Oh, how blessed is this holy Catholic Church. Just think – we have at least one billion, two hundred million members and for all practical purposes they are all laity. Just think of the reservoir of talent and energy that resides in this enormous mass of faith-filled human beings. They could accomplish wonders if not miracles, but in point of fact they don’t because they are really not able to.
I am proud of the faithful. They do a great job in backing their pastors and bishops in developing the material sides of parishes, schools, hospitals, etc. But ultimately, our system does not give them real freedom and responsibility. Their role is to follow their shepherds and that is not all bad, but the fact is that many of the shepherds among us do not really trust their fellow Catholics who have not been ordained. Father knows best and the old joke about the laity was that they were to “pray, pay and obey.”
Happily, following the Second Vatican Council lay involvement, especially in the liturgy, has increased tremendously but we have a long way to go. Let me tell you about a happy story in my first assignment as a pastor. We had established a first-class St. Vincent de Paul Society and it was doing wonderful work on behalf of the poor in that section of the city. One day the president of the Society came to me and told me that we had a serious storage problem, but not to worry – he had signed a two year lease on an inexpensive warehouse about four blocks from the church. I was thrilled. He saw the problem, he knew we could afford it and he acted. I am not saying that pastors and bishops ought not to provide close supervision but they must avoid being control freaks.
The other day when I visited with you in this space, I talked about the value system that was dominant in the world of my childhood. I then went on to admit that many of the cultural strengths of 75 years ago are now gone, generating the need for yet a greater response from the Church to encourage its members to embrace and live by the teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Today’s lay people are far better formed or educated than were the adults of my childhood. The Church has still not found a way through clericalism and antique ecclesiology to vest the laity, either in the parishes or in the dioceses, with a real sharing in power and authority. The Second Vatican Council had that as one of its principal agendas – convincing all of the baptized and confirmed on the planet that they had a vested interest and a very real responsibility to teach that “each individual layman must be a witness before the world of the resurrection life of the Lord Jesus and a sign of the living God.” How is that for a job description?
The Council Fathers then went on to say give the laity freedom and opportunities to breathe and act and be responsible. In paragraph 37 of Lumen Gentium, the Council stated that, “
“The pastors indeed should recognize and promote the dignity and responsibility of the laity in the Church. They should willingly use their prudent advice and confidently assign duties to them in the service of the Church LEAVING THEM FREEDOM AND SCOPE FOR ACTING (emphasis added). Indeed they should give them the courage to undertake works on their own initiative. They should attentively in Christ initial moves, suggestions and desires proposed by the laity. Moreover, the pastor must respect and recognize the liberty which belongs to all in the terrestrial city.”
Vatican II called for parish councils in every parish in the world but regretfully only a small percentage have functioned effectively. Why? Because they are deadly dull and do not usually come to grips with what that particular parish should be undertaking. Go check on the agendas of a dozen parish councils and you will see that much more time is allocated to painting the school auditorium than to how we should be advancing the message of Jesus in this neighborhood in this month. The challenge is awesome but sometimes not really heard.
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