Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P. has an interesting article (linked in here) on the history of the laity in the Church. What struck me was how recent is the idea of a truly lay apostolate, rather than the idea that the laity participate in the only true apostolate, that of the hierarchy. Fr. Aumann writes,
"During and after the Second Vatican Council the lay members of the Church have been called repeatedly to assume their rightful place among the People of God and to perform the apostolate that is their responsibility. This in itself constitutes a remarkable change in the traditional under standing of the role of the laity in the life and ministry of the Church."
Briefly looking at the role of the laity through time and the clericalization of the Church, he notes that "Closer to our own times, Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846) stated: 'No one can deny that the Church is an unequal society in which God has destined some to command and others to obey.' Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) also declared that there are two distinct classes in the Church: pastors and their flocks, the leaders and the people. 'The role of the first order,' he said, 'is to teach, to govern and to lead men in life; to impose rules. The duty of the other is to submit itself to the first, to obey it, to carry out its orders and to honor it.'"
He mentions a few clerics who were instrumental in changing this view of the laity, like John Henry Cardinal Newman and St. Vincent Pallotti, founder of Catholic Action, not to mention the Popes named Pius X-XII. One of the foremost voices in the changing of the view of the hierarchy came from an outspoken and often suspected proponent of the laity, who in 1932 wrote,
"The prejudice that ordinary members of the faithful must limit themselves to helping the clergy in ecclesiastical apostolates has to be rejected. There is no reason why the secular apostolate should always be a mere participation in the apostolate of the hierarchy. Secular people too have to have a duty to do apostolate; not because they receive a canonical mission, but because they are part of the Church. Their mission... is fulfilled in their professions, their job, their family, and among their colleagues and friends."
That thought was taken up by the Second Vatican Council, which discussed the secular character of the laity in paragraph 31 of Lumen Gentium,
"Their secular character is proper and peculiar to the laity... By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will. They live in the world, that is, they are engaged in each and every work and business of the earth, and in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life which, as it were, constitute their very existence. There they are called by God that, being led by the Spirit to the Gospel, they may con tribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties... The laity... are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth."
Whose prophetic voice was it that challenged the view of the laity as simply being the helpers of the clergy?
None other than Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer, the recently canonized founder of Opus Dei.
In our polarized American Church (which too often mirrors the polarization in secular politics in our country), we too often find it impossible to believe that voices from the opposite side of the (church) aisle might have something to say that we can agree with. So we don't listen to each other. What a tragic mistake, and what a scandal we present to the world. But there is also a tremendous irony in the emphasis on the part of some people in the Church, mostly toward the progressive end of the spectrum, that sees the key to greater lay dignity in being involved in roles that were traditionally taken by clerics. Such a view stems from a pre-Vatican II view of the Church!
What do I mean by that? Fr. Aumann points out the, "slow and gradual process by which the laity were given their rightful place in the mission of the Church. For example, in the early days of Catholic Action, Pope Pius XI defined it (i.e., the rightful place of the laity) as 'the participation of the laity in the hierarchical apostolate of the Church.' That statement was made in 1939..."
Within a generation, the Second Vatican Council, focusing on the purpose of the Church as the spreading of the Kingdom of Christ throughout the earth and enabling all people to enter into a relationship with Jesus, wrote, "All activity of the Mystical Body directed to the attainment of this goal is called the apostolate, which the Church carries on in various ways through all her members. For the Christian vocation by its very nature is also a vocation to the apostolate...Indeed, the organic union in this body and the structure of the members are so compact that the member who fails to make his proper contribution to the development of the Church must be said to be useful neither to the Church nor to himself."
The Council, which has sometimes been called a council on the laity, calls the Church to see its primary focus as leaven within the world. In this sense, the laity have a primary role, and the role of the clergy is, in some ways, secondary, and focused on helping the laity be prepared for that apostolate, and offering their efforts with Christ to the Father in the eucharistic liturgy.
The Mass is essential to the success of the apostolate, don't get me wrong. We can do nothing without Christ and the grace His death and resurrection make available to us. The Mass is the source and summit of our life as Christians. It is the source of the success of the Church's apostolate. It is also the summit of our life as Christians when the fruits of the apostolate are offered to the Father with Christ within the eucharistic sacrifice. Those fruits include new Christians gathered around the table of the Lord and the efforts of Christians to humanize secular institutions. Both of these give glory and praise to God.
Unfortunately, many of our ecclesial structures still reflect the pre-Vatican II mentality that saw the role of the cleric and the inner workings of the Church as institution as primary. I am not advocating a "democratization" or "Protestantization" of the Church. Such a process would still be focusing on the Church and its inner workings. What I am suggesting can be summarized in this way:
If the purpose of the Church is the evangelization of the world and the changing of secular institutions so that they respect the human dignity of each person and better reflect the will of God which is the good of each person, then
1. The focus of each diocese and parish must increasingly become that purpose.
2. The role of the clergy must be seen as primarily helping the laity embrace and succeed in their apostolate, since it is the laity who have access to those far from the Church and who participate in secular institutions.
3. This will mean a change in priestly formation to include a coherent and integrated emphasis on evangelization, pastoral governance, charisms, and the role of the laity in the Church's mission.
4. This also requires a re-examination and restructuring of the ways in which the clergy and lay pastoral staff spend their time and energy, as well as a change in how lay Catholics view themselves, the Church, and the world.
5. A primary goal of the clergy and lay pastoral staff must be the conversion of individual Catholic Christians to a personal relationship with Christ and intentional discipleship, as well as an intention to help the Christian community support individual and communal apostolic initiatives.
6. The sacraments, particularly the Mass, which is the source and summit of our life as Christians, must be studied and experienced in the context of our mission to the world and as the catalysts and ongoing graced supports to the individual and communal relationship with Christ.
7. That means that our apostolic efforts must be consciously, purposefully and specifically acknowledged in appropriate places in Mass, and also recognized as an integral part of our worship and praise of God. That is, I am worshipping God not only before the altar, but also when I act from Christian principles at work, at home, at play, and at rest.
I'm sure there are other points that could be made, but this is a start. Feel free to add other ideas or observations I may have overlooked.