Calling on the Laity
by Brandon Nappi
For the past three years, I've been a full-time member of the retreat team at Holy Family Retreat Center in West Hartford, Connecticut. Regularly, I give retreat conferences, do religious counseling and help plan the programs that attract over five thousand people yearly to our retreat center. No, I'm not a priest; I'm a twenty-eight-year-old married man with a wife and my first child on the way. How did I ever get into this? You could say it's because of a dramatic new involvement of the laity in the Catholic Church.
The Second Vatican Council and the Laity
In the fall of 1962, Pope John XXIII called to Rome some 2600 bishops, heads of religious orders and theologians from across the globe to participate in the Second Vatican Council. The historic gathering, the largest of its kind in the Church's two thousand year existence, addressed a wide array of modern issues including ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, scripture, episcopal authority, and church-state relations.
One of the Council's greatest contributions was its theology of the laity. The introduction to its Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity declared: "Éthe action of the Holy Spirit [is] moving laypeople today to a deeper and deeper awareness of their responsibility and urging them on everywhere to the service of Christ and his Church."
The Holy Spirit's action appears in myriad ways as today's laity spreads the Gospel both inside and outside the Church. According to the Council, all the baptized, not just priests and religious, participate in Christ's ministry as priest, prophet, and king. All are called by God, not only to announce "the message and grace of Christ, but also to permeate and improve the whole range of the temporal." (II.5) All of us must work to create a world that reflects the peace, justice, and love that marked Christ's earthly ministry.
Growing Lay Involvement Within the Church
Primarily, laypeople live and work in the secular world, but today they are dramatically evident within the Church too. The Vatican Council offered opportunities to laypeople that would have been unimaginable fifty years ago. Now, as the numbers of priests and religious decline, laypeople across the country offer reflections and preside at communion services in the absence of a priest at Sunday Mass; they function as lay ecclesial ministers and pastoral administrators in churches, and they assume the practical and pastoral duties in the day to day management of priest-less parishes. Additionally, they minister in pastoral care departments in hospitals, teach theology in universities and seminaries, and work collaboratively with religious communities to continue their ministry in an age of declining vowed members.
Recent studies by Lawrence Young state that 27% of our Catholic parishes in the United States do not have a resident priest and project that by 2015 there will be 16,000 fewer priests serving in them. At the same time, a study by the National Pastoral Life Center in 1999 indicates that 30,000 lay ecclesial ministers are working in two-thirds of the parishes across the nation. According to Catholic commentator David Gibson, there are currently 30,000 lay ministers in training; soon lay ministers will outnumber this country's 47,000 priests.
As the laity assumes more responsibility in local parish ministries, diocesan offices and religious sponsored institutions, disagreements about their role the Church have arisen. Lay ministry has become part of a complex debate raging in the American Church regarding such issues as sexual abuse, decentralization, optional celibacy, and the role of women. These issues cannot be solved by facile solutions. Many changes have taken place since the Council and many more will occur as vocations to the priesthood and religious life continue to decline. The over-riding question is: how will our Church continue its mission and ministry?
The Need for Dialogue and Adult Conversation
Currently, Catholic lay people must find their vocations and their voices in the midst of a ferocious on-going debate pitting theological "liberals" against "conservatives," a debate that often obscures more than clarifies issues. At present, we expend more energy labeling each other than communicating. In a climate of continual disagreement, Catholics must find a way to discern the work of the Spirit. The way forward is through dialogue.
Opposing sides on the theological spectrum need to talk and pray together.
Fr. Brian Hehir, formerly president of Catholic Charities and dean of Harvard Divinity School, spoke recently about the need for "adult conversation," which is really conversation, not rebellion or infidelity. We need an "adult conversation" that springs from deep commitment and concern for the Church's future. As an educated people, American Catholics are seeking just such a conversation as the Church looks ahead.
"Change": A Dirty Word for Catholics?
Any dialogue or adult conversation about the role of the laity must take place with courage and openness to change. For a significant part of Catholic history, "change" has been somewhat of a dirty word. "The Church could not, has not, and never could change," or so the faithful were taught. Certainly, reluctance to change has helped the Church in times of poor leadership within and heresy from without. But the Holy Spirit calls the Church to change when change is necessary. As the famous nineteenth century convert Cardinal Newman pointed out, changes have occurred constantly in Church practice and doctrine over its 2000-year history. The Church has changed more since the Second Vatican Council, than in the previous four hundred years. Indeed, from its earliest days the Catholic Church has been growing and changing according to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
To understand the Church's evolution we must first understand this: the Church does not possess Christ, but rather Christ possesses his Church. This statement has profound theological implications for the shape of the Church over time. The Church exists to serve Christ, not the other way around. Therefore, the Church can change and indeed must change to serve Christ and the mission of the Gospel at a particular moment in history. The Church of the twenty-first century will be different from the Church of the thirteenth century, because the needs of our world today are different than they were 800 years ago.
Change within the Church, therefore, need not be feared. The Holy Spirit inspires it.
Hope for the Church
The Second Vatican Council called for a laity to be more educated, aware, and consciously committed to the mission of Christ than ever before. In a rapidly changing world it would be a mistake to resist lay involvement. Our greatest hope is to find new ways of supporting lay participation and collaboration within the Church.
What the Spirit requires of us all is radical fidelity --- fidelity, not to changelessness, but to Christ and his mission as revealed to the People of God through the Holy Spirit. Such fidelity demands courage as we change, and openness to the Spirit amid disagreement. As the document on the laity stated forty years ago, "In the Church there is diversity of ministry but unity of mission." (I.2) Clearly, lay ministry in the Church is not an issue to be argued but a reality to be accepted so that the Church can continue Christ's mission in the world.
Without the Second Vatican Council and its theology of the laity, my ministry at the retreat center would not be possible. Thankfully, the work of Vatican II has enabled me and thousands of dedicated laypeople to follow God's call to share our gifts and help shape the Church of tomorrow. May the Holy Spirit guide the work of the many faithful laypeople so that our Church will continue its mission of spreading the good news to all people.
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