I belong to a small faith-sharing group established by my parish. It is one of a number of such groups in my parish, and we meet monthly in each other’s homes. We use an outline of sorts invented and passed down by my parish for some years now, and to tell the truth, it is a perfectly dreadful tool. The best description I can give of the resource material is that of a collection of hashtags from the 1970’s; wrapping your mind around them is like collecting fog. Fortunately the group members are good, witty, wise and enthused, and when we loosen our chains from our paper baggage, some very good things happen.
Our baggage last night was “Evangelization,” a much used word with as many meanings. I suspect that most Catholics who think about the term understand it in the generic sense of invitation to the Body of Christ. My group seemed to grasp both the simplicity of the term—drawing all to a greater knowledge of the love of Christ—and the maddening complexity of it. Our group leader (we take turns) did an excellent job of summarizing the hopes and fears of evangelization, and she included a 9-minute video from Bishop Robert Baron (I will try to unearth it on YouTube) who stated that the joy of faith precedes the ethics of faith.
The open discussion covered much ground, but the main issue seemed to be precisely how, concretely, one evangelizes. There was universal agreement that preparation must precede praxis—and my parish is quite good about providing learning opportunities. The most pressing questions seemed to be these: (1) what does evangelization mean in the concrete; (2) how do the laity and the priests meld together in the project, and (3) what if one cannot engage in a parish ministry if prohibited by time and circumstances, such as parenting a special needs child or children, serving as a police or fire officer with high demands and erratic work times, etc.
This turned the discussion to ministry, and how the laity are supposed to be engaged in it. At this juncture I recommended that we drop the term ministry and go to the more theologically appropriate identity for all of us: Baptism, which with Confirmation and Eucharist, confers upon us a new identity in Christ. St. Paul describes Baptism as the death of the old man and the birth of the new. Baptism creates the ultimate “Catholic” identity for everything we do, in our families, marriages, professions, outreach, etc. The Catechism of the Church discusses the lifestyle of the baptized in considerable length and specificity.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that today’s scheduled Vatican II flashback would be the schema on “The Apostolate of the Laity,” the 1960’s language for the work of the baptized Catholic in the world. I read Rynne’s description of the debate, and in at least two cases bishops on the floor asked the very same questions my group had raised. This Council debate was not marked by the acrimony of most of the others, in part because there was already a long history of Catholic Action by laity under the direction of the Church hierarchy. In some countries, lay Catholic Action rallied against the evils of the state; Adolf Hitler himself attempted to purge Catholic Action in 1934. In some countries, notably in Europe, Catholic Action merged into Christian Democrats and entered civil politics against fascism and Communism. Catholic Action was considered an arm or working mechanism of episcopal authority.
The Council fathers, to their credit, sought to return to a theological declaration of the nature of the laity. Canon Law in 1964 was not particularly helpful, defining a layman as one “who is not a cleric.” Bishop Laszlo of Austria brought laughter when he quoted from an old theological dictionary his search for the term layman: “see Clergy.” Humor aside, Rynne declares that Vatican II was the first meeting to ever address the corporate nature of the laity, which numerically included well over 99% of the Church’s membership. Catholic Action had been seen as a working arm of the hierarchy, its identity being pragmatic more than metaphysical.
A number of bishops complained that the proposed document was too “clerical,” an adjective which was gathering momentum in this era as a term for excessive emphasis on the priest at the expense of the laity as a whole. (Pope Francis has spoken of the ills of clericalism in our own day.) But the theological experts in particular urged their sponsors to look positively to the tradition of the Scriptures and the early Church on the identity of all those baptized into the body of Christ. Holy Orders was not the flagship sacrament; Baptism [with Confirmation and First Eucharist] established the basic Christian identity of all. This is clear from the writings of St. Paul through the Acts of the Apostles. When the adult Augustine was baptized by the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, in 387, Augustine understood he was embracing a new identity and meaning to his life above all other considerations, to the degree that he dismissed his mistress of many years, the mother of his out-of-wedlock son.
While the theology of Baptism addressed the basic identity of the Catholic layperson in the world, a long debate ensued on the unresolved matter of the Catholic Action groups. Rynne observed wryly that no English speaking country embraced the Catholic Action concept, including the United States, on the grounds that it smacked of too much compulsory organization. In other nations bishops argued that Catholic Action should remain the sole organization assisting the bishops in Church work. The ideas of multiple church action societies (roughly one equivalent of ministries) or even independent lay movements and action groups created anxieties among some.
What also troubled many bishops was the absence of laity in the composition of the “Apostolate of the Laity” first draft, again a similar criticism of the 2015 Synod on the Family which did not involve families in its formal discussions. The document, given the many concerns of the bishops, was returned for a rewriting, a clear sign that there would be a fourth session of the Council in 1965. The final document of the Laity, promulgated in 1965, is actually an excellent instruction. I have a link to the document in its entirety here, for those who are interested. The authors could not speak with the concreteness we might have desired, given the newness of the subject in 1965, but the fact that there is still confusion about “ministry” and lay identity in our contemporary Church is an indication that more research, creativity and writing on the life of the laity—in very large part originating with the laity—is still a major assignment ahead of us.