19 April 2018
Members of the St. Paul Prison Chaplaincy of the Archeparchy of Addis Ababa, a lay organization that ministers to prisoners, travel to a facility outside of the Ethiopian capital. (photo: Don Duncan)
Last week our blog dealt with the “formation” of the clergy and members of religious orders and communities. This week we are going to look at the formation of the laity.
We focus on the subject of formation in the current edition of ONE, with stories throwing a spotlight on priests and religious sisters. But we also tell the stories of the laity.
First, we need to ask: who are they?
Vatican II defines the laity as those who are not clergy or religious (“Lumen Gentium,” par. 51). Last week, we noted that CNEWA does not directly engage in the formation of the clergy; rather CNEWA helps those who do the formation by providing them with the necessary resources to accomplish their task. It is the same with formation of the laity. CNEWA does not itself maintain any programs of lay formation. Nevertheless, wherever CNEWA is present, it supports such programs.
The Second Vatican Council attempted to make the church and its mission more effective in the modern world. Three documents published at Vatican II are extremely important for understanding the role of lay people in the church: “Lumen Gentium,” or the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (21 November 1964); “Gaudium et spes,” or the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (7 December 1965); and “Apostolicam actuositatem,” or the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (18 November 1965). If, in the past, Councils had dealt primarily with questions/problems of dogma — with great emphasis placed on the Magisterium or teaching office of the church and those who carry it out — viz., the clergy — Vatican II took a different approach. Vatican II spent little or no time dealing with dogmatic or theological controversies. Rather, it looked at the church as it was (in 1965) and asked how it could be more effective in its mission — how it could use its resources better for the Kingdom of God.
Key among those resources, of course, is the laity — the ordinary people in the pews to make up the greatest part of the Body of Christ.
In a sense, Vatican II “rediscovered” the laity. While lay people were all too often defined by what they were not — not clergy, not religious — Vatican II sees lay people as those “incorporated into Christ … and [who] in their own way share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ and … carry on the mission of the whole Christian people in the church and in the world” (“Lumen Gentium,” par. 31). The role of the laity is: “to make the church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them [the laity] that she [the church] can become the salt of the earth” (par. 33).
The laity form a crucial and indeed indispensable part of the church’s mission. It is at this point that the formation of the laity is recognized as central to the life of the church. If people are crushed by dehumanizing poverty, by lack of education, oppression, war and debilitating yet curable diseases, there is no way they can carry out the mission entrusted to them by Christ. It is very hard for the sick, the poor and uneducated to be the leaders the church needs.
The first step of the formation of the laity, therefore, is to help them achieve a standard of living which promotes their human dignity as members of the Body of Christ. Working with local churches, CNEWA supports programs that help people recover their dignity and their futures. Wherever we work, CNEWA supports programs that promote the health, education and dignity of those whom we serve. Programs, for example, which teach people — especially women — a trade allow these people to rise above subsistence living and to begin to influence a wider world: their family, their village, their church. It helps empower them to go out spread the Gospel and change the world.
However, raising people’s standard of living and educating them for work is only a part of what the formation of the laity means.
Vatican II sees the life of lay person in the world as a life of witness and service. As people are trained, for example, to run small businesses, they need also be trained to behave as witnesses to the Gospel in the world in which they live and work. Perhaps the most important part of the formation of the laity is teaching them that their role in life is not merely to earn a living and support their family but to witness to Christ and transform the world in which they live and work into the Kingdom of God.