A Better Me: The Catholic Lay Person in the Church and the World (Part II)

     The officially recognized status of the Catholic lay person in the Church has taken a long time to develop.  This should not be surprising because, among other reasons, the status of the individual person in the civil political world has undergone a similar developmental stage of centuries of discoveries and expression.

      In the Church for almost 1800 years the focus was upon the finding and expression of the truths of faith, the nature of the Church, the Sacraments of the Church, the liturgy of the Church, the use of authority in the Church, hierarquical structure of the church, the unity of the Church and the missionary task of the Church.  

     In reality most of the investigation, debates and clashes of different approaches referred to the ordained ministers—popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons-along with the consecrated priests, monks, and nuns, (sisters).  This should not come as a surprise since the western world has advanced through many cultural changes, and it became necessary to clarify the structure and at times to define and defend the structure in order to lead all Church members to holiness and salvation.

For centuries many of the learned people, that is, those who had received a full education, were clerics and monks and nuns.  After the invention of the printing press, this began to change quickly, but even the Code of Canon Law of 1917 defined the lay person as one who is neither a priest nor a consecrated religious.  Such a  definition was not exactly full of content.  

     On October 2, 1928 God showed St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer what He wanted, and St. Josemaria discovered that there was no legal or spiritual precedent in the Church for God’s desires.  He started preaching the universal call to sanctity from Baptism along with the sanctification of work and ordinary life as a means of the lay person to reach this holiness.  For many years he met with a lot of controversy.  The idea seemed to have prevailed in the Church that the call to sanctity applied to the priests and religious, while the laity were expected to do what they could: that is to attain a type of a more moderate and limited sanctity.  

     Vatican II, in various documents such as Lumen Gentium, Chapter 4, proved to be a great step in the proclamation of the lay person’s status within the Church and, through the Church, in the world. The idea of holiness and of Christian perfection could no longer be identified simply with only the “state of perfection.”  The ordinary life in the world and the complete self giving to God could no longer be viewed as an extraordinary path to holiness for a chosen few.  In addition apostolate could no longer be seen as a prerogative of the clergy and religious, with the lay persons having a role as their co-workers.  

     The vocation to sanctity comes from Baptism and is equal in each and every person.  It is and remains a calling to the same degree of holiness.  Every baptized Christian has a valid calling to holiness.  The person’s mission might be fulfilled in different ways, and people will have a different sense of awareness of, and responsibility for, this calling, but it is universal and, although it does admit of different states and functions, it does not admit of different degrees.  

     The everyday life of the Christian in the midst of the world is no longer seen as a danger and hindrance to holiness, but rather as the lay person’s path to holiness.  To be sure, this apostolic journey of the lay person must be carried out in union with the shepherds who have been selected by Christ for his Church namely, the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him.  But the world itself must be understood in a different light.  It is true that the world has been disfigured by man’s sins, but this should not bring contempt from the lay person toward the world, but rather a co-redeeming love that sees the world as coming from God’s creation before Adam’s sin, and its restoration and renewal in Christ, through the Cross, to God.  This in turn means that all created reality should be taken up into this love, thereby becoming a key instrument for the renewal and spiritual growth brought about by the Holy Spirit.  Hence this “is a new kind of spirituality, one whose raw material is ordinary, everyday life and work in the middle of the world.” (Martin Rhonheimer, Changing the World, the Timeliness of Opus Dei, Scepter Press, New York: 2009, p. 6)

     So we can see that all baptized Christians are called to sanctity, according to diverse functions and perhaps states, but it is the baptismal call that would be always filtered subsequently in any functions or states.  The Baptismal calling remains the same in regard to sanctity.  The conditions will be different and each person will have different responsibilities and tasks, but it will always depend upon our free correspondence to Baptismal grace along with the depth and extent of our love.

     There is certainly a need for a continual awareness of being another Christ, an adopted daughter or son of our Father God.  We must always want to reject any routine, or comfortableness, or lukewarmness. The lay person must strive, not to be good, or even very good, but rather to live heroically the little things of daily life.  This means living in love and putting this love into small deeds of service for God and for others.  We cannot get discouraged if and when we fall.  What we need to do is to make an act of sorrow of love and to begin again through our love to struggle at the high level of holiness.  Time is glory to our Father God, and reparation in Jesus through the Hoy Spirit.  Always be convinced that we have the grace to begin again, and that God will help us with his grace and that He will bring about the desired results.

     We need interior life and this is brought about  by God through our prayer, (mental prayer, the rosary, vocal prayer, ejaculations,etc) and personal sacrifices, (in accepting contradictions, setbacks in health, and certainly in avoiding bad things, but also frequently in saying no to our desires in little good things).  These sacrifices become prayers of our senses.  Frequency to the Sacraments is also fundamental for us, especially attendance at the Mass, (daily if possible) and frequent Confession.  Spiritual direction with a priest is also a great advantage in our journey and struggle.

      There is a need to grasp the lay person’s participation in the priesthood of Christ as a way to understand better his/her existence in the Church.  Just after a person is baptized, he/she receives an anointing on the forehead with Sacred Chrism.  This anointing and accompanying prayer brings a participation in Christ’s threefold office, his “munus”: his priesthood, his prophetic mission, and his kingly mission.  

     How does the anointing give us a real participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ?   St. Paul gives us much light here as he presents in his letters a confirmation in Christ, an incorporation into Christ, and the fullness of Christ.

     Martin Luther brought up the reality that every person is a priest.  This is true, (although Luther took it too far).  The Church referred to this as the common priesthood of the faithful.  Each one of the faithful in the Church is priest—mediator—of his/her own existence.

     This common priesthood is not the same as the ministerial priesthood in the Church. The ministerial priesthood is a consecration to God in the Sacrament of Holy Orders by which an ordained priest administers the Sacraments and preaches in the person of Jesus Christ.  He is the shepherd of his flock and needs to care for each soul in every way that he can.  Regarding authority in the Church, the bishop has it for his larger flock, and the priest is under the corresponding bishop.  

      Luther abolished the priesthood and proclaimed that the sacraments were only symbolic by nature.  This was a huge step in the formation of Protestantism.  The followers were left with a common priesthood linked directly to God without any mediation.

     It is necessary to understand the nature of the ministerial priesthood.  It is a consecration and an ordination (Sacrament) that gives the new priest special gifts and powers to exercise.  Respect and honor should be given to the priest because of the state that he has received and the powers, in the Person of Christ, over the sacraments and preaching that God has given to him.  But at the same time we should remember that these are functions to serve God and the members of his Mystical Body, the Church.

     All of the members of the Church, including the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, the priests, and every person  of the laity are called “faithful” members of the Church.  Each one of the faithful is a priest of himself/herself who offers prayers and sacrifices to God for himself and for others.  This common priesthood is the foundational basis for his/her sanctity.  Obviously holiness includes the carrying out of any other functions that a person has been given by God: the bishops have several, the priests have several with regard to the Church, the Sacraments and the pastoring of the flock, and the lay person as a faithful member of the Church has the primary responsibility to bring about the sanctification of the world.   The Bishops and priests have the primary responsibility of running the Church, preserving and proclaiming officially the Word of God, administering the Sacraments and taking care of its members.

     You might think that like the Protestants, we Catholics can get rid of the ministerial priesthood, and in this way it would be easier for the laity to sanctify the world.  This is not correct and I will try to explain why.   I will refer to this in the next letter on the lay person in the world, but we need to have a preliminary grasp of the relationship between the priesthood and the laity in order to see God’s plan.  I hope that it is sufficient here to say that Christ will lead persons to himself through the sanctified lay person and his/her work, and the lay person, though his/her common priesthood will offer spiritual gifts to God for the world, its inhabitants, and it’s created forms. These spiritual gifts are then placed on the paten for the Mass and they are collected by the priest.  Then in the Consecration of the Mass, Christ takes them to himself and presents them in his very Person to God the Father.   This shows the role of mediation of the priest.  The spiritual gifts are linked directly to Christ’s death and resurrection  This is a great task that the has as another Christ and Christ himself.  The lay person is also called to place the Cross at the summit of his work, and in his social relations and community responsibilities, so that all people can see Christ and be drawn to Christ by the lay person and his/her work and the carrying out of his/her ordinary life.

      That is about it for the lay person in the Church.  He/she also can be of great help in being a member of a pastoral council and other means of help in the parish, the diocese, or the universal Church at Rome.  But his primary task as a faithful member of the Church is to sanctify the world through his work, his social relations and his community responsibilities.  We will go into this more in next week’s letter no. 3.

Join me next week and feel free to share with a friend.

Yours in Christ,
Fr. John