Monday, April 16, 2012

Age of the Laity

At the beginning of the twentieth century Pope Pius X wrote an encyclical letter deploring the decision of the French government to withdraw from agreements made with the Vatican. In the course of that letter (Vehmenter nos) the pope further lamented the civil government's interfering in Church matters, and went on to explain that only the pastors of the Church have the right and authority to direct its members.

In emphasizing the role of the Church's pastors, he said, "The one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the pastors" (#8).

This last statement reflects the long-standing paternalistic attitude of clergy toward the laity.

This paternalism gave rise to the observation that "it seems that the duty of the faithful is to pray, pay and obey."

This mentality about the role of the laity was challenged at the Second Vatican Council. The magisterium of the Church now formally confirms that the laity share in the salvific mission of the Church (Lumen Gentium, 33) and that they must be aware of what their faith demands and not hesitate to take the initiative at the opportune moment (Gaudium et Spes, 43).

It is clear that the laity are to turn to the clergy for guidance and spiritual strength, but it is equally clear that the laity are "to shoulder their responsibilities...participate actively in the whole life of the Church" (ibid.)

Vatican II no longer looked at the laity as simple, docile sheep.

The Council continued, "Let them (the laity) realize that their pastors will not always be so expert as to have a ready answer to every problem (even every grave problem) that arises; this is not the role of the clergy: it is rather up to the laymen to shoulder their responsibilities under the guidance of Christian wisdom and with eager attention to the teaching authority of the Church" (ibid.)

And, "the Church can never be without the lay apostolate; it is something that derives from the layman's very vocation as a Christian. Scripture clearly shows how spontaneous and fruitful was this activity in the Church's early days (cf. Acts 11:19-21; 18:26; Rom 16: 1-6; Phil 4:3)" (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 1).

Theologian Richard Gaillardetz addresses the teachings of the Council about the role of the laity: "Although the council was unable to offer a fully developed and completely consistent theology of the laity, its contributions nevertheless lay the foundation for a new age of the church.

"No more were the laity to be relegated to servile obedience to clerical mandates. Now the laity were to engage the world with initiative, courage, and conviction. In the postconciliar era we have witnessed a renewed emphasis on the priority of Christian baptism and the demands of Christian mission calling every baptized follower of Jesus to be a servant of God's reign" (Keys to the Council, p. 101, Liturgical Press, 2012).

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