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Lay Apostolate: the forgotten concern of Vatican II

Lay Apostolate: the forgotten concern of Vatican II

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Published by finigan
Editorial article for Faith Magazine (November 1992) by Fr Tim Finigan. Republished in the light of the comments of Pope Benedict XVI to the Scottish Bishops on their ad limina visit in February 2010
Editorial article for Faith Magazine (November 1992) by Fr Tim Finigan. Republished in the light of the comments of Pope Benedict XVI to the Scottish Bishops on their ad limina visit in February 2010

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Published by: finigan on Feb 05, 2010
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Lay Apostolate: the forgotten concern of Vatican II
Fr Timothy Finigan
First published in Faith Magazine (Editorial) November 1992
We would all surely welcome the idea of a collaborative ministry carried out together bypriests and lay people. The ideal of a harmonious co-operation in bringing in the kingdom of God is obviously essential to the Church
s life. Perhaps it is precisely because it is so obviousthat we feel suspicious when this is presented as something new, untried and radical. Whenwe are told that it will change the image of the Church from a pyramid to a circle, we willcertainly want to know more. That kind of language is generally used as a loaded way of expressing the elimination of the hierarchy of the Church and the blurring of the distinctionbetween the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the laity. As we shall see, such aprogramme is destructive of the very life of the mission of the laityIn fact, the idea of collaborative ministry is not new. When the Decree on the LayApostolate
 Apostolicam Actuositatem
Lay people should, as a matter of course, work hand in hand with their priests in the parish
, it referred in a footnote to an address of LeoXIII in 1894. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the second Vatican Council did make a specialmention of this collaboration in various places. The Council also highlighted the importanceof the role of the laity in the Church and in particular gave a positive place to the laity. Thiswas conceived as a theological reflection on the work of the laity that was already thriving.Instead of defining the laity by saying they were not priests or clerics, the Council sought tounderstand and express the nature of the laity in positive terms; in particular, of course, themission and apostolate deriving from the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation were putin a clearer light. Bishop Wright said at one point
Once the Council had declared
thetheological nature of the laity
, the juridical bones of the Church would come alive withtheological flesh and blood.
The death of the lay apostolate
What could we say has happened since that optimistic statement? Let us first be clear that it isentirely false to give the impression that lay activity has ever been absent in the Church sincethe bad old days before the Council and we are waiting for the silly old clergy to come out of their shell and let the laity claim their rightful place as provided for in the Council. This grossdistortion is widely encouraged and we need to get a few facts straight. First of all, the virtualdeath of the lay apostolate in many areas has come about
1965. Looking back throughthe archives of many parishes, there were thriving parish groups, active
of theLegion of Mary, YCW groups, many with a missionary focus, looking beyond the needs of the parish unit itself and not at all introspective.More recently, we have seen the collapse of many of these organisations at local level andoccasional attempts to revive them, often with success where there is a basis of sound faith
 Lay Apostolate: the forgotten concern of Vatican II Fr Timothy FiniganPage | 2
and devotional practice to build on. The despised
cultic Catholics
tend to form the backboneof them.What has mushroomed on the other hand has been lay
, especially the ministry of reading at Mass and giving out Holy Communion. (It is also worth noting that where there isa concern to involve women more, it is often at this level.) Overall, we see the growth andemphasis upon lay ministry and the tailing off, with sporadic and isolated exceptions, of theactive lay apostolate. We need to see that this unhealthily introspective development isneither encouraged by the Council nor in tune with its theological reflections on the laity inthe Church.
The shift from extraordinary to special
The particular example of over-emphasis of lay ministry that is most intrusive in theexperience of the ordinary Catholic is the ministry of the Eucharist. If we first of all drawattention to the widespread abuse of this ministry, it is so that we can be motivated better totry and understand what the right place of lay ministry is in the Church.The instruction
 Immensae Caritatis
was issued in 1973 on the subject of facilitatingEucharistic Communion in particular circumstances. The use of extraordinary ministers wassanctioned where there was no priest, deacon or acolyte, where they were prevented fromdistributing Communion or where there was such a large number of communicants thatgiving out Communion would be
unduly prolonged.
From this, we can see that the use of extraordinary ministers is not seen as something proper to the laity but something which theyare allowed to do if there are special circumstances. This in fact follows the understanding of the constitution
 Lumen Gentium
of Vatican II which speaks of lay ministry as an exceptionalthing:
A number of them, when sacred ministers are lacking, or obstructed under apersecuting government, supply certain sacred duties to the best of their ability.
(n.35)It may be true that the special circumstances are very thinly justified in many cases.Nevertheless, even when the permission is used at the drop of a hat, it is difficult to see howlay ministry of the Eucharist can ever in practice be anything other than subject to the priest.Of course some try to take the idea to its logical conclusion. In one case known to us, theparish priest asked his curate to refrain from saying Mass so as to attend, support and receiveCommunion at a liturgy conducted by a
Special Minister.
Unless we take the matter to thissort of extreme, the lay minister will always be secondary to the priest.In fact, the lay ministry of the Eucharist in many of the circumstances in which it is used,is
de facto
in violation of the Church
s liturgical law.
 Inaestimabile Donum
in 1980 simplyre-iterated the conditions of 
 Immensae Caritatis
. The specific rider was added that if priestsare present at a celebration and leave the task of distributing Communion to the laity, theyshow a
reprehensible attitude
. I would in fact have a lot of sympathy with priests on someoccasions. Often, the lay minister is a devout, daily Mass-going parishioner. They arespecially chosen, and regard it in humility as a great honour. They go willingly to the trainingday and the annual day of recollection. When they are commissioned by the Bishop there is aclear message that theirs is indeed a special ministry. It can seem very hard when a visiting
 Lay Apostolate: the forgotten concern of Vatican II Fr Timothy FiniganPage | 3
priest comes to the parish for a special occasion, arrives
on spec
at the last minute anddeprives the lay person of the opportunity of exercising this ministry. We have built up thepost so much that it can be hurtful to apply what is only the normal legislation of the Church.This is not
collaborative ministry
at all.Even more recently, the Apostolic Exhortation
Christifideles Laici
called into question thedevelopment of lay ministry. (If you go to a day organised by your catechetical centre, takethis quotation with you
it is not normally mentioned.)
In the same Synod Assembly, however, a critical judgment was voiced along with thesepositive elements, about a too-indiscriminate use of the word
, the confusion and theequating of the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood, the lack of observance of ecclesiastical laws and norms, the arbitrary interpretation of the concept of 
, thetendency towards a
of the lay faithful and the risk of creating, in reality, anecclesial structure of parallel service to that founded on the Sacrament of Orders. (n.23)
A little further, the Pope says
It is also necessary that Pastors guard against a facile yet abusive recourse to a presumed
situation of emergency
or to
supply by necessity
where objectively this does not exist orwhere alternative possibilities could exist through better pastoral planning. (
It is difficult to see how this charge of a
facile yet abusive recourse
can be avoided when,for instance, lay ministers of the Eucharist are employed simply to make possible thedistribution of Holy Communion under both kinds. We must stress that there is no criticismof the excellent lay people who carry out this ministry. It is simply that according to theChurch
s legislation it is not an ordinary ministry proper to the lay person and in fact many of the instances in which the ministry is exercised are contrary to the Church
s law. This ishardly an encouragement to
collaborative ministry
or to lay involvement.
The specific vocation of the laity
There is, in fact, an important role for lay people in the Church which has been glossed over.
 Lumen Gentium
spoke of 
The specific vocation of the laity
which it said was
to make theChurch actively present in those places and situations where the very salt of the earth canonly be spread by their efforts.
(n.33) The vital point here is that this apostolate can only becarried out by the laity. It cannot be carried out by the clergy and is not a task whichsubstitutes for a shortage of clergy or for clergy who are impeded from carrying out their ownministry.
 Lumen Gentium
did not leave the laity with simply a ministry to supply for anecessity; it made it abundantly clear by the emphasis placed upon the vocation and missionof the laity as laity that they have a part to play in the Church which is proper to them,exclusive to them and necessary for the life of the Church. At one point, the constitution evengoes so far as to say:
Their competence in the secular sphere and their activity have beenraised intrinsically by grace to a higher level.

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