For a long time, centuries in fact, the role of the laity in the Church has been presented to us as a role of docility and obedience. The Second Vatican Council overturned that long-accepted picture and argued that the laity have rights and responsibilities. In today's lead commentary Emmy Silvius explores some of our rights and responsibilities in lay ecclesial ministry.
What rights do we have as laity?
With the recent upheaval that has been coming through the various media in relation to Bishop Morris and others advocating for change within our Church, I thought it timely to delve a little deeper into the rights and responsibilities of the people of the Church. When observing the actions and words of some of the hierarchy, we could be forgiven for wondering if we do have any rights. Yet we do! Not only are these rights expressed in the Church's Teachings but, even more importantly, we exercise our rights based on Christ's message that all people of faith are his disciples. As such, we not only have the right but also the responsibility to build up the reign of God on earth. This responsibility can only be achieved if the Church hierarchy broadens their views on the role of the laity in the Church.
"Christ's faithful have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the church." [Canon 212, par 2]
Since Vatican II, there has been a growing concern regarding the lack of vocations for the religious and ordained priesthood. Often the increase in lay ecclesial ministry is accepted as a response to the decline in these vocations. However, this claim minimises what is at the core of the rise in lay ministers; namely, a generous and often difficult response to a deep personal calling from God. This deep personal call does not discriminate between woman and man, married or single persons. It festers within all people of good will who discover within the wellsprings of their being a deep surge of love for their Creator; a love that cannot help but be manifested in a heartfelt desire to serve all God's people. This desire can only thrive efficiently when it is embraced by a special nurturing and nourishment from within a faith-based community.
Continuing Christ's mission in the world...
In the New Testament the word laos (the laity) refers to the whole people of God. The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity teaches us that the Church is founded for the specific purpose of continuing Christ's mission in the world. The whole Church is a sacrament; in so far as it has been founded by Christ it "signifies, embodies, and carries on the saving work of Christ, who is himself the original sacrament of God." As we ARE the people of the Church — we too are a sacrament, a sign, a pointing towards something other than ourselves. Acknowledging this is not about minimising Christ's role in the Church; on the contrary, it is an acceptance of our duty as baptised Christians to carry on Christ's mission and to be faithful to his message. We certainly have a voice and need to claim our right to be heard when expressing our concerns for today's Church and just like Jesus we will leave a lasting legacy when doing this in the spirit of love and respectful dialogue.
The Second Vatican Council was primarily concerned with the nature and mission of the Church. Its focus was clearly ecclesiological with the two main documents on which all the others rested being the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). As was stated by Pope John XXIII at the beginning of the Council it was time for the Church to open the windows and let the fresh air in. It was a matter of discerning the signs of the time and allowing the Holy Spirit free reign to move throughout the Church. It is ultimately the Holy Spirit who moves us into the steps we need to take if we allow the time and space for the Spirit's creative promptings to take shape.
This is a Kairos time, the right time to allow the Holy Spirit to move freely so that the changes that are essential for the continuation of our Church can be brought about. It was Cardinal Newman who suggested that "doctrine develops and evolves, just as a seed grows into a tree". In other words, doctrine is not something handed down to us through a divine act of God, nor is it simply a construction of human thought. It needs continual evaluation and adjusting to the signs of the times. Inspiration, thought and research is needed for any significant teaching. When referring to teachings of the Church we would have to add to the list: prayer, wisdom and discernment.
In Australia many dioceses have recruited priests from overseas; this can be counter-productive as often problems arise regarding cultural and language differences. Being a parish priest often delivers enough emotional strain and heavy workload without having to deal with these extra challenges. Discussions surrounding the issue of marriage and female clergy keep appearing and will continue to do so, until change is brought about. Many Catholics find it odd, for example, that male married Anglican clergy can become Catholic priests, whilst Catholic priests who marry are debarred from the priesthood.
The Spirit of God seems to be moving across our continent — calling us to a new way of seeing and a new way of acting. We are being urged to rediscover, from within a new cultural context, the ancient practice of discipleship. We are being asked to learn again what it means to live a gospel way of life, and how our Church structures can best mirror the face of Jesus to the world. Our prayers and discernment have led us to a conversion of heart and mind, a conversion which involves relationships and structures. In this moment of transformation we need a way of looking at our Church, which can enlighten our path and provide inspiration and hope. We long to be a Church that engages with the reality of everyday life and at the same time not lose sight of God's Kingdom emerging into our world.
This we can achieve by embracing wholeheartedly the movement towards a church of equality and participation, the movement towards solidarity with the poor and the movement towards true community. Pope Paul VI has pointed out that the most persistent aspirations of people today are the aspirations towards equality and participation, and that the movement towards equality and participation is the expression of human dignity and freedom (Octogesima Adveniens, 22). Indeed, Jesus himself absolutely forbade any kind of domination in the group (Mk 10:42-45). The only kind of leadership that was allowed was a servant leadership (see Galatians 3:28).
How do we further Christ's mission in the world?
According to the 2006 Australian Census, the Catholic population was 5,126,884 or 25.8% of the total Australian population, but very few appear to have any sense of themselves as being "the Church" or the Church's mission as being dependent on them. Why is this so? How can people at grassroots level be motivated and empowered to participate actively and enthusiastically in the Church's mission? A way forward is to take hold of one of the directives of the Church's social doctrine, namely subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity urges groups to take responsibility for their own well-being. Assistance should only be given when absolutely necessary. A consequence of this is that everyone must participate and contribute to the development of their community with a view to the common good.
What we need to do is to rediscover the meaning and significance of our baptismal call and to discern both the gifts we have been given by God and the role we are called to play in furthering Christ's mission in the world. It is absolutely vital that we move away from the pyramid structure of the Church of pre- Vatican II and claim a Church where all participate equally in truth and love whilst exercising our rights as a priestly people. It is imperative that the Church constantly debates and learns how to respond to new situations while coping with differing opinions in its own ranks. At times Church authorities have been mistaken, which emphasises the importance of informed lay critique within the Church. Of course we will never fully achieve the Reign of God on earth, but we can witness to the values of the Kingdom and try to embody them as much as we can in societies throughout the world.
Emmy Silvius 23May2011
What are your thoughts on this commentary?