Monday, December 10, 2012

The Council at 50: Laity: Conscience for Church, Society

Welcome to one of the series of blogs on the Second Vatican Council. Each piece reviews one of the 16 documents produced by the Council Fathers during the extraordinary occasion in Church history. Vatican II, which drew together the world’s bishops, opened fifty years ago in St. Peter’s Basilica, October 11, 1962.

(Photo courtesy of Catholic News Service)

In some ways, the role of lay men and women in the church drew top billing at the Second Vatican Council. Their role was highlighted in several documents, and one decree Apostolicam Actuositatem (Apostolic Activity), theDecree on the Apostolate of Lay People,” focused completely on them.

The document begins by emphasizing the vocation of the lay person and notes that Christ calls every baptized believer to the mission of the church. This mission is twofold: to bring about the salvation of all people and to renew the world. This mission does not just belong to the hierarchy; it belongs to everyone by virtue of their baptism. 

The laity stand in a unique position to carry on the Church’s mission because of their place both in the Church community and in society. The Council Fathers, for example, described the lay state as “a life led in the midst of the world and of secular affairs” and said “laymen are called by God to make of their apostolate, through the vigor of their Christian spirit, a leaven in the world.”

It noted that the grace of Sunday Mass extends beyond church and said that a layman is “at one and the same time a believer and a citizen of the world,” and “has only a single conscience, a Christian conscience; it is by this that he must be guided continually in both domains.”

The decree called on lay people to live in a way that shows “the very witness of a Christian life” and recalls Scripture’s directive: “Your light must shine so brightly before people that they can see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”  (Mt. 5:16)

The decree urges involvement in charitable works, noting that “mercy to the poor and the sick, and charitable works and works of mutual aid for the alleviation of all kinds of human needs, are held in special honor in the church.” Such efforts, the document says, flesh out the mandate found in Matthew 25, “whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.”  The document also reminds Christians to see their neighbors in the image of God. 

The decree calls for lay people to work for justice, “to take on themselves as their distinctive task the renewal of the temporal order.” It stresses the value of “Christian social action” and said “the council desires to see it extended today to every sector of life, not forgetting the cultural sphere.”

Because lay people are both in the Church community and in society, they are called to exercise their baptismal vocation in their parish communities, family, communities in which they live and work, as well as on the national and international level. This renewal of the world can take place individually and in groups. Many lay people have found support for their vocation through lay movements in the Church. 

Since Vatican II, there has been tremendous growth in the role of the laity within the Church. Sometimes the term “apostolate” used throughout the document has been replaced by “ministry.”  The Church in the United States, in particular, has seen a rise in the number of lay people serving where once only priests and religious were found. 


Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh is a past chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.       

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