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The Second Vatican Council gave way to great changes in the roles of laypeople within the Catholic Church. Discover the opportunities and challenges embraced by Catholics who educate, evangelize and minister as they accept a call to holiness.

Vatican 2 Today

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Called to Holiness and Service:
Lay Ministry

by Karen Sue Smith

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 do.

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.

Current challenges

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 persuasive evangelization.


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.

Question Box:

• 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 replaces it?

• 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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