Skip Navigation Links
Catholic News
Special Reports
Google Plus
RSS Feeds

About   |   Subscribe   |   Order Print Copies   |   Archive

The Second Vatican Council was marked by a new spirit of openness and energy about the role of the laity. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) defines the goal of human life as holiness. The source of our holiness is Christ, who sanctified us—all of us. Church members who previously had been told to “pay, pray, and obey” are now identified as the “people of God” and recognized, as a result of Baptism, as sharing in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king. We all use our various gifts to build God’s reign on earth.

The Universal Call to Holiness: Empowering the Laity
By: Kathy Coffey

Each issue carries an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
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?

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!

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.

Aggiornamento was one of several key words that marked a new spirit of openness and energy in this Council.

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.

Another 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 flight!

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.

While service 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).

While the 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).

Paid Advertisement
Ads contrary to Catholic teachings should be reported to our webmaster. Include ad link.

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.

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.


“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


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, p. 104).

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

NEXT: Kateri Tekakwitha and Marianne Cope: Two New American Saints

I want to order print copies of this issue of Catholic Update.
Bulk discounts available!

I want to get digital access to this issue of Catholic Update.

I want to order a 12-month bulk subscription to hand out in my parish or classroom.

I want to purchase access to the library of Catholic Update issues available digitally.

James: This James is the brother of John the Evangelist. The two were called by Jesus as they worked with their father in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had already called another pair of brothers from a similar occupation: Peter and Andrew. “He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him” (Mark 1:19-20). 
<p>James was one of the favored three who had the privilege of witnessing the Transfiguration, the raising to life of the daughter of Jairus and the agony in Gethsemani. </p><p>Two incidents in the Gospels describe the temperament of this man and his brother. St. Matthew tells that their mother came (Mark says it was the brothers themselves) to ask that they have the seats of honor (one on the right, one on the left of Jesus) in the kingdom. “Jesus said in reply, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We can’” (Matthew 20:22). Jesus then told them they would indeed drink the cup and share his baptism of pain and death, but that sitting at his right hand or left was not his to give—it “is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father” (Matthew 20:23b). It remained to be seen how long it would take to realize the implications of their confident “We can!” </p><p>The other disciples became indignant at the ambition of James and John. Then Jesus taught them all the lesson of humble service: The purpose of authority is to serve. They are not to impose their will on others, or lord it over them. This is the position of Jesus himself. He was the servant of all; the service imposed on him was the supreme sacrifice of his own life. </p><p>On another occasion, James and John gave evidence that the nickname Jesus gave them—“sons of thunder”—was an apt one. The Samaritans would not welcome Jesus because he was on his way to hated Jerusalem. “When the disciples James and John saw this they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?’ Jesus turned and rebuked them...” (Luke 9:54-55). </p><p>James was apparently the first of the apostles to be martyred. “About that time King Herod laid hands upon some members of the church to harm them. He had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword, and when he saw that this was pleasing to the Jews he proceeded to arrest Peter also” (Acts 12:1-3a). </p><p>This James, sometimes called James the Greater, is not to be confused with James the Lesser (May 3) or with the author of the Letter of James and the leader of the Jerusalem community.</p> American Catholic Blog We don’t need so much to talk about God but to allow people to feel how God lives within us, that’s our work.

Wisdom for Women

Learn how the life and teachings of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) serve as a guide for women’s unique vocations today.

A Wild Ride

Enter the world of medieval England in this account of a rare and courageous woman, Margery Kempe, now a saint of the Anglican church.

The Wisdom of Merton
This book distills wisdom from Merton's books and journals on enduring themes which are relevant to readers today.
A Spiritual Banquet!
Whether you are new to cooking, highly experienced, or just enjoy good food, Table of Plenty invites you into experiencing meals as a sacred time.
Pope Francis!
Why did the pope choose the name Francis? Find out in this new book by Gina Loehr.

Mary's Flower - Fuchsia
Mary, nourish my love for you and for Jesus.
God is a beacon in our lives, the steady light that always comes around again.
St. Bridget of Sweden
Let someone know that you're inspired by St. Bridget's life with a feast day e-card.
I Made a Peace Pledge
Let peace reign in your heart today and every day.
Happy Birthday
We pray that God’s gifts will lead you to grow in wisdom and strength.

Come find us at: Facebook | St. Anthony Messenger magazine Twitter | American Catholic YouTube | American Catholic