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The Apostolate of the Laity Since the Second Vatican Council

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

It may sound a bit odd to address oneself to the subject of the apostolate of the laity since the Second Vatican Council. The address is not in talking about the lay apostolate but in implying that this apostolate is somehow different since the Second Vatican Council than it was before.

My intention in the present talk, therefore, is to do two things. First say something about the fact that the apostolate of the laity is different, since the Council and because of the Council, and secondly show how it is different. I would like to conclude with some practical implications.


Development of Doctrine

Any approach to the lay apostolate in post-conciliar times should begin with some observation on what is called development of doctrine. In spite of its perhaps unfamiliar wording, the idea of development of doctrine is as ancient as Christianity. In fact it began already in apostolic times and has been going on ever since. Development of doctrine means that the truths of revelation remain substantially unchanged. But through the grace of the Holy Spirit alive and active in the Church, these truths become progressively more clear, their often hidden meaning becomes better understood, and as a consequence their value in the lives of the faithful becomes correspondingly better appreciated—with immense benefit to the Mystical Body of Christ and, in fact, the whole of mankind.

It is a matter of faith and, therefore, part of divine revelation that part of the Catholic Church is the laity; indeed that the largest part of Christ’s faithful are the lay faithful. It is further part of God’s revealed message to the world that the laity are not only permitted to engage in the apostolate, they are divinely expected to do so.

They derive the right and the sacred duty to the apostolate from their union with Christ the Head; incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body through baptism, and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through confirmation. They are fundamentally assigned to the apostolate by the Lord Himself. They are consecrated as a royal priesthood and a holy people not only to offer spiritual sacrifices in everything they do, but also to witness to Christ before the world and labor to extend His Kingdom even to the ends of the earth.

So much has been known since the first century of the Christian era and, on this level of our faith, there is an unbroken tradition in the Catholic Church. Sometimes this mystery was more appreciated and sometimes less. Sometimes it was more zealously lived out and sometimes less. But it is of the essence of Christianity that the laity, that is, persons who have not received the Sacrament of Orders, have nevertheless received the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. In virtue of these sacraments they have not only the right but the responsibility to work in the apostolate according to their age, and talent, and situation, and especially according to their particular state in life.

But this constant teaching of the Church’s undivided faith has not remained undeveloped. It has grown in significance and depth over the centuries and, with emphasis, in modern times.

Many factors have contributed to the new significance of the lay apostolate in our day. Some of these factors are part of the history of the modern world, like the rise of the communications media, the corresponding rise of group consciousness and the power of organization. Other factors are the result of default on the part of the clergy (and religious) who in some sections of the Church have become so immersed in problems of peace and justice, and so involved in politics and social issues that priorities have been reversed...

In the meantime, having redefined the necessity of … priests at the Council of Trent, the Church encouraged the laity to an ever greater participation in every phase of the apostolate. Looking back at what happened in the sixteenth century, we may hazard a guess that the Reformation might not have taken place because it would not have been necessary, had the laity been more deeply involved in what was their privilege and bounden duty.

By the time of the Second Vatican Council, enough progress had taken place and enough experience gained for the Council to issue what can only be called Magna Charta for the pent-up zeal of the majority of the faithful in the Catholic church.

The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity is no mere decree. It is at once a profession of faith and a call to action. My purpose from this point on will be to isolate what I said I intended to do: Point out how the doctrine of the lay apostolate has developed in our day and then identify what this means in the practical life of the laity.


What is New About the Lay Apostolate?

We might note at the outset that it is one thing for ideas or movements to develop in the Church. It is something else for these ideas and movements to be approved by the Church and incorporated into her body of beliefs and practices.

That is why it is so important that the Second Vatican Council did what it did. Its decree on the lay apostolate is a long one, and very detailed. And there are many parts of it that I could quote and comment on with profit. But I will concentrate only on one that I consider especially pertinent, namely the relation of apostolate of the laity to the hierarchy.

As the Church now understands this relationship, it has different forms: To be exact, three principal forms. We might call these with respect to the hierarchy, the relationship of approval, of promotion, and of total dependence.

Notice these three forms are mutually exclusive. In other words, there are forms of the lay apostolate that require merely, but necessarily, the approval of the lawful church authority. There are secondly forms of the apostolate where the hierarchy “can select and promote in a particular way some of the apostolic associations and projects that have an immediately spiritual purpose. In this case, the Church authority not only authorizes what the laity are doing—and they do it according to their own prudent judgment.” In the second form, the hierarchy enters into the work of the laity by way of using this apostolate for what the hierarchy considers the Church’s apostolic needs. Yet, even in this case, “the proper nature and distinctive apostolate must be preserved” as the laity have originally conceived it. Moreover, “the laity may not be deprived [by the hierarchy] of the prospect of acting on their own accord.” They are not mere instruments to be used at someone else’s will.

The third form is different from the previous two. In this case “the hierarchy entrusts to the laity certain functions that are more closely connected with pastoral duties.” In essence, this third form of lay apostolate is a participation in the official work of the hierarchy. “By virtue of this mission, the laity are fully subject to the higher ecclesiastical control in the performance of their work.”

One word should be inserted here about the meaning of the word “hierarchy”. Let us be sure we understand this term in its full meaning whether laity are 1) authorized, 2) used, or 3) delegated by the hierarchy. This hierarchy is not only the bishops. It is also, and with emphasis, the papacy.

What are we to make of the new provisions for the lay apostolate? They are to be seen as evidence of a valid dogmatic development; in a way almost revolutionary. How so? Their progressive nature can be summarized in three words: freedom, responsibility, and opportunity.

The freedom that the Church now recognizes among the laity is the freedom of undertaking what in their judgment is needed for the welfare of the People of God. It is also the freedom to pursue their apostolic enterprises, as they believe these should be carried on.

Of course this freedom must be balanced with a sense of responsibility. This means always recognizing that Catholics are not Protestants; that they are always respectful of the Church authority and that whatever they do is done with the consent of the hierarchy.

What is most noteworthy is that this responsible freedom of the laity can seize on opportunities that the faithful themselves recognize in the world in which they live. They are, in a word, being told by the Church that they, too, have a charism from our Lord; the charism of bringing the message of Christ to people and in situations that are either closed to the clergy or where the clergy would not be acceptable; or where the clergy are not equipped by position or profession to proclaim the Good News of Salvation, or reconcile sinful people with their God.


Practical Implications

What are some practical implications of this marvelous development in doctrine? There are several, but I think the most pertinent is that the laity will rise to the occasion and give themselves with such zeal as the Church has never seen before.

What do I mean? I mean that after nineteen centuries of evangelization, most of the human race has not yet heard the Gospel proclaimed or the norms of Jesus and Mary taught; that hundreds of millions are waiting to hear the word of God, and the laity are expected, more than ever, to do the proclamation.

I mean that the forces of error and evil in the world today have become so powerful, partly because other laity have not been able—for a variety of reasons—to combat these forces on their own level through organized effort, approved by the Church. The demonic success of the abortion crusade, for example, can best be overcome by the concerted work of the laity. So, too, the widespread dissemination of doctrinal error in Catholic circles needs the laity to witness to the truth they know is true, and stand firm against what is sometimes an avalanche of learned ideas at variance with the Church’s historic faith.

But if the role of the laity in the Church is so promising, it demands a good grounding in the faith. We cannot communicate to others what we do not have ourselves. Hence the need for sound, continuing education in the faith.

Moreover, to witness to the faith today calls for grace, extraordinary grace, that only God can give. But the laity must use the means. This means prayer—much more, more regular, and more serious than ever before.

Finally, we proclaim only what we are. The lay apostolate is radically an apostolate of sanctity. Goodness produces almost without speaking, and holiness is diffused just because it exists. What the church most needs is holy people, especially holy lay people, whose presence in the world is the leaven that Christ wants to use to bring millions of souls to His Divine Heart.

Copyright © 2003 Inter Mirifica






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