Article 79 – Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Paragraphs 897-913 The Lay Faithful
Before my ordination to the holy priesthood, my greatest joy was serving the Church as a lay Catholic. Whether assisting at Mass as an altar boy or a lector, or helping prepare food or clothing for the poor, my life always seemed busy but fulfilling, especially in my capacity as a member of the lay Apostolate when a teenager and young college student. Even in my teenage years I somehow knew, as the Catechism puts it, that by Baptism, I was “incorporated into Christ and integrated into the People of God … made a sharer … in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly office of Christ, and [had my] own part to play in the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the World” (ccc 897). No wonder the Catechism tells us that it is the special mission of lay people to engage “in temporal affairs” and direct them “according to God’s will” (ccc 898). At all ages and in all walks of life “the initiative of lay Christians is necessary especially when the matter involves discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities” (ccc 899).
Lay Catholics are essentially Christ’s presence in the world. The Catechism says it succinctly: “They are the Church” in the world (ccc 899). In fact, “by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation, they have the right and duty” to live and proclaim “the divine message of salvation” so it “may be known and accepted by all people throughout the earth” (ccc 900). In fact, the Catechism continues, without such lay initiative, “the apostolate of the pastors cannot be fully effective” (ccc 900).
Entrusted by God with this special “lay” apostolate, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is “only” through the lay faithful “that people can hear the Gospel and know Christ” (ccc 896). Why? Because, unlike many clergy and
consecrated religious, the laity live their lives within various circumstances of life where they encounter people of all backgrounds and persuasions. Lay Catholics, in union with the pope and bishops, “not only belong to the Church. They are the Church” (ccc 899). As such, they participate in Christ’s priestly office, prophetic office and kingly office.
In terms of Christ’s Priestly office, the laity’s prayers, works, joys and, sufferings including “apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body … all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (ccc 901).
Regarding the prophetic office, Christ “establishes them as witnesses and provides them with the sense of the faith [sensus fidei] and the grace of the word” (ccc 904). One example of this “prophetic voice of the faithful” was the spontaneous chant on the occasion of Pope John Paul II’s funeral in 2005, when the crowds shouted “Santo subito” – “Sainthood now!” Within six short years, John Paul II was beatified, and in 2014 he was officially canonized a saint.
To participate in the kingly office of Christ means first and utmost that we follow the example of the Jesus, the King of Kings. The Catechism states: “Christ communicated to his disciples the gift of royal freedom, so that they might ‘by the self-abnegation of a holy life, overcome the reign of sin in themselves’” (ccc 908). Being members of the royal family of Christ through baptism means, not that we follow the example of temporal dictators, but that we embrace the lowliest and most menial tasks, like washing dishes, taking out the trash, cutting the lawn, and cleaning bathrooms. One of the best examples of Christ’s Kingship in Sacred Scripture is in John’s Gospel (13:1-17) at the Passover meal, when Jesus replaces his outer “royal robes” with those of a humble servant (a towel) and begins washing the feet of his disciples.
The final paragraphs in this section of the Catechism outline the various circumstances that the Church provides for the laity to exercise their ministry. These include “particular councils, diocesan synods, pastoral councils; the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish, collaboration in finance committees, and participation in ecclesiastical tribunals” (ccc 911).
Quoting from the Second Vatican Council’s 1964 “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (“Lumen Gentium” 36 § 4), the Catechism further counsels that we should “distinguish carefully between the rights and the duties” which we have as members “of the Church” and those which fall to us as “members of human society” (ccc 912). The Catechism continues that we, as followers of Christ, must “strive to unite the two harmoniously” so that “every temporal affair … be guided by a Christian conscience” (ccc 912).
According to the teaching of the Church, each member of the lay faithful is at once “the witness and the living instrument of the mission of the Church itself” (ccc 913). How? Through the gifts bestowed on each, according to God who loves us so abundantly.
Father Hillier serves as Director of the Diocesan Office of the Pontifical Missions, the Office for Persons with Disabilities, and Censor Librorum.
Entrusted by God with this special “lay” apostolate, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is “only” through the lay faithful “that people can hear the Gospel and know Christ” [ccc 896].