|A gathering of Asian Laity|
Now it is time to continue where I left off on October 21 when I promised to highlight 3 facets of Vatican II and covered only one. I will take up the second of the three now--the role of the laity in the Church. It has been said that prior to Vatican II the role of the laity was "to pray, pay and obey." While this is certainly an exaggeration, it is not far from the truth. The parish in which I grew up, St. William's, in the Dorchester section of Boston had a robust number of activities for the laity. Most of them involved prayer and devotion, e.g. the Ladies Sodality and the Holy Name Society, and fund-raising for the parish. That was not bad, but the model was that of helping the priests to run the parish.
The council made it clear that the laity working under the leadership of the clergy, are called to service and ministry in their own right by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation (see Lumen Gentium (Constitution on the Church)# 33. Also in the previous section of that document it is clear that the laity are equally called to holiness, along with priests and religious, a theme that runs throughout the council documents.
The result of this is that many lay people see themselves as "engaged in ministry" rather than as simply "helping out in the parish" Lay people have felt their voice and express it, often to the consternation of the clergy. Interestingly enough this applies to both the more liberal and the more conservative members of the laity.
It has often been said that because of the clergy shortage that lay people are exercising more minstries in the Church. In the Diocese of St. Petersburg here in Florida where I live the chancellor of the diocese is a fine laywoman, Joan Morgan. Many faith formation programs are led by laypeople as well. This is the case in my summer parish in Eagle River, Wisconsin where Mrs. Adele Svetnica does a wonderful job in that role. I do not agree, however, with the sentiment that it is principally due to the lack of numbers among priests and religious. that this is so. Lay people, especialy in the western world, were becoming more and more well-educated after World War II. They themselves often read the council documents and were ready to lay claim to what the council taught.
It is obvious too that lay participation in the liturgy has changed dramatically. Before Vatican II the only lay people to serve in the sanctuary were altar boys (and not girls). Now there are lectors, extraordinary minsters of the Eucharist and altar servers (girls as well as boys). I will say more about htis in my next reflection on the liturgy and the council.
What is obvious is that the age of the laity is with us and it is not going away. My own Franciscan province has made partnering with the laity in all of our ministries a priority and many dioceses run formation programs for lay ministers. Even at that Vatican there is a council for the laity. This, I believe, is a welcome change.
Finally, my own life as a priest and friar has been enriched by the laity with whom I have been involved, from the lay teachers at Columbus High School, to the couples on the Marriage Encounter weekend, to people in the parishes where I have served and Mrs. Linda English of Ridgewood, NJ and Mr. Pete Suarez of Miami, FL who have worked with the Ministry of the Word as lay preachers. The life of our Church is blessed today and is indeed a more complete expression of the mystery of the Body of Christ in the world because so many laity are serving in ministry.