Monday, October 1, 2012

The Distinct Character of the Laity

The Second Vatican Council begins defining who the laity are by stating: "The term 'laity' is here understood to mean all the faithful except those in Holy Orders and those in the state of religious life specially approved by the Church" (Lumen Gentium 31).  This is not the full definition that the Council provides, but I will use this incomplete definition for a moment to point out that it represents the whole of the definition of the laity to which many people ascribe, whether consciously or not.  The laity are not ordained ministers or religious (i.e., monks or nuns) - and that's it!

What is lacking is the positive affirmation of who laypeople are.  Laypeople are not ordained, so if they are to continue not being ordained, then the idea of being "called to be a layperson" may in some people's minds amount to being called to something they always have been, or haven't been, anyhow.  Embracing one's vocation as a layperson then lacks any further, definitive identity or calling to pursue.

I think this is a misconception held by laypeople and ordained ministers alike, representing in part why many functions traditionally performed by priests are being handed over piecemeal to laity.  With the best of intentions, functions of which priests and deacons are ordinary ministers are nonetheless performed by laity in order to give laypeople a sense of participation, as the idea holds that without these functions, laypeople could not easily maintain any meaningful role in the Church.  And, conversely, the definitive identity of the priest is also progressively lost in the minds of the faithful, illustrating how the self-identities of ordained ministers and the laity are intimately united.

So, in order to fill the void which allows this incomplete understanding of who the laity are to persist in the minds of individuals, what is needed is a thorough and positive affirmation of who the laity are, what they are called to, and what their roles are.  So, the Council's definition continues by laying out three features which positively define the laity:

"These faithful are [1] by baptism made one body with Christ and are constituted among the People of God; [2] they are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ; and [3] they carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world."  (Lumen Gentium 31)

The first two features clarify who the laity are in relation to the Church and as disciples of Christ: they do indeed fully belong to the Church as those sanctified in Baptism, and the Council affirms as well that the laity have their own roles to play in participating in Christ's own office as priest, prophet, and king: in the preistly office, by offering their lives in unison to Christ's own offering of himself to the Father; in the prophetic office, by spreading the gospel in accord with each layperson's state in life; and, finally, in the kingly office in that "the Lord wishes to spread His kingdom also by means of the laity, namely, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace" (Lumen Gentium 36).

But since Baptism and thus the sharing in Christ's office as priest, prophet, and king is common to all the faithful - laity, religious, and ordained ministers alike - a character which belongs specifically to the laity may be had in fleshing out the what is meant by this definition's third feature: "They carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world."  What exactly distinguishes the laity's "own part", and in what manner does the laity in particular carry it out "in the Church and in the world"?

The Council answers such questions by identifying characteristics specific to the laity, and which distinguish the laity from other states of life, namely, from those of ordained ministers or religious.  The first such character the Council identifies is that the laity is distinctly secular (cf. Lumen Gentium 31), meaning that laypeople exist and carry out their work "in the midst of the world and its concerns"  (Apostolicam Actositatem 2).  The Council also acknowledges that ordained ministers and religious themselves oftentimes function in and influence the world:

"It is true that those in holy orders can at times be engaged in secular activities, and even have a secular profession. But they are by reason of their particular vocation especially and professedly ordained to the sacred ministry. Similarly, by their state in life, religious give splendid and striking testimony that the world cannot be transformed and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes."  (Lumen Gentium 31)

However, the laity's influence in the world bears a potential specific to the laity's state in life:

"But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs  and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven."  (ibid. 31)

The Council depicts the laity's vocation as evangelizing the world as it were "on the ground": that the laity's influence within the family and the ordinary circumstances within one's profession and social life carry with it the potential for the most consistent and practical impact upon others.  "Now the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth" (Lumen Gentium 33).  The Council's comparisons of the laity's influence with leaven in the world and salt of the earth - in relation to our Lord's own words (cf. Mt. 5:13, 13:33, Lk. 13:31-32) - present a dignity which the laity possess by virtue of such influence and responsibility.  Perceiving this responsibility compels laypeople to strive to live their lives before others in such a way that let they live up to the Lord's exhortation, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 5:16).

It is this very image of light which Bl. Pope John Paul II included in his own illustration of the laity's vocation as that of being "salt of the earth" and "light of world" (cf. Mt. 5:13-14), which vocation bears with it the responsibility of bringing the light of the realization of the human person's sacredness and dignity to a world in which secularism and violence darken man's vision in his search for God and the peace that comes from knowing Him (cf. Christifideles Laici, 3 ff.).  By secularism it is meant that more and more people come to adopt the idea that they can find their fulfillment without God - that the world and what it has to offer is all we need to find life's pleasure and perhaps even a cause greater than ourselves to which we may devote our lives.  Given that the laity's character is distinctly secular, then, to what extent does the laity devote itself to the world?

A balanced and well-ordered understanding of the world as the object of the laity's evangelization is crucial to the understanding of the laity's role within it.  The world, after all, is good: "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen 1:31).  Furthermore, "God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son...not to condemn the world, but to save it" (Jn. 3:16, 17).  But at the same time, care must be taken so as to be "in the world, but not of the world" (cf. Jn. 17: 11, 14-16).  Bl. Pope John Paul II described how it is that individuals may gradually become "of the world":

"Adversely affected by the impressive triumphs of continuing scientific and technological development and above all, fascinated by a very old and yet new temptation, namely, that of wishing to become like God (cf. Gen 3:5) through the use of a liberty without bounds, individuals cut the religious roots that are in their hearts; they forget God, or simply retain him without meaning in their lives, or outrightly reject him, and begin to adore various 'idols' of the contemporary world."  (Christifideles Laici 4).

A remedy to such idolization of the world is had by reclaiming man's original and primordial vocation as steward or guardian of the earth (cf. Gen. 1:26, 2:15), thus putting the world in it's proper place in relation to man.  Another distinct feature of the laity which the Council identifies is the special role that laypeople play in fulfilling this orginal vocation:

"The faithful, therefore, must learn the deepest meaning and the value of all creation, as well as its role in the harmonious praise of God. They must assist each other to live holier lives even in their daily occupations. In this way the world may be permeated by the spirit of Christ and it may more effectively fulfill its purpose in justice, charity and peace. The laity have the principal role in the overall fulfillment of this duty."  (Lumen Gentium 36)

Finally, it is love itself which acts as the prime motivator by which laypeople act as leaven in the world, establishing the kingdom of God from within.  Although surely compelled by the love of Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:14) as well, the ordained priest responds to his duty "according to the divine office" (Col. 1:25) "to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles according to the priestly service of the gospel of God" (Rom. 15:16).  The layperson's sharing in Christ's office as prophet bears similar responsibility; but without as formal or public a duty, the laity must often make the interior recollection to recall their prophetic duty, and vigilantly commit themselves to carrying it out for love of God and neighbor.

"Impelled by divine charity, [the laity] do good to all men, especially to those of the household of the faith (cf. Gal. 6:10), laying aside 'all malice and all deceit and pretense, and envy, and all slander' (1 Peter 2:1), and thereby they draw men to Christ. This charity of God, 'which is poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us' (Rom. 5:5), enables the laity really to express the spirit of the beatitudes in their lives." (Apostolicam Actuositatem 4)

And, it is the Lord himself who is the wellspring and source of this love, especially that which he infuses in the laity through the sacraments.

"The lay a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself. Moreover, by the sacraments, especially holy Eucharist, that charity toward God and man which is the soul of the apostolate is communicated and nourished."  (Lumen Gentium 33)

Lumen Gentium
Apostolicam Actuositatem
Christifideles Laici

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