Posts tagged: Laity

The Laity – Freedom and Responsibility

By , April 9, 2014 5:07 am

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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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More On Lumen Gentium

By , April 4, 2014 4:46 am

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I offered a few comments the other day on that extremely important document, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), and I talked about the fact that there are many aspects of the Church that qualify the Church itself as being a mystery. The document goes on to discuss the structural nature of the Church, namely that it is hierarchical and the great reality of the Church’s membership, namely that it is overwhelmingly, yes overwhelmingly, made up of lay people.

In the few paragraphs that I have here, I can’t do a dissertation of the fact that the Church we see in the New Testament enjoys various levels of responsibilities. Jesus called the apostles and he sent them forward to preach his message. Once they established a community of faith in a given area, the apostles provided leadership, coordination and direction. After establishing a church, Paul put men that he had ordained in charge of those churches since he had to keep moving to spread the Gospel. Therefore, I have no doubt that the Church is by its very nature hierarchical but I think that over the centuries, especially in the second millennium, the hierarchical aspects of the Church have been exaggerated, made too rigid and regretfully counterproductive.

Our blessed new Pope Francis has been working hard in his first year to awaken us to the need to strip down the exaggerated signs of hierarchy and prestige that at times have been abused in the Church. And he is making great progress.
Next in Lumen Gentium comes the section on the laity. The document makes a great step forward and that is about the best that could be done at that time. However, what we are seeing now is a wonderful, glorious change where the laity across the world are beginning to assert responsibilities, opportunities and challenges that flow from baptism and confirmation.
These two entities are currently interacting and we can be sure that we will see a certain amount of friction.

Onward through the fog.

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Was It Fifty Years or Five Hundred?

By , October 16, 2012 10:00 pm

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For committed Catholics, with a great love for the Church and a good knowledge of it, the early 1960’s were an extraordinarily exciting time. Admittedly there were problems enough on the planet. The Vietnam War was agonizing and so destructive to our national self-confidence. Race riots tore at the heart of American cities. However, over on the Church side of the street it was a very different picture. A wonderful chubby country priest had been elected the Bishop of Rome and he had convened his brother bishops from all over the world to come to the Eternal City, raise the windows of the Church and let in a little fresh air. Fresh air! Oh, how we needed it. It would only be the first worldwide Council in over four hundred years and many of those windows were stuck very tightly.

Allowing for preparation time, the Council went on for the best part of five years and when the bishops returned home after the last session they left the Church an extraordinary set of guidelines as to how we were to move forward. The things that seemed to be most obvious would be Mass celebrated with the priest facing the people and the language of worship would be the regular language of a particular area or country. However, there were other changes far more profound and possibly influential in terms of the development of the Universal Church.

Four hundred years earlier, the Church had circled the wagons when faced with the threat of the Protestant upheaval. The laity, which is another way of saying “the Church,” had been held in an almost completely passive relationship. The sarcastic line that they were always to “pray, pay and obey” had a great deal of truth in it.

Catholic theologians began to realize the tremendous spiritual gifts present in the other Christian churches who became not merely “non-Catholics” but were now our separated brothers and sisters. Certain traditional accents in the world of pastoral theology would shift to a greater openness to many Church practices but most important of all, the Church was trying to decentralize itself. Assistant pastors became associate pastors. Every pastor was to be assisted in the administration by an elected parish council. Every diocese would have a finance council as well as a pastoral council. Even the pope was going to be visited with a new structure where bishops elected from around the world would come to Rome to assist him in the difficult problems the Church was facing then and will always be facing. It was a glorious day, much progress was made and hope reigned supreme.

But there were clouds on the horizon.

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Vatican II Remembered

By , April 10, 2012 3:20 am


The Second Vatican Council began in 1961. Nearly 3,000 bishops met in Rome for about 90 days a year for four years. It was an awesome meeting, the first meeting of the world’s bishops since 1870 and a meeting that made the heroic effort to study, evaluate and, where necessary, refresh the structures of the Church.

Americans are notorious for having short memories and not overly interested in history. Everyone who was ten years old at the time the Council ended, should be now making serious plans for retirement. I think that you can see that in the Church today not everyone is as excited about the reality of the Council as those of us who lived through it as relatively young adults. It was a period of extraordinary hope and optimism, a period in which young Catholics felt that the Church was going to open itself up in terms of its structures making room for real influence from the laity. There was no question about giving up the necessary power of the ordained in the life of the Church, but there was hope that the ordained, who controlled the power and authority at every level, would find a more effective way to utilize that power.

Adaptations were made at the parish, diocesan, national and universal levels. More laity were brought in, and the Church has made an honest effort to utilize the wonderful gifts and expertise that the Church needs and can utilize in its capable and generous lay leaders. All of that is very good. Nevertheless, those who remember the excitement, the hope and the optimism of the 1960’s are frequently found to be discouraged and saddened by the fact that those windows that Pope John XXIII wanted to be thrown open in order to allow fresh air into the inner-life of the Church have been not completely closed, but certainly lowered! Structural changes, such as the role of episcopal conferences, efforts at ecumenism, have sadly been downplayed with understandable dulling of hope and optimism for Christian unity. In administrative areas, changes that were brought about by nearly 3,000 bishops publicly debating have been frequently offset by decisions made by a small number of Church leaders operating behind closed doors. This was not the intended thrust of the Council, but this is what we are struggling through at the present time.

I have no doubt that the Church leaders, who have been endeavoring to shut down much of the Second Vatican Council, are sincere. I just believe that they are exercising very poor judgment and if they prevail, the Church will continue to contract at a tragic rate.

I want to be wrong!

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The Laity to the Rescue

By , November 30, 2011 5:43 am


When I was a kid in All Saints Parish, on the north side of Houston, I would frequently get in religious discussions with my Methodist and Baptist friends. One of the things I remember always being so proud of was “my church never changes.” I was proud of that because it was true. The Church of the 1940’s was essentially the Church of the first and second centuries. It is true of its basic structure, its fundamental beliefs and its essential missionary nature. That fact is still true today.

Then, in the 1960’s, along comes a rather fulsome pope named John XXIII. He didn’t want the Church to change in any one of its essentials, but he felt that it had to change in terms of some of the crustaceans that had gradually attached themselves to it and impeded its effectiveness. One of the most graphic examples of change in the Church today is that of the role of missionaries, especially foreign missionaries, who so often in the past were priests, brothers and religious women, is gradually being assumed by lay people.

I was thrilled to see that Maryknoll, the official American foreign mission society, is preparing to send out another group of 13 lay missionaries. These are young and middle-aged American citizens who are walking away from the comforts and security of their traditional lives and taking themselves to Africa and South America and other places where they will help the Church, already established in those parts of the country, to build up and become evermore effective.

For information, contact Maryknoll Lay Missioners, P. O. Box 307, Maryknoll, NY 10545-0307, (914) 762-6364, e-mail – info@mklm.org.

God bless Maryknoll. God bless the laity.

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Cardinal John Henry Newman: Front and Center

By , February 16, 2011 5:49 am

A few months back when Pope Benedict XVI visited England, one of the most important things that he did was to beatify the great theologian, John Henry Newman.  That moves this important 19th century religious figure into the limelight and moves him one step closer towards canonization.

The canonization of John Henry Newman will be a tremendous asset to the Church in the 21st century.  Despite his importance in both the Anglican and the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Newman in many ways had a very difficult life and was frequently misunderstood.  I have always had a sense of awe for him, and am glad to see that there will be an explosion of reviewing and restudying this holy man with a brilliant mind.

One of the things that I found very encouraging in Cardinal Newman’s work is that he stresses the importance of the Church consulting the faithful in matters of doctrine.  Writing in the 1860’s, just before the first Vatican Council, Newman argued that the faithful had “a respected place that was justified by their proven witness to Christian orthodoxy.”

Newman backed his position with 22 thumbnail sketches of defection on the part of the hierarchy and 20 instances of faithful witness by the laity. In 1871, Newman concluded, “Taking a wide view of history, we are obliged to say that the governing body of the Church came up short and the governed were preeminent in faith, zeal, courage and constancy.  What a wonderful compliment to the faithfulness of the people.”

On to canonization!

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“Don’t Scandalize the Faithful”

By , August 19, 2010 3:28 am

Why does the Church use inordinate concerns about secrecy in its day-to-day operations?  The answer is simple and frequently repeated.  “Don’t do that – you must not scandalize the faithful.”  This is the reason that is given repeatedly to cover this up or to cover that up.  Scandal must be avoided.  Lay people will be shocked.

The Church began to deal with scandal on the day that St. Peter denied that he knew Jesus and Judas sold him for thirty pieces of silver.  Scandal, corruption, human failure, weakness, awesome sinfulness are all part of life.  In order to be avoided we should certainly work hard to build up in the Church a level of sanctity, holiness, goodness, and generosity that will be an inspiration to people to deepen their faith.  However, the people know themselves, they know their family, they know the human condition and they can handle it.

Let’s go deeper.  It is not just the fear of scandal that causes this erroneous policy.  It is a lack of trust in the laity; the belief that those hundreds of millions of us out there are just simple children that can’t handle the difficulties of life by themselves.  The opposite is true.  In this country, the average lay couple would be said to know far more about the rigors of daily living than can the average clergyman.  Most of us clergy live in a well-defined life and while we are not rich, we have day-to-day security, something that the laity do not.

Let’s hear it for the tough, realistic, problem solving, generous people that we serve. God bless the laity.

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