Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
Called to Holiness and Service:
In the 40 years since Vatican II, the role of lay Catholics within the Church
community has changed markedly. Laypersons, who previously saw themselves as "less" than
clergy and religious, are responding to the baptismal call to holiness and sharing their
faith in both word and action. As more individuals claim their rightful roles as members
of the People of God, the Church, and indeed the world, are being transformed.
Today, in parishes of all types and sizes, large numbers of lay Catholics serve
as catechists and leaders of Bible study groups, small Christian communities and planning
committees. Laypeople make up pastoral councils and finance committees, sponsor other adults
through the rites of Christian initiation, and serve as music ministers, lectors, extraordinary
ministers of Holy Communion, ushers and greeters at Sunday worship.
They play leading roles in Catholic institutions outside the parish too—in
dioceses and hospitals as well as schools, colleges and universities. All the while, most
bear significant responsibilities at home, at work and in civic life. As baptized followers
of Christ, lay Catholics are actively attempting to integrate their faith into all they
This all hardly sounds startling, especially to those too young to remember
the Church before Vatican II. In actuality, however, it represents an enormous turnabout
in the self-understanding of Catholics. A mere 40 years ago, none of these activities
was open to lay women and men, and some of these roles didn't exist at all.
In the decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council, Catholics imaged the
Church as a pyramid. At the top was the pope, followed by cardinals, bishops, priests,
and men and women religious. (There were no permanent deacons before Vatican II.) The bottom
row was occupied by the laity.
The pyramid accurately depicted the hierarchical way in which the Church was
governed, but was often misinterpreted as if it showed rankings of Christian holiness as
well. Not every pope had been declared a saint, and some laypersons actually had been.
Yet of all the saints the Church had officially recognized throughout history, only a few
laypersons had ever made the grade—and those who did tended to be martyrs or royalty. Holiness
seemed to elude the laity as a whole.
Catholic youngsters who appeared to take their faith seriously were nudged
toward religious life or the priesthood. If celibate life was the highest calling, Catholics
reasoned that married life must be second best. The laity's role of that era has been summed
up in three verbs: "pray, pay and obey."
Laypersons were like fans who attend home games and cheer for the team. Parishioners
worshiped every Sunday, made weekly confession, fasted on Fridays and sent their children
to Catholic schools. The most pious joined parish societies (the Knights for men; sodalities
for women). Laywomen washed and ironed the altar linens, but no layperson except an altar
boy ever stepped beyond the altar rail. "Not feeling worthy" was a common expression in
the years leading up to Vatican II.
A flood of opportunities
Gradually, as the teachings of Vatican II were made public, it became clear
that not only the clergy and religious, but all Catholics are
"called to holiness." The bishops taught: "All the faithful are invited and obliged to
try to achieve the holiness and perfection of their own state of life" (Dogmatic Constitution
on the Church, Lumen Gentium, #42). The laity had been invited to move out of the spectator
section and become players. This was startlingly new.
Holiness is not primarily an individual undertaking, however. Christ calls "a
people" (LG, #9) and incorporates them "into the Church by Baptism."
All the baptized are "obliged both to spread and to defend the faith" as "true witnesses." Baptism
binds us to Christ and to each other. Married couples, the bishops wrote, are to "help
one another to attain holiness"
and to educate their children in the faith through "word and example" (LG, #11).
The Council documents describe the Church as the entire community. Whoever would follow
Christ's example must be dedicated to his mission of healing, saving and transforming the
world. As Jesus taught, compassion is key.
Millions of Catholics have not only heard this call to holiness, but also responded
by volunteering for ministries most had never heard of before. Since the Council, lay involvement
in parishes and at all levels of the Church has flourished. What follow are just a few
examples of the opportunities now available to lay Catholics.
1. Turning to education
Many laypersons expressed a desire to learn more about Scripture and theology,
promptly setting off a mini-boom in religious publishing and a bulge in enrollments at
schools of theology. One unexpected result is that some 30,000 laypersons, trained in pastoral
ministry, are now employed in Catholic parishes. Roughly the same number are currently
preparing for Church service. These laypersons speak of having a "vocation" to Church ministry.
Based on their experience in Christian living, millions of other laypeople
regularly teach one another in parish faith-sharing groups, adult faith-formation programs
and the adult initiation process (RCIA). In parochial schools and parish religious education,
parents teach each other's children, since most catechists today are lay.
On the job, in lunchtime meetings and during informal conversations over coffee,
Catholics around the nation explore the links between their faith and their work: How does
one bring Catholic values into the workplace and into society at large? What does it mean
to have a "vocation" as a teacher, lawyer, politician, firefighter or athlete? Regarding
civic debate, lay Catholics take their role seriously, informing their consciences, forming
their views and articulating their positions on war and peace, welfare, life issues and
other important ethical questions.
2. Evangelization starts at home
The theology of the "domestic Church" sketched in the documents of Vatican
II looks on the Catholic home as the Church in microcosm—a center of prayer, witness and
service. Catholic parents bear primary responsibility for transmitting the faith to the
next generation. Since they must be well-prepared for the task, parish formation and sacramental
preparation programs are designed to assist them.
Some Catholics have even become foreign or home missionaries through lay missioner
programs established by religious orders (e.g., Franciscans, Jesuits, Sisters of Mercy,
Maryknoll) after Vatican II. Originally designed as short-term immersion experiences for
single young adults, a few of these programs have expanded to include older adults, married
couples, families with children and retirees.
3. Ministering to the least
Catholic laypeople have become more service-conscious, seeing outreach to
persons in need as an essential part of holiness. Most parishes sponsor social ministries,
including those that promote justice, as a matter of course. Entrepreneurial Catholics
have started their own organizations in fields as diverse as prisoner care and health care,
food banks and job banks, responsible investing and micro-loans. Catholics support a vast
array of such projects sponsored by the U.S. bishops' Catholic Campaign for Human Development
and Catholic Relief Services, which works internationally to alleviate hunger, disease
and human suffering.
Given such rich opportunities for faith development and ministry, Catholics
have begun to realize that the pyramid model of Church no longer adequately represents
the Church they experience as the People of God. No other image, however, has yet replaced
it in the Catholic imagination. Replacing this model and addressing the following challenges
are some of our ongoing tasks.
1. Taking responsibility for the mission of the Church
It is easy to become overwhelmed by the pace and complexity of modern life
and disappointed by the failures of our Church. Yet if the Church is truly the community
of the baptized, then it will be strengthened as each Catholic matures. The task is to
focus on the main goal: charity—love of God and neighbor. Holiness is only a byproduct.
As Catholics, we know that our spiritual life, while personal, is also corporate.
It is up to us to become a people of deep prayer, our eyes open to the needs of the world
around us. If, guided by the Holy Spirit and sustained by Christ's presence in the Eucharist,
we can learn real compassion, then we will sustain one another. If we can learn to lead
and not merely follow, we can more directly shape our Church's future and further its mission
to the world.
2. Engaging lapsed and passive Catholics
Nearly two thirds of Catholics no longer attend Mass weekly. Many worship occasionally
but do so as if still sitting in the bleachers or on the bench. The possible causes of
this reality are many. What matters is that the Church extend the invitation "to put on
the mind of Christ" as baptized members of the People of God. Active Catholics must find
ways to reach out to their inactive sisters and brothers. Catholics need to spell out for
others how their faith contributes to major life choices, helps them at work and fosters
their own community participation and spiritual growth.
3. Reaching future generations
Many young adult Catholics do not attend Mass or overtly practice Catholicism.
They may subscribe to certain principles, such as caring for the downtrodden, but think
of themselves more as "spiritual" than "religious."
This separation from their roots occurs during some critical years—the period of dating,
marriage and beginning a family. Since faith is passed on primarily from parent to child,
the Church stands to lose much whenever a young adult stops practicing the faith. Knowing
how important married life and parenting are, the People of God need to extend special
assistance and instruction to newlyweds, single parents and parents of young children.
Faith cannot be forced upon anyone, of course. We Catholics must do all we
can to woo back our young. What can we offer them? We can offer genuine hospitality, dialogue,
friendship, compassionate example and prayer that the Spirit will bring to fruition what
was planted at Baptism. We must also insist that our parishes provide quality liturgy and
In the last 50 years, our Church has experienced euphoric highs, like Vatican
II, when the Spirit seemed to be embodied in our pope and bishops as they reached out to
the modern world. It has also experienced painful lows, like the recent revelations of
scandal and poor leadership. What we learn from such experiences and how we grow as a Church
are our witness to the world and our legacy to future generations of the Church.
What have you witnessed of the changing role of the laity since
Vatican II? What has been your reaction to these changes? your parish's reaction?
If the pyramid model of Church no longer fits the current experience
of the People of God, what characteristics should the image or model have that
How well have you embraced your own baptismal call to holiness
and service? What new opportunities for involvement might you condiser pursuing
in the future?
NEXT: Marriage and Family Life: The Domestic Church
by Marie and Brennan Hill
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