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The priesthood of the laity

 Regardless of whether one agrees with the sentiments thus expressed, this is not the priesthood of the laity.  This is the priesthood of the clergy, in which the laity may assist in various ways, but which is not proper to them.  Although as Canon Law states: " When the necessity of the Church warrants it and when ministers are lacking, lay persons, even if they are not lectors or acolytes, can also supply for certain of their offices, namely, to exercise the ministry of the word, to preside over liturgical prayers, to confer Baptism, and to distribute Holy Communion in accord with the prescriptions of the law" [Code of Canon Law, Can. 230, par. 3.] this does not make Pastors of the lay faithful: Only the Sacrament of Orders gives the ordained minister a particular participation in the office of Christ, the Shepherd and Head, and in his Eternal Priesthood [Cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, 2 and 5.]So what is the priesthood specifically of the laity?  To provide an answer to this question I betook myself to the post-synodal document ‘Christefideles Laici’ written in 1988 by John Paul II, which addresses itself to the question of the position of the laity in the Church in general.  I rather soon realised that in promising myself to summarise this, I had undertaken to swallow a whale. If you have not read the document, I recommend it to you, not least since it contains a considerable section on ‘Group forms of participation’ in the Church, which discussion includes ‘confraternities, third orders and sodalities’ lumped together perhaps rather haphazardly with the various new movements of the laity.  Pope St John Paul II does grant that ‘these lay groups show themselves to be very diverse from one another in various aspects, in their external structures, in their procedures and training methods, and in the fields in which they work’, but sees an underlying unity in their ‘common purpose’, the ‘responsible participation …in the Church's mission of carrying forth the Gospel of Christ, the source of hope for humanity and the renewal of society.’

My topic is more narrowly focussed than this rather diffuse discussion of the position of the laity vis a vis the Church in general, although it was fascinatingly albeit frustratingly difficult to tease out precisely the bits of the encyclical to focus on: So I’ll say at the outset, this part of my talk is a bit of a palimpsest of the first chapter of the document, and a different selection on the same topic could very easily have been made.

Pope St. John Paul engages in the task of drawing together the findings of a synod on the laity, so perhaps his work here will be echoed soon in the Synod on Synodality we are awaiting.  He couches his discussion within the framework of a reflection on the parable of the labourers in the vineyard.  The vineyard he says is ‘the whole world (cf. Mt 13:38), which is to be transformed according to the plan of God in view of the final coming of the Kingdom of God.(CL 1) This is because the call ‘you go into my vineyard too’ is universal, and includes lay people who are also ‘personally called by the Lord’ Who gives them a ‘mission on behalf of the Church and the world’ to ‘associate themselves with him in his saving mission ‘(CL2). 

Pope St John Paul looked to inspire the ‘lay faithful's hearkening to the call of Christ …to take an active, conscientious and responsible part in the mission of the Church.’  He saw the period of history he was living in as particularly crucial: ‘A new state of affairs today both in the Church and in social, economic, political and cultural life, calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful. If lack of commitment is always unacceptable, the present time renders it even more so. It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle.’(CL3)

He reiterates several times the pressing need for ‘re-evangelisation’ in a context where it is not just a question of evangelising those who have not heard the good news, or individual back-sliders but also ‘whole communities’ (CL4) who have fallen away from faith, in a context of widespread human rights abuses and conflicts stemming from a tendency to view people as objects not subjects (cf.CL5). He sounds a cautious note of optimism about modern evidences of ‘openness to a spiritual and transcendent outlook towards life.’(CL4) and the phenomenon of peacemakers who ‘live, suffer and labour to bring about peace and justice’ (CL6).  However the adverse situations he has discussed ‘deeply affect the Church’ and even ‘condition’ her, but ‘they do not crush her, …because the Holy Spirit, who gives her life, sustains her in her mission.’CL7)  The Church knows that she is sent by Christ as "sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of all the human race"(LG1)  The laity are at the forefront of this conflict: he quotes Pius XII who once stated: "The Faithful, more precisely the lay faithful, find themselves on the front lines of the Church's life.’ (Pius XII Discourse to new cardinals.)


It is within this context that pope St John Paul discusses at length the universal vocation to holiness, and the baptismal incorporation into Christ as priest, prophet and King. Every Christian ‘through faith and the sacraments of Christian initiation’ is ‘made like Jesus Christ…incorporated as a living member in the Church and has an active part in her mission of salvation’(CL3).  The laity ‘are seen not simply as labourers who work in the vineyard’, but as themselves being a part of the vine. ‘the Church herself… is the vine in the gospel,’ through which as ‘mystery…the very life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the gift gratuitously offered to all those who are born of water and the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 3:5), and called to relive the very communion of God.’  It is only in the context of the Church’s ‘mystery of communion’ that the identity and ‘fundamental dignity’ of the lay faithful are revealed and their ‘vocation and mission in the Church and in the world …defined’.(CL8)

The ‘lay faithful’ includes every member of the Church who is neither a priest nor a religious, but Vatican II moved beyond defining the laity simply in terms of what they were not and asserted the ‘full belonging of the lay faithful to the Church’ and its mystery, insisting on ‘the unique character of their vocation’ as seeking the Kingdom of God ‘by engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God.’  They are ‘made one body with Christ’ and ‘are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ.’(LG31).

It is ‘incorporation into Christ through faith and Baptism’ that is the source of our being Christian ‘in the mystery of the Church’ and this is the basis upon which ‘all the vocations and dynamism of the Christian life of the lay faithful’ must be understood. (CL9)  The ability to understand and live our vocation from God, assuming the responsibilities that we as the baptised have in the new life of faith stem from ‘three fundamental aspects: Baptism regenerates us in the life of the Son of God; unites us to Christ and to his Body, the Church; and anoints us in the Holy Spirit, making us spiritual temples.'(CL10).

Baptism is a ‘rebirth’ through which the Holy Spirit ‘constitutes the baptized as Children of God and members of Christ's Body’, and we ‘become children of God in His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ’(CL11) such that we can claim as our own the words of the Father at the Jordan ‘You are my beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased’(Lk.3.22).  In this way we ‘are inseparably joined together as "members of Christ and members of the body of the Church", as the Council of Florence teaches.’   As Sr Ann would have it there is a ‘Paschal simultaneity’ here: ‘Baptism symbolizes and brings about a mystical but real incorporation into the crucified and glorious body of Christ’(CL12).  The ‘mystical unity’ between Christ and His disciples and ‘the disciples with each other’ images the Trinitarian communion of Father and Son ‘in the bond of Love, the Holy Spirit’(CL12).  The baptised are anointed by the Holy Spirit, sealed with ‘an indelible character’ (cf. 2 Cor 1:21-22), each constituted as ‘a spiritual temple’ filled with God’s presence and ‘united and likened’ to Christ (CL13)

This outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation allows us to share in the mission of Jesus to ‘preach good news to the poor…to proclaim release to captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Lk 4:18-19; cf. Is 61:1-2).  We become in Him ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people’, to declare the wonderful deeds of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Pt 2:4-5, 9).

The whole people of God ‘participate in the threefold mission as Priest, Prophet and King’ All the baptised ‘Incorporated into Jesus Christ’ are ‘united to Him and to his sacrifice in the offering they make of themselves and their daily activities.’  This arises from the source, Baptism, and developed in Confirmation, realised and nourished by the Eucharist. Each of you individually receive this participation, ‘in as much as each is one of the many who form the one Body of the Lord’ in virtue of your being a member of the Church.  This incorporation into the threefold mission of Christ, deriving   ‘from Church communion, the sharing of the lay faithful in the threefold mission of Christ requires that it be lived and realized in communion and for the increase of communion itself.’  (CL14).

How is the mission of the Lay Faithful different from that of the priesthood or of religious brothers and sisters then?  How is a lay person priest prophet and King? CL14)

The answer given in Christefideles Laici is that, as ‘worshippers whose every deed is holy’ as lay people specifically you ’consecrate the world itself to God’ through the spiritual sacrifice of  ‘work, prayers and apostolic endeavours, …ordinary married and family life, … daily labour,… mental and physical relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life if patiently borne’(LG34)

You participate in the ‘prophetic mission of Christ’ in having the ‘ability and responsibility to accept the gospel in faith and to proclaim it in word and deed, without hesitating to courageously identify and denounce evil, ’ sharing in Christ’s prophetic role having been made ‘in the Spirit’ into witnesses of the risen Christ, sharing in ’appreciation of the Church’s supernatural faith, that ‘cannot err in matters of belief’’(LG12)  As laity you share also in the ‘grace of the word.’  What is specific to you as lay people is the calling ‘to allow the newness and the power of the gospel to shine out every day’ in your ‘family and social life, and to be a patient and courageous countersign ‘in the contradictions of the present age’ witnessing to your hope of future glory "through the framework of [your] secular life"(LG36).  You belong to Christ, and so share in His Kingship, ‘called by him to spread that Kingdom’ by spiritual combat, by the gift of self ‘so as to serve, in justice and in charity, Jesus who is himself present in all his brothers and sisters, above all in the very least (cf. Mt 25:40).’ You are also specifically called ‘to restore to creation all its original value,’ ordering it to the authentic well-being of humanity’, so that God may be all in all.(CL14).

As the baptised you are sharers of the broad title ‘People of God’ equally with priests and religious, having ‘a common dignity from [your] rebirth in Christ, … the same filial grace and the same vocation to perfection.[You] possess in common one salvation, one hope and one undivided charity.’ (LG32)

With great power comes great responsibility! You also share a responsibility for the Church’s mission, through your Baptismal dignity.  The manner of life in which this is lived out has its own ‘secular character’ which ‘is properly and particularly that of the lay faithful’(LG31)  This authentically belongs to the nature and mission of the Church, and is ‘realised in different forms through her members’ (Paul VI, Talk to the members of secular institutes).  This living in the world but not being of the world of the Church ‘concerns the salvation of humanity’ and ‘the renewal of the whole temporal order’(Apostolicam Actuositatem, 5).  The whole Church relates to this secular dimension, but for you as lay faithful there is a particularity in how you do this which is ‘properly and particularly yours’(LG31) 

Lumen Gentium lays this out in this way: it is the place in which you receive your call from God, living in the world ‘in every one of the secular professions and occupations’, in ‘the ordinary circumstances of family and social life’, studying, working, forming ‘relationships as friends, professionals, members of society’ and your own particular culture. This is not merely accidental, but a reality destined to find ‘the fulness of its meaning.’  in Jesus Christ Who for the majority of His life chose ‘to live the life of an ordinary craftsman of His own time and place’ (cf. LG48). 

Thus it is ‘in the world’ that you as lay faithful find ‘the place and the means’ to fulfil your Christian vocation.  The world after all ‘is destined to glorify God the Father in Christ’.  You ‘are not called to abandon the position’ you have in the world.  Rather as St Paul says in the first letter to the Corinthians, ‘in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God’ (I Cor. 7.24).  Thus, ‘led by the spirit of the Gospel’ and by fulfilling your ‘own particular duties’ you contribute to the ‘sanctification of the world’.  You are the yeast: ‘resplendent in faith hope and charity’ you manifest Christ to others. (LG31).  Or at least that is the calling and the hope.  Being ‘present and active in the world is not only an anthropological and sociological reality, but in a specific way, a theological and ecclesiological reality as well. (CL15)  Precisely in your place in the world ‘God manifests His plan and communicates [your] particular vocation of "seeking the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God’ LG31(CL15)

Thus the term ‘secular’ is to be understood as reflecting God’s creative and redemptive action in handing over the world to humankind, that we may be participators in the work of creation.  You are enabled to ‘free creation from the influence of sin’ and achieve sanctity as married, as celibate, as family members, as professionals, and as sharers in ‘the various activities of society’(CL15).  In a specific way the general metaphor of discipleship as being ‘salt, light and leaven’ applies particularly to the lay faithful, since these metaphors speak of your ‘deep involvement and full participation… in the affairs of the earth, the world and the human community’ with the newness of the added dimension of having as an end ‘the spreading of the Gospel that brings salvation’ (CL15).

As laity your dignity arises primarily from the ‘fundamental vocation’ assigned by the Father in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit ‘the vocation to holiness’ and the ‘perfection of charity.’  This holiness comes from membership of the Mystical Body, the Church, whose members share the ‘holy and lifegiving energies that come from Christ’ and are made holy by the Spirit who ‘abiding and working in the Church’ sanctifies us with ‘the holiness of the Son of God made man.’  This is urgent:  We need saints! (CL16)

As members of the Church, you have received and share in the ‘common vocation to holiness’ which applies equally to all the baptised: "All of Christ's followers are invited and bound to pursue holiness and the perfect fulfilment of their own state of life"[44].  Having been baptised, being nourished with the Eucharist, ‘reclothed in Christ Jesus and refreshed by His Spirit’ you are ‘holy’!  You have ‘the ability to manifest this holiness and the responsibility to bear witness to it’ in all that you do.  (CL16)

So how?  Pope St John Paul proposes the following and imitation of Christ, ‘embracing the Beatitudes,’ ‘listening and meditating on the Word of God,’ conscious and active participation’ in liturgy and sacramental life, personal prayer, in family or community, in hunger and thirst for justice, and in active charity ‘in all circumstance of life’ especially in serving ‘the least, the poor and the suffering’(CL16)

As laity this vocation to holiness and ‘life according to the Spirit’ plays itself out through your ‘involvement in temporal affairs’ and ‘participation in earthly activities.’  Pope St John Paul expresses the concern felt by the Synod Fathers for a ‘unity of life’ in which no secular or family commitment is excluded from our ‘religious programme of life.’  It is precisely in ‘everyday professional and social life’ that you are to be sanctified.  To respond to your vocation you should as lay faithful see your ‘daily activities as an occasion to join [yourself] to God, fulfil His will, serve other people and lead them to communion with God in Christ.’

This vocation to holiness should be lived ‘as an undeniable and demanding obligation and as a shining example of the infinite love of the Father,’ an ‘essential and inseparable element of the new life in Baptism’ which determines your dignity.  This vocation is ‘intimately connected to mission.’ (CL17) "Upon all the lay faithful, then, rests the exalted duty of working to assure that each day the divine plan of salvation is further extended to every person, of every era, in every part of the earth"[LG31]

Saint Augustine writes: "As we call everyone 'Christians' in virtue of a mystical anointing, so we call everyone 'priests' because all are members of only one priesthood"[ De Civitate Dei, XX, 10: CCL 48, 720.]

As I said at the outset, this is a summary of the first section of Christefideles Laici.  It leaves out much that is wonderful and inspiring.  I recommend the whole of the document to you as a fruitful source of meditation on the lay vocation, but I am now going to focus a little on the vocation to holiness in the light of the beatitudes, which Pope St John Paul has proposed (hardly uniquely!) as the way in which the vocation of the laity plays itself out in the world.  In the Catechism of the Catholic Church it says that the Beatitudes ‘  ‘express the vocation of the faithful associated with the glory of his Passion and Resurrection; they shed light on the actions and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life; they are the paradoxical promises that sustain hope in the midst of tribulations’ CCC 1717

St Thomas Aquinas sees in the Beatitudes the invitation to the threefold life of grace, dividing them in a threefold framework of those that relate to the purgative state, those that relate to the active, and those that relate to the illuminative state.  He is pointing to a three-fold growth in one’s spiritual life:  We can do nothing until we turn from sin; then we seek to serve God through action, and finally we are invited into a deeper and deeper relationship with Him.

The Beatitudes are a self-portrait of Our Lord and a programme for action in imitating Him.  They are positive in tendency, though rather strikingly counter-intuitive.  Sad, humble, justice-seeking, meek people do not generally head the world’s lists of ‘happy’, and Christian peace-making and mercy sometimes baffles the unbelieving onlookers.  Nonetheless the priesthood of the laity in particular calls to this way of life, a way of life that is strange and counter-cultural, but offering the most astonishing rewards both in this life and in the life to come, while in St Luke we have the health warning of a corresponding set of woes which will pursue the rich, the satisfied, those who laugh, those who are well-spoken of.

The beatitudes, according to St Thomas, are a set of ‘habituses’ – fixed patterns of behaviour that emerge in action.  There is a sort of circularity in acquiring any habit – you become more attuned to the action by acting.  A nice analogy I saw was of a needle scratching a mark on wood.  The first mark is insecure, but after a few strokes there is a fixed groove for the needle to continue to deepen.  So it is with human behaviour.  A single act of clothing a naked person does not make you merciful.  It is when you no longer know how many poor people you have fed, or how many children you have instructed in their faith that you have a ‘habitus’.  ’Now the ‘habituses’ of the Beatitudes are graced actions, but what types of behaviour are as it were in tune with them?  Well as Catholics we are given lists, based in scripture, of the types of action that might count:

The corporal works of mercy

  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To harbour the harbourless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead.

And the spiritual:

  • To instruct the ignorant;
  • To counsel the doubtful;
  • To admonish sinners;
  • To bear wrongs patiently;
  • To forgive offences willingly;
  • To comfort the afflicted;
  • To pray for the living and the dead.

These are the outward actions that emerge from living the Beatitudes. 

The corporal and spiritual works of mercy must form the back-drop of striving to live the Christian life, the sine qua non, the activities that form you as practitioners, livers of the Beatitudes.   In this way you will acquire the habituses, through grace, and merit the rewards Our Lord has promised.  Not to acquire these habituses in some way is to court disaster, in this life and in the world to come.

 So be poor in spirit, and in your actions put the demands of God and the needs of your neighbours before your own, the two-fold movement turning away from self-obsession and towards true charity towards your neighbour.  Mourn for your own sins and for the injustice in the world, but in an effective way that emerges in action and prayer; be meek, and do not pursue your personal rights to the detriment of others; yet also hunger and thirst for justice, seeking always to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.  Show mercy as you would have it shown to yourselves, placing the need of the individual rather than his or her just deserts at the centre of your actions towards them. Be pure of heart, and in a culture that pursues power and money and bodily pleasure, choosing rather to uphold the values of the kingdom, using well the good things of God, but not being ruled or dominated by them.  Be peacemakers, striving in your relations with your families or communities, with the people you work with and in the wider society to seek and promote peace, as well as within the political sphere so far as you are able. 

If we do all this, we must expect in some way to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness, and when this happens we must remember to ‘rejoice and be glad’ that we have some share in the sufferings of Christ.

This last is the universal experience of any attempt to follow Christ, either at a microscopic level that we ourselves alone see and experience – the wounding remark about our attempts at virtue, or simply the suffering of not retaliating in kind when people mistreat us, as they will, or at a macroscopic level, like the Christians whose blood stained the waters of the sea and formed a cross therein in Libya on 10th February 2015. Their faithful witness had been such that there was included among their number  Matthew Ayairga, who though a non-Christian, when asked if he denied Jesus, said “Their God is my God,” and for this he died with them a martyrs death.  

The particularity of the vocation of the laity, when all is said and done, does not relate to content but to context.  All that I said above that you should do, Fr Colin and I should also do.  But for the laity there are contexts simply not available to vowed religious or clergy, the doors that are open to you, the possibilities for action, the places you must flavour and preserve with your salt, the situations you must raise with your leaven, the darkness you must lighten with your light, are places we cannot even enter.  And all is for a destiny that is beyond all reckoning wonderful: "Let us rejoice and give thanks: we have not only become Christians, but Christ himself... Stand in awe and rejoice: We have become Christ"[In Ioann. Evang. Tract., 21, 8: CCL 36, 216.]