Role of the laity most enduring gift of Vatican II

carville    The Decree on the Laity was the result of a need to define the role of the laity within the church. When work began before the opening of the Second Vatican Council in the preparatory commissions, no conciliar theology of the laity was available. No council in 2,000 years had ever written a document on the laity.
    The Church’s Code of Canon Law defined the laity only by exclusion: a lay person is a Catholic who is not a member of the clergy. Heretofore, the laity were constricted to the role of paying, praying and obeying – even sharper in Italian: “Pray, pay and shut up!”
    So a document had to be written, especially since this council, in writing the Constitution on the Church, had just defined itself as the “People of God.”
    The laity are the church, co-responsible with bishops, priests and religious for Christ’s mission on earth. And the “signs of the times” in the 1960s – the widening gap between the modern world and the message of the Gospel – demanded that the laity be empowered to bring the Gospel to the marketplace.
    The original schema on the laity was huge. But parts of it were siphoned off to become chapters of the “Constitution on the Church”; the “Constitution on the Church and the Modern World”; the “Decree on Ecumenism” and the “Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity.” This was not only logical but prophetic. The last 50 years have seen the laity take an ever-increasing role in all of these areas.
    The bishops may have lost many of their gains in Vatican II, but the laity has held on to its long-needed role in today’s church. It is notable that where the council provided weak guidance in its documents on priesthood and religious life, these two groups have declined in the years following the council. On the other hand, where true reform was called for in the case of the laity (and not opposed too much by the Roman curia), we have seen growth in apostolic activity.
    The debate on the decree on the laity occurred in October 1964. According to Baton Rouge Bishop Robert E. Tracy, “These were five days of speeches filled with erudition, brilliance, originality, humor and deep spiritual insights. Behind the sparkling addresses of the council fathers, there was the vast talent of that great army of periti (theological experts) who made so valuable a contribution, all along the line, to the work of the council.”
    He mentions for special praise his fellow Americans – Benedictine Father Godfrey Diekmann, a famous liturgist from St. John’s Abbey, Minnesota; Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray, the main writer of the council’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty”; and Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, America’s most famous church historian.
    Fathers Diekmann and Murray were present from the second session on. By oversight, Msgr. Ellis was not invited, but Bishop Tracy decided to do something about that.
    “I myself finally succeeded in having the distinguished historian of the church in the U.S.A ... honor me by attending the council as my personal peritus at session four,” he said.
    Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter of St. Louis was the first to speak on the decree on the laity, saying that the original schema had a patronizing, clerical tone in which the highest form of the lay apostolate was said to be the aid the layman gives his priest. The various forms of lay apostolate should be distinguished from each other by the ministry they perform, not by their relationship to the hierarchy.
    There were a few voices arguing to keep the schema, among them the English Cardinal Michael Browne. He took just the opposite view: “Numquid omnes apostoli?” (“Is everyone to be an apostle?”) he asked, quoting St. Paul (1 Cor 12:29). Cardinal Browne wanted an explicit statement that lay people were obliged to obey their bishops and their pastors.
    Bishop Tracy summed up the issues in the Decree on the Laity by noting:
    ➤ The shortage of priests and the needs of the church are not the basic reason why the laity are to undertake an apostolate. The main reason is that they hold a distinct place in the People of God through their baptism.
    ➤ The lay apostolate consists in effecting the incarnation of the church in the structures of the world. The salvation of the world cannot be brought about without the participation of the laity.
    ➤ The bishop’s authority is necessary to keep order, but there is such a thing, too, as the “freedom of the sons of God. If given this freedom, the laity will commit errors and there will be confusion, but there is no growth without crisis.”
    A good example of this in the Baton Rouge Diocese was its attempts to implement the strongly urged church parish and diocesan councils with a majority of lay members. We did a rather good job with the parish councils, but the plan devised by laity for a diocesan advisory council has never worked because the election process was just too complicated. Both Bishop Tracy and Bishop Stanley J. Ott truly wanted lay participation on this highest level of diocesan governance.
    ➤ Two thirds of the human race, including the leaders of tomorrow, were younger than any bishop at the council. Therefore, the apostolate of the laity must emphasize the role of youth.
    ➤ Dialogue with non-Catholics and non-Christians is an important part of the lay apostolate; and our laity not only give but also receive in the exchange.
    “Clericalism is the No. 1 evil in the church,” stated Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger of Montreal. It is clergy talking to clergy in decision-making about the church without input from laity and with bias towards their own privileged position. It perpetuates a clerical culture.
    Bishop Tracy was something of a prophet. He foresaw that the decree had the potential to bring about “a remarkable and profound change in the role played by the laity in the church. ... I may even go so far as to say the document constitutes a ‘Magna Carta’ of the laity and of its part in the mission of Christ.”
    He put his faith in the future.
    “The younger generations,” he noted, “are already living in a world permeated by a spirit of openness, candor and freedom. They are not at all chained to the unworkable approaches and methods of the past. If they can be properly instructed in the religious spirit of the church of our day, as set forth in the council documents ... there is good reason to expect that a new generation of Christians will emerge, prepared to carry out their apostolate and eager to project the presence of Christ into their life situations.”
    In the two generations following the Council, the laity certainly have taken their place in the work of our church parishes and dioceses. In that, Bishop Tracy’s prophecy was right on. With the current vocation shortage, we could not have survived without the full-time work of so many lay people.
    Catholic Update reports, “There are nearly 40,000 lay ecclesial ministers working in the United States – 80 percent of them are women.”
    The present role of the laity in our church is the most enduring gift of Vatican II. But prophets don’t have 20/20 vision. Bishop Tracy could not see that in the future as times changed, and some of that freedom and candor was withdrawn, and hopes went unfulfilled, many Catholics would also leave. Being faithful to the vision of Vatican II and implementing it continues to be a struggle.
    Father Carville is a retired priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and writes on current topics for The Catholic Commentator.

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