The role of the laity
In this issue:
As members of the people of God, the laity are "made one body with Christ" and share in his office of priest, prophet and king. Each layperson is needed to do the work of Christ's body in the world. "God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended," St. Paul explains in the First Letter to the Corinthians. The laity share in the saving mission of the church with a special vocation to reach people: in the home, at work, in clubs and groups, at sporting events.
By David Gibson/Catholic News Service
Do you know any wife and husband who hold identical views on every practical concern in their lives together? Typically, spouses differ to some degree about the best ways of spending their free time, or raising and disciplining children, or planning for the future. Pope Francis believes something good can come of this.
"Keep an open mind," he exhorted couples and families in "The Joy of Love," his 2016 apostolic exhortation on marriage and family life. "Don't get bogged down in your own limited ideas and opinions but be prepared to change or expand them," he advised.
Even in marriage, he suggested, the unity "we seek is not uniformity but a 'unity in diversity' or 'reconciled diversity.'" Combining two "ways of thinking can lead to a synthesis that enriches" each spouse. "We need to free ourselves from feeling that we all have to be alike," he said.
Yet, as is well-known, creating unity in diversity can pose real challenges, whether in a marriage, a parish, a city, a nation or in the international arena.
Most people know this challenge from experience, perhaps the experience of seeing that their finest, best-honed talents or insights were overlooked in certain situations where gifts and insights of another sort were sought and celebrated.
This is an age-old issue for Christians, familiar to them from their faith's earliest days. St. Paul addressed the problem in his first letter to the Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth.
The diverse Corinthian Christians, it seems, were not getting along particularly well. "I hear that when you meet as a church there are divisions among you, and to a degree I believe it," Paul wrote (1 Cor 11:18).
But all were "baptized into one body, whether Jews, Greeks, slaves or free persons," Paul said. Their community indeed had "many parts" but was "one body," he stressed (1 Cor 12:13; 20).
In Paul's letter, "we read about a small church in a busy city, made up of folks living less than a generation after Christ. It is a community torn apart by its differences," according to Edward P. Hahnenberg, a theologian at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio.
He noted in a 2009 speech that the Corinthian Christians were "bickering over their interpretations of the Gospel, their differing moral codes, their rival leaders." When they gathered to celebrate the Lord's Supper, "deep-seated biases based on class and social status (were) on ugly display," Hahnenberg said.
Paul approached this community with a message in First Corinthians' often-quoted Chapter 12:1-31. He spoke not only of the importance, but the necessity of affirming each member's value in the body of Christ. There are different gifts, but the same God "produces all of them in everyone," Paul clarified.
Noting that a single body is made up of many parts, Paul put things this way:
"If an ear should say, 'Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,' it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?"Continuing this imagery, Paul cautioned that "the eye cannot say to the hand, 'I do not need you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I do not need you.'"
When one part of Christ's body suffers, moreover, "all the parts suffer with it," he emphasized. "If one part is honored, all the parts share its joy."
Today, when members of a parish community are sent after a Sunday Mass to bring Communion to the sick at home or when its youths labor during a summer work camp to aid struggling people, they are putting into practice Paul's teaching in First Corinthians about the body of Christ.
Think, perhaps, of these Sunday Communion ministers as the body's "ear" and the work camp youths as its "hand" or "feet." The point is that each is needed to do the work of Christ's body in the world. "God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended," Paul explained.
His teaching makes room for diverse talents, interests, insights and gifts within a church community to come to the fore. Thus, as Pope Francis suggested, in diverse ways the members of a faith community can enrich each other.
But there are two temptations to contend with in all of this, he pointed out on Pentecost this year. "The first temptation," is to seek "diversity without unity," while the second temptation seeks "unity without diversity."
In the first case people "take sides." Becoming "locked into (their) own ideas and ways of doing things," they "choose the part over the whole," he said. In the second case, "unity ends up being homogeneity and no longer freedom."
So, creating unity in diversity constitutes a necessary Christian challenge today, as was true in Corinth so long ago. It is a challenge, Pope Francis remarked during a 2015 visit to the Central African Republic, that "demands creativity, generosity, self-sacrifice and respect for others."
Gibson served on Catholic News Service's editorial staff for 37 years.
By Mike Nelson/Catholic News Service
"There are different forms of service," says St. Paul, "but the same Lord" (1 Cor 12:5).
"In the church there is diversity of ministry," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "but unity of mission" (No. 873).
In other words, building the body of Christ on earth takes many people working together -- recognizing and utilizing their God-given gifts in service of one another. Nowhere is that more necessary than at the parish level, where lay ministers are indispensable to the work of the church.
Like at the Church of St. Mary in Lake Forest, Illinois, where bereavement and outreach ministers serve the needs of those grieving, dying or in pain by bringing them "the presence of Christ," in the words of pastoral associate Lore Nugent.
Or at Holy Trinity Church in San Pedro, California, where choirs lead parish assemblies in sung prayer, "giving voice to God's word and bringing people closer to God," says choir member Edra Widener.
Or at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in rural St. Paul, Nebraska, where religious educators minister to children and their families, "teaching them by sharing not just faith but the things in our lives that have formed us as disciples," says Becky Knox, director of religious education.
For Knox, religious education was a natural link to her profession as special education teacher. "I had experience in the classroom, and I felt I was being called to use my gifts and talents in the service of the church," she explains. "This ministry keeps me on my toes, keeps me thinking about how we can better serve our youth and families."
Widener had sung in choirs and glee clubs all of her life. "There was always singing and dancing in my family," she smiles. "But I'd never thought to join the choir at Holy Trinity until my mom became ill. Singing in the choir would help me from feeling overwhelmed completely; it was my saving grace."More than 20 years later, she says, "participating in music is a joy, especially because I see how we support the assembly in proclaiming and receiving the Scriptures through our singing. It's about strengthening the community and building the kingdom."
Nugent, like Knox, entered parish ministry as a religious education teacher, and eventually took on further leadership roles and positions at the parish after completing the lay ecclesial ministry program at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois.
As pastoral associate, she oversees the bereavement ministry team and those who minister in hospitals and nursing homes. "We have the opportunity to walk with and give consolation to families, to share painful and challenging times in their lives," she explains. "It's an opportunity to bring Christ's healing to those who need it most, and just to be present for them is really an honor and a blessing."
In fact, she smiles, "I can't even call what I do 'work,' because it is such a joy to serve in this ministry."
To the laity in the pews who feel unsure of how or even whether to serve, Nugent suggests they spend time discovering their gifts with the aid of pastoral staff.
"It's about sharing your faith journey with someone else," she says. "It's part of evangelization, discovering how Christ enriches every aspect of our lives. And that's the heart and mission of our church."
Widener believes it is important to extend an invitation. "I see many people who, like me, have dealt with death or sadness in their families," she says. "And not only do they find healing and joy in being part of a choir where they find support and camaraderie, they can support others through using their own gifts."
"We are all learning," adds Knox. "It's a lifelong process. That's why we come to church, why we pray to the Lord, so we can better understand what our faith teaches us -- and our faith teaches us to serve. You can be supported in your role, and you can support others."
Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.
By Daniel S. Mulhall/Catholic News Service
The Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church ("Lumen Gentium") promulgated by Blessed Paul VI on Nov. 21, 1964, presents succinctly the church's teaching on the role of the laity in the church and in the world. This teaching can be found in Chapter 4, "The Laity," Nos. 30-38.
A year later, the council expanded on this teaching in the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity ("Apostolicam Actuositatem"), promulgated by Blessed Paul VI on Nov. 18, 1965. Here we will look at the teaching found in "Lumen Gentium."
First, "Lumen Gentium" defines the laity as the faithful who have been baptized who aren't clergy, brothers or sisters. As members of the people of God, they are "made one body with Christ" and share in his office of priest, prophet and king.
They are to the best of their ability to carry on the church's mission to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the world by "engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God," and in so doing, sanctify the world through the witness given by their lives (No. 31).
The laity share in the saving mission of the church with a special vocation to "make the church present and operative" in the places where only they can reach people: in the home, at work, in their clubs and groups, at sporting events and the like (No. 33).
Members of the laity also may work in official church ministries, such as serving as catechists, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and pastoral associates, among many others.
Christ himself strengthens the laity so they can fulfill their role in the church's mission, sharing with them his priestly office so that they may offer worship directly to God the Father through their prayer, works and ordinary life, and in so doing, "consecrate the world itself to Christ."
Through their relationship with Christ, the laity share in Christ's prophetic mission by serving as both witnesses to the faith and, perhaps more important, as the "sensus fidei," which the International Theological Commission in its 2014 document "'Sensus Fidei' in the Life of the Church" defines as "an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, which enables them to recognize and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false" (No. 2).
In this way the laity are "powerful proclaimers" of the faith, states "Lumen Gentium" (No. 35).
Finally, the laity share in Christ's kingly office through their secular activity as they promote justice, love and peace. Doing our daily work well, whatever it is, helps to promote the Creator's plan and bring the light of Christ to the world.
But that isn't all: The laity are also called to "remedy the customs and conditions of the world" that are sinful. Through the efforts of the laity in opposing injustice, virtue is promoted, impregnating "culture and human activity with genuine moral values" (No. 36).
An important role, wouldn't you say?
Mulhall is a catechist who lives in Louisville, Kentucky.
Being baptized does not simply mean entrance to a sort of "club," theologian John Cavadini said during a June 14 talk to U.S. bishops at their spring assembly in Indianapolis.
"It is very hard to talk to young people about vocational discernment" without a proper sense of what baptismal vocation is, he said.
Through baptism, Cavadini explained, Catholics participate in the vocation of Christ in his priesthood and in his prophetic and royal mission.
Baptism leaves an indelible mark on our souls and orients us toward the Eucharist, Cavadini said. "The primary vocation of baptism is to the eucharistic life and eucharistic communion as a member incorporated in Christ and called to the unity of but one body -- and thus to participate in Christ's triple vocation of love: priest, prophet and king."
This vocation is more than just a call to "repair the world" and work for social justice, he said. Understanding baptismal vocation requires a foundational sense of the mystery of the church.
"Why the church? Why is it worth belonging? What's the point of that vocation?"
To foster and encourage vocations, Cavadini said, Catholics need to "love the church" and teach a love for the church.