PRAY, PAY AND OBEY, is what the laity is called to do. While this is said in jest, it is certainly not a new thought. In 1850 a bishop told Cardinal Newman "the province of the laity is to shoot, to hunt, and to entertain." Pope Boniface VIII once remarked that history showed the laity had always been hostile to the clergy, and Pius X in his condemnation of modernism described it as "a most pernicious doctrine which would make of the laity a factor of progress in the Church." Such views reveal a tension between clergy and laity, with neither group quite sure of their relationship to the other. These wrong attitudes developed because the Church had done very little to address the question of the role and place of lay people in the Church and in the world. In the 1950’s Yves Congar said that the laity were fully members of the Church, and not second-class citizens or an underclass of the clergy.

Then at last in the 1987 Synod on "The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World" a detailed attempt was made to present a better theological framework for the role of the laity. So any consideration of this role needs to be based on the Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici which summarizes the work of the Synod, and addresses the calling of the lay people in a very straight-forward way.

This important document is divided into five chapters. It is helpful to make a brief summary of the contents. The first chapter reminds us that baptism is the source of every Christian’s dignity and identity. It is through our baptism that we are called to a life of holiness and service inspired by the Holy Spirit. Chapter two looks at our place in the Church, our participation in her life and mission through our gifts, ministries, and service. The third chapter deals with the shared responsibility of every lay Christian for the mission of the Church, and emphasizes the need for a new evangelization of individuals and society as a whole. We are encouraged to live, to speak, and to make present the Gospel wherever we are. Chapter four looks at the wide variety of callings in the Church and in society, with particular emphasis on the status and role of women. We are all called to work together to build the Kingdom.

In the final chapter we are exhorted to bear much fruit, with an emphasis on the importance of our own particular calling so that we may grow into mature Christians. We are reminded that our on-going life-long formation is not the privilege of a few, but the right and duty of all. In this document we find at last a positive and clear expression of the identity, dignity, and role of lay people in the mission of the Church. It is well worth reading, but what does it all mean, and where does it take us?


The old negative definition of laity, "those who do not share in the sacrament of orders", is no more. We are now invited to see ourselves in terms of who and what we are, not in terms of what we lack. We learn that an active participation in Christ’s saving work is not reserved for certain Christians with special education or training. It is the call to all of us through the sacraments of initiation. So if the call to holiness and mission is the common identity for clergy and laity alike, what is the special lay perspective or experience we are to bring to the task? It is quite simply an understanding of how and where we carry out our call to share in Christ’s mission.


The call of the clergy is primarily but not exclusively to build up the Church. The laity is invited to assist them in this task. In contrast, the call of the laity is primarily (but again not exclusively) to bring the Gospel out into the secular world, thereby to draw people into the Church. In our task, we are to be assisted by the clergy. We do this by undertaking special ministries and services. This work is neither the vision nor the primary task of the laity described in the Church documents and encyclicals.

Part of our failure to answer the call to spread the Gospel is that lay people often don’t feel we are sharing in Christ’s mission unless we’re involved in a special Church ministry, committees, or programs. So it is clear that much more must be done to prepare us for our primary mission in the world. We have a distorted image of lay spiritual development which emphasizes involvement in Church ministry over action in the world. The mission of the Church is not its own renewal so much as the evangelization of the world. Pope Paul VI clearly expressed it in Evangeili Nuntiandi: "the church exists to evangelize." We usually find, however, that priority is given to the clerical ministry of building up the Church, making the lay calling of evangelization in the world secondary. This naturally leads to a view that the clergy have a higher calling than the laity. I prefer to see it as a different calling requiring special gifts, but with the recognition that individual clergy and laity are equal in God’s sight.


To help us embrace the call to go into the world, we need to avoid a false distinction between the sacred and the secular. It’s easy to look upon the Church as good, holy and safe, whilst seeing the world as hostile, evil, and profane. This leads to a sense of living in a hostile world and retreating back to the safety of the Church. If we think this way, we need to change, accepting God’s view that creation is basically good, and sharing his love for the world (Jn 3:16).

So our primary calling is be laborers in the vineyard, presenting, promoting, and proclaiming the good news of salvation in Jesus to all those we meet. If we are to do this successfully we need to be formed, equipped, and sent forth from our parishes with a clear sense of value and commitment. For this we need a new partnership between clergy and laity, with each group understanding and living out their primary calling, while assisting each other whenever necessary. Our respective callings are not better or worse--both demand commitment and sacrifices--but are different. So let us accept that and get on with the work of evangelization to which all are called.

Charles Whitehead is President of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services, Vatican City. 1997 ICCRS Newsletter. Used with permission.

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