The Principal Calling and Mission of the Laity

In today's world, when the number of priest vocations in many countries has decreased, a question arises: what is the principal calling of the laity in the Church and in the world? Unless we lay people understand our primary role, how can we be expected to fulfil it satisfactorily?

Pay, pray and obey?

I have heard it said in jest that the laity are here to "pay, pray, and obey." This is certainly not a new thought - in 1850 a bishop told Cardinal Newman "the province of the laity is to shoot, to hunt, and to entertain." Pope Boniface VIII once remarked that history showed the laity had always been hostile to the clergy, and Pius X in his condemnation of modernism described it as "a most pernicious doctrine which would make of the laity a factor of Progress in the Church." Such views reveal a tension between clergy and laity, with neither group quite sure of their relationship to the other. These wrong attitudes developed because the Church had done very little to address the question of the role and place of lay people in the Church and in the world. In the 1950s Yves Conger said that laity were fully members of the Church, and not second-class citizens or an underclass of the clergy. Then at last in the 1987 Synod on "The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World" a detailed attempt was made to present a better theological framework for the role of the laity. So any consideration of this role needs to be based on the Apostolic Exhortation "Christifideles Laici" which summaries the work of the Synod, and addresses the calling of the lay people in a very straight-forward way.

Our identity, dignity and role

This important document is divided into five chapters, and it is helpful to make a brief summary of the contents. The first chapter reminds us that Baptism is the source of every Christian's dignity and identity, and it is through our Baptism that we are called to a life of holiness and service inspired by the Holy Spirit. Chapter two looks at our place in the Church, and our participation in her life and mission through our gifts, ministries, and service. The third chapter deals with the shared responsibility of every lay Christian for the mission of the Church, and emphasises the need for a new evangelisation of individuals and society as a whole. We are encouraged to live, to speak, and to make present the Gospel wherever we are. Chapter four looks at the wide variety of callings in the church and in society, with particular emphasis on the status and role of women. We are all called to work together to build the Kingdom. In the final chapter we are exhorted to bear much fruit, with an emphasis on the importance our own particular calling so that we may grow into mature Christian men and women. We are reminded that our on-going life-long formation is not the privilege of a few, but the right and duty of all. In this document we find at last a positive and clear expression of the identity, dignity, and role of lay people in the mission of the Church. It is well worth reading, but what does it all mean, and where does it take us?

Our call to holiness and mission

The old negative definition of laity -"those who do Not share in the Sacrament of Orders" - is no more, and we are now invited to see ourselves in terms of who and what we are, not in terms of what we lack. We learn that an active participation in Christ's saving work is not reserved for certain Christians with special education or training - it is the call to all of us through the sacraments of initiation. So if the call to holiness and mission is the common identity for clergy and laity alike, what is the special lay perspective or experience we are to bring to the task? It is quite simply an understanding of how and where we carry out our call to share in Christ's mission.

Different callings, different gifts

The call of the clergy is primarily but not exclusively to build up the Church, and the laity are invited to assist them in this task. In contrast, the call of the laity is primarily (but again not exclusively) to bring the Gospel out into the secular world, and thereby to draw people into the Church. In our task we are to be assisted by the clergy. Of course in many countries the laity are needed to assist the clergy in building up the church, and we do this by undertaking special ministries and services whenever necessary. But this work is neither the vision nor the primary task of mature laity described in the Church documents and encyclicals. Part of our failure to answer the call to go into the world is that lay people often don't feel we are sharing in Unless we're involved in aspecial Church ministry, committee in a special Church ministry, committee, or programme. So it is clear that much more must be done to prepare us for our primary mission in the world. We have a distorted image of lay spiritual development which emphasises involvement in Church ministry over action in the world. But the mission of the Church is not her own renewal so much as the evangelisation of the world. Pope Paul VI clearly expressed it in Evangelii Nuntiandi "the Church exists to evangelise." We usually find, however, that priority is given to the clerical ministry of building up the Church, making the lay calling in the world secondary. This naturally leads to the view that the clergy have a higher calling than the laity. I prefer to see it as a Different calling requiring special gifts, but with the recognition that individual clergy and laity are equal in God's sight.

Partners in mission

To help us embrace the call to go into the world, we need to avoid a false distinction between the sacred and the secular. It's easy to look upon the Church as good, holy and safe, whilst seeing the world as hostile, evil, and profane. This leads to a sense of living in a hostile world and retreating back to the safety of the Church. If we think this way we need to change, accepting God's view that creation is basically good, and sharing his love for the world (John 3:16). So our primary calling is to be labourers in the vineyard, presenting, promoting, and proclaiming the good news of salvation in Jesus to all those we meet. If we are to do this successfully we need to be formed, equipped, and sent forth from our parishes with a clear sense of value and commitment. For this we need a new partnership between clergy and laity, with each group understanding and living out their primary calling, whilst assisting each other whenever necessary. Our respective callings are not better or worse - they both demand commitment and sacrifices - but they are different. So let's accept that and get on with the work of evangelisation to which we're called.

saltele la comanda chisinau