In 1946, Pope Pius XII asserted that the “laity are the Church” and thereby signaled an entirely new way of understanding the Church and her mission. Vatican II, of course, articulated that understanding and the ensuing years have added clarification and development. The establishment of the Council for the Laity and the new Canon Law are, for example, important outworkings of this vision of the Council Fathers. There is, however, much yet to be done, and one hopes that the upcoming Synod of Bishops will accelerate the process of coming to an accurate understanding of the layperson in the Church.
The progress which has been made since 1946 is remarkable. As one commentator put it, the laity “have progressively passed from being an ‘object’ of the care of their pastors, to being ‘participants’ in the apostolic mission, becoming finally active ‘agents’ with full rights in the ecclesial community; from being ecclesiological ‘subject- matter’ to being an integral part of a comprehensive ecclesiology, included at every point of its development.”
The gains have been real, but there is still much to do. Even the documents of Vatican II are uneven in their approach to the layperson in the Church. In Chapter II of Lumen Gentium and in Gaudium et Spes we find the leading edge of the new vision. The Church is described in communitarian and familial terms. It is the new People of God whose unity is organic and dynamic, and whose members bring their diverse charisms together to serve each other and the world: “. . . each individual part of the Church contributes through its special gifts to the good of the other parts and of the whole Church. Thus through the common sharing of gifts and through the common effort to attain fullness in unity, the whole and each of the parts receive increase” (Lumen Gentium, No. 13). However, remnants of the old order are also present. For example, in Chapter IV of Lumen Gentium and in Apostolicam Actuositatem, which although making clear that the apostolate of the laity comes from the Lord directly and not from the hierarchy, still belie a clerical approach in which the layperson is considered a subordinate subject of the hierarchy.
The role of the laity in the Church is not a matter of juridical fine points defining the rights and duties of non- clerics, but is, rather, a matter of how one understands the Church itself. Vatican II gives us a picture of the Church present in the world for the sake of the world. This new People of God is to bring the world to Christ and to minister to the needs of the world. In the words of the Council Fathers: ” . . this messianic people. . . [is] a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race. Established by Christ as a fellowship of life, charity and truth, it is also used by Him as an instrument for the redemption of all, and is sent forth into the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth” (Lumen Gentium. No. 9).
Further, every member of this people is called to holiness: “. . . all the faithful of Christ of whatever ranks or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Lumen Gentium, No. 40). Every member of the Church is to “follow in His footsteps and to mold themselves in His image, seeking the will of the Father in all things, devoting themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor” (ibid.).
Thus, the Church is viewed as a community of believers all of whom are called to holiness of life and where each is to exercise his or her ministry charism for the good of the whole. Gone are the distinctions of those called to holiness and those called to temporal affairs, gone are the distinctions between those who are really the Church and those who are simply members. This is, rather, one People of God ministering together in His name and sharing His life together. The distinctions which do exist are drawn ac-cording to ministry within this community and by the choice of life which more narrowly pursues holiness (Lumen Gentium, No. 13).
This view of the Church at once throws light on what might he meant by saying that the “laity are the Church.” If the Church is present in and for the world, in the sense enunciated above, and if the laity are those who are most intensely involved in the life of the world, then the focus of the life of the Church is the laity and their mission to the world. The place of the hierarchy is thus a service to the Church with regard to government and the sacramental life (Lumen Gentium), No. 18).
This is, I think, the genuine picture which emerges from Vatican II. Although it has occasioned much theological reflection, it is not a picture which is widely operative in the life of the Church. It is a powerful and energizing model, one which well serves the realities of a post-modern world in which the Church will have to minister, like it or not, with very few priests. My hope is that the Synod will continue to elaborate this model and accelerate its appropriation in the day-to-day life of the Church.