By: Kathy Coffey
No one could have predicted it. The
opening procession of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962, was a
splendid sight: over 2,500 cardinals, bishops, abbots, and patriarchs from all
over the world marched across St. Peter’s Square, followed by the pope. The
scene was so male, clerical, and “churchy,” it could have been set in stained
glass. Who would have thought it would lead to a dramatic rethinking and
reshaping of the roleof the laity?
Each issue carries an imprimatur
from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
WHAT WENT BEFORE
To understand the implications of the
teachings of Vatican II, we must see how radically different they were from
what preceded them. As Father John O’Malley points out in What Happened at Vatican II, Church documents up until 1962 were
often filled with condemnations or that particularly nasty term: anathemas. An example from Lateran V in
1512: “We condemn, reject, and detest . . . each and every thing done by those
sons of perdition.” This was not directed at serial murderers, but to cardinals
who differed with the pope!
John XXIII set a decidedly different tone in his opening address to the Second
Vatican Council: “Nowadays the Bride of Christ prefers to make use of the
medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets
the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching
rather than by condemnations.”
After a long
period of rigidity stretching back to the Council of Trent in the 16th century,
Pope John XXIII invited the Church to throw open the windows so fresh air could
flow in. He used the word aggiornamento
(Italian for “updating”), not found in any Council documents, but an
encouragement to adapt to the needs of today’s world and peoples.
was one of several key words that marked a new spirit of openness and energy in
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) is an excellent example
of this shift. It begins by saying that “Christ is the Light of nations.”
(Note: Christ, not the Church, is the
light. Furthermore, Christ enlightens not only Catholics, but all nations.) Thus the central mission
isn’t to build a Church, but to build God’s reign on earth. Like John the
Baptist, the Church could say, “He [meaning God’s work in the world] must
increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
Chapter One is
titled “The Mystery of the Church.” Up until then, there’d been nothing
mysterious about the Church. Its definition was clearly set forth in textbooks
with categories as non-negotiable as math equations. The subtext was equally
rigid: believe it or else.
But mystery? There’s something we can get
into! How could our relationship with the all-powerful, all-compassionate,
inexplicable, and unsurpassable God be anything but veiled and hidden? Anyone
who professes utter clarity on the subject must be deluded or arrogant. Freed
from all the black-and-white categories (right/wrong, heaven/hell,
saint/sinner), the word implies a merciful step closer to the grey realities in
which we live.
significant change: The typical vocabulary for Church members until then was subjects. If the term suggests a feudal
system, that was exactly the top-down message intended. It was further
reinforced with words of punishment and threat, like a drill sergeant
addressing new recruits. At the pinnacle of the human heap was the pope, then
the bishops, then priests and religious, then
the laity. When Chapter Two named us “the people of God,” affirming the
common identity and equal dignity of everyone
in the Church, it was better than an upgrade to first class on an international
The word monarchy, once the standard description
of Church structure, is never used in any of the Council’s final documents
(O’Malley, p. 245). Instead of the dominance of king over serf, all are on
equal footing. People once told to “pay, pray, and obey” were suddenly heralded
as participants, by virtue of their Baptism, in Christ’s priestly, royal, and
prophetic mission. Their baptismal anointing resonated with new meaning: no
longer could they pass off their high calling to Sister or Father.
This means that we failure-prone humans are a sacrament, an effective sign of God’s
presence in the world. We are the Church in our homes, in restaurants and
workplaces, on highways and hiking trails. This is true not only when we’re
doing service, but also when we’re doing what we’re trained for: electricians,
plumbers, teachers, bankers, attorneys.
within the Church is wonderful—choir, lectors, parish council, extraordinary
ministers of Holy Communion, grief ministers, etc.—the call of the Council is
beyond the sanctuary to the world, often in places where clergy and religious
aren’t present. God’s saving grace isn’t confined to sacraments and structures
within church walls. As the ordained priest consecrates bread and wine to become
the body and blood of Christ, “the laity consecrate the world itself to God” (LG, no. 34).
Furthermore, the Church’s
infallibility is rooted in the sensus
fidelium or “sense of the faithful.” The treasure of faith is entrusted to
the whole people—no privileged class,
nor insider information. “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are
by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief” (LG, no. 12).
following passage may seem mild today, it represented dramatic empowerment when
it was written: “All the laity as a community and each one according to his
ability must nourish the world with spiritual fruits. . . . In a word,
‘Christians must be to the world what the soul is to the body’” (LG, no. 38).
Chapter Five of
the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church
defines the goal of human life as holiness—the
first time a Church document had said such a thing. Earlier, the Church
enforced the rules and condemned any deviation. Now, a theme that ran
throughout the Council was Christ’s call of all
to a holiness which could take many forms. Whether one is a Carmelite sister or
the mother of five, the Spirit will provide the grace to accomplish this
ultimate, wholehearted fulfillment. Furthermore, the call is internal: it
simply can’t be judged by external conformity to what someone else decrees.
If we are holy, it’s not
because of anything we’ve done or any reward we’ve earned. The source of our
holiness is Christ who sanctified us. If we shy from the word or the calling,
it insults him who gave his life so we could become our best.
Jesus is made visible in
every human being, enlightening all who come into the world. Anyone who pursues
good, truth, and beauty is seeking God. In each unique path to holiness,
individual gifts and strengths play a large part.
The Council didn’t
waffle: the pastor is still in charge of a parish, but his role is not to do
everything. Instead, he should encourage active cooperation for building up the
body of Christ.
These key changes
in words are reinforced with biblical imagery: the Church is a place of
welcome, abundance, and tenderness, and a safe haven. Its purpose is not to
shame its members but to draw them into warm community. There, dialogue
replaces lectures and scoldings (O’Malley, pp. 174-75).
WHAT IT MEANS FOR US
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Do we squirm uncomfortably at the
word holy, thinking surely it applies
to our long-suffering grandma, our saintly neighbor, or Sister Mary Purity—but
not to us? If we feel distant from
the term, here’s a helpful equation: holy ? perfect.
Being holy doesn’t
mean we’ve reached a blissful, heavenly state, but that we’re inprocess,
growing into intimacy with Christ. When God created us, God implanted a deep
desire for God’s self—our dignity and destiny. When Jesus called disciples, he
invited everyone to “the fullness of
the Christian life” (LG, no. 40).
Deep within us is
God’s image and a sense of how to do good and avoid evil. Or perhaps we have an
irritating sense of incompleteness—planted there by God so we’ll continue to
search for God. Simply because we’ve been baptized, received the Eucharist, or
participated in Church rituals doesn’t mean we’ve had a genuine encounter with
Christ. Rather, the moment of encounter which leads into God’s heart is called
a turning or metanoia. We might not
recognize it until we look back and realize a special grace there. Maybe we
became more compassionate, less angry, or more forgiving as a result.
THE UNFINISHED AGENDA
While the Council documents are
still normative for the Church’s self-understanding, much has changed since
they were written. One development that might have surprised even the authors
of the Dogmatic Constitution on the
Church is the explosion in lay ministry. There are nearly 40,000 lay
ecclesial ministers working in the U.S.—80 percent of them women—with
many more in formation.
The world’s oldest
and most global institution can be slow to change, with different cultures
having different interpretations. The process of receiving or appropriating a
teaching can accelerate, enlarge, stall, or detour its original intent.
Thus, we need to
remember the Council’s original direction. Commissioned by Baptism, we all use our various gifts to build God’s
reign on earth. That means breaking down any remaining barriers between
different groups, which are obstacles to the vision of a universal, intimate
union with God.
WORDS TO REMEMBER
“What I am for you terrifies me;
what I am with you consoles me. For you I am a bishop; but with you I am a
Christian. The former is a duty; the latter a grace. The former is a danger;
the latter, salvation.” –St. Augustine
NEW LANGUAGE ABOUT THE LAITY
LAITY: “Those members of the faithful who are not in holy orders or
religious life. They are, by Baptism, incorporated into Christ, made to share
in his priestly, prophetic, and kingly work (see LG, nos. 34-36), and empowered to play an active part in the
mission of the Church” (Edward Hahnenberg, A
Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II, p. 49). “The laity live ‘in
the world.’ This is where they do God’s work. . . . The laity serve to
illuminate the world with the light of Christ” (Hahnenberg, pp. 107-108).
LAY SPIRITUALITY: “The
laity’s living union with Christ . . . takes place in the context of each
person’s ordinary, daily life. A lay spirituality does not deny life in the
world. Instead, it seeks to find God always and everywhere present” (Hahnenberg,
PRIESTHOOD OF BELIEVERS: The
sharing of the faithful in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king.
Through Baptism, all believers are part of the common priesthood. “While the
priesthood of the faithful (which includes all
of the faithful—laity and clergy) consists of those spiritual sacrifices in
life that go along with being a disciple of Jesus, the ministerial or hierarchical
priesthood exists within and in order to
serve this priesthood of all believers” (Hahnenberg, p. 45).
Kathy Coffey, the author of Hidden Women of the Gospels, Women of Mercy, and The Best of Being Catholic (Orbis Books), gives retreats and
workshops nationally and internationally. She lives in Denver, Colorado, and
may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEXT: Kateri Tekakwitha and Marianne Cope: Two New American Saints