested in church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world” (CL, 2).

In fact, John Paul II understated the situation when he said “some (laity) fail to become actively engaged in their (secular) responsibilities.” Most laity fail to do so!

Around the world, millions of Catholic laity serve as presidents, prime ministers, legislators, CEOs and directors and shareholders of major corporations, media leaders, jurists, educators, engineers and scientists — all exercising great secular power, but without any visible signs that they thereby “seek the kingdom of God” by directing their temporal affairs according to God’s will. In fact, arguing that religion should not be mixed with politics and economics, such men and women seek personal power and wealth more than they strive “to impress the divine law on the affairs of the earthly city” (GS, 43).

A small minority of the world’s more than one billion lay Catholics, it must be added, are actively involved in trying to build a Gospel-inspired civilization of justice and love. And we must thank some of the half million ordained church members, led by recent popes and some bishops, for the church’s rich but too-often-ignored teachings about social faith and justice.

Yet, the question must be stressed: Why are we so slow to bring to reality the Vatican II teaching on the laity that inspired the vision John Paul II sketched in Christifideles Laici?

“The eyes of faith,” he wrote, “behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring labourers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history” (CL, 17).

(Daly is publisher emeritus of The Catholic Register. For 35 years, he worked for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

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