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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 by
priests 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 obvious
that we feel suspicious when this is presented as something new, untried and radical. When
we are told that it will change the image of the Church from a pyramid to a circle, we will
certainly 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 distinction
between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the laity. As we shall see, such a
programme is destructive of the very life of the mission of the laity
In fact, the idea of collaborative ministry is not new. When the Decree on the Lay
Apostolate Apostolicam Actuositatem stated „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 Leo
XIII in 1894. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the second Vatican Council did make a special
mention of this collaboration in various places. The Council also highlighted the importance
of the role of the laity in the Church and in particular gave a positive place to the laity. This
was 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 to
understand and express the nature of the laity in positive terms; in particular, of course, the
mission and apostolate deriving from the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation were put
in a clearer light. Bishop Wright said at one point „Once the Council had declared „the
theological nature of the laity‟, the juridical bones of the Church would come alive with
theological 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 is
entirely false to give the impression that lay activity has ever been absent in the Church since
the 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 gross
distortion is widely encouraged and we need to get a few facts straight. First of all, the virtual
death of the lay apostolate in many areas has come about since 1965. Looking back through
the archives of many parishes, there were thriving parish groups, active praesidia of the
Legion 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 and
occasional 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 Finigan

and devotional practice to build on. The despised „cultic Catholics‟ tend to form the backbone
of them.
What has mushroomed on the other hand has been lay ministry, especially the ministry of
reading at Mass and giving out Holy Communion. (It is also worth noting that where there is
a concern to involve women more, it is often at this level.) Overall, we see the growth and
emphasis upon lay ministry and the tailing off, with sporadic and isolated exceptions, of the
active lay apostolate. We need to see that this unhealthily introspective development is
neither encouraged by the Council nor in tune with its theological reflections on the laity in
the Church.

The shift from extraordinary to special

The particular example of over-emphasis of lay ministry that is most intrusive in the
experience of the ordinary Catholic is the ministry of the Eucharist. If we first of all draw
attention to the widespread abuse of this ministry, it is so that we can be motivated better to
try 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 facilitating
Eucharistic Communion in particular circumstances. The use of extraordinary ministers was
sanctioned where there was no priest, deacon or acolyte, where they were prevented from
distributing Communion or where there was such a large number of communicants that
giving 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 they
are 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 exceptional
thing: „A number of them, when sacred ministers are lacking, or obstructed under a
persecuting 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 how
lay 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, the
parish priest asked his curate to refrain from saying Mass so as to attend, support and receive
Communion at a liturgy conducted by a “Special Minister.” Unless we take the matter to this
sort 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 simply
re-iterated the conditions of Immensae Caritatis. The specific rider was added that if priests
are present at a celebration and leave the task of distributing Communion to the laity, they
show a „reprehensible attitude‟. I would in fact have a lot of sympathy with priests on some
occasions. Often, the lay minister is a devout, daily Mass-going parishioner. They are
specially chosen, and regard it in humility as a great honour. They go willingly to the training
day and the annual day of recollection. When they are commissioned by the Bishop there is a
clear message that theirs is indeed a special ministry. It can seem very hard when a visiting

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Lay Apostolate: the forgotten concern of Vatican II Fr Timothy Finigan

priest comes to the parish for a special occasion, arrives „on spec‟ at the last minute and
deprives the lay person of the opportunity of exercising this ministry. We have built up the
post 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 the
development of lay ministry. (If you go to a day organised by your catechetical centre, take
this quotation with you – it is not normally mentioned.)
In the same Synod Assembly, however, a critical judgment was voiced along with these
positive elements, about a too-indiscriminate use of the word “ministry”, the confusion and the
equating of the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood, the lack of observance of
ecclesiastical laws and norms, the arbitrary interpretation of the concept of “supply”, the
tendency towards a “clericalization” of the lay faithful and the risk of creating, in reality, an
ecclesial 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 or
where alternative possibilities could exist through better pastoral planning. (ibid)

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 the
distribution of Holy Communion under both kinds. We must stress that there is no criticism
of the excellent lay people who carry out this ministry. It is simply that according to the
Church‟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 is
hardly 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 the
Church actively present in those places and situations where the very salt of the earth can
only be spread by their efforts.‟(n.33) The vital point here is that this apostolate can only be
carried out by the laity. It cannot be carried out by the clergy and is not a task which
substitutes for a shortage of clergy or for clergy who are impeded from carrying out their own
ministry. Lumen Gentium did not leave the laity with simply a ministry to supply for a
necessity; it made it abundantly clear by the emphasis placed upon the vocation and mission
of 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 even
goes so far as to say: „Their competence in the secular sphere and their activity have been
raised intrinsically by grace to a higher level.‟(n.36)

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Lay Apostolate: the forgotten concern of Vatican II Fr Timothy Finigan

This lay apostolate was obviously the concern of Vatican II‟s Decree on the Lay
Apostolate, Apostolicam Actuositatem. The decree makes exactly the same point about this
apostolate being the exclusive province of the laity:
Apostolic work carried out within the social environment is so much the gift and duty of the
laity that it can never be properly carried out by anyone else. (n.13)

Part of the reason for the value of the lay apostolate is, of course, a practical one. Again the
decree points out:
As citizens among citizens, they (viz. lay people) must bring to their co-operation with others
their own special competence and act on their own responsibility. (n.7)
Probably with this in mind, Archbishop D‟Souza of Bhopal had suggested during the
discussion on the schema for the decree that lay people should replace clergy on international
bodies. He also suggested that the clergy should leave to the laity tasks in the fields of
education, the social services and the administration of temporal goods. This would make it
possible for the clergy „to devote themselves to the exercise of the sacred and sacramental
office for which they were ordained.‟ This statement, which received vigorous applause at the
time, has a certain irony now that it is necessary for the Holy See to insist that clergy do not
leave the distribution of Holy Communion to the laity.

A part of the vine

Christifideles Laici used the image of our Lord‟s parable of the labourers in the vineyard. In
the introductory section, the Pope recalls the phrase „You go into my vineyard too.‟ He says
that this call „never fails to resound in the course of history: it is addressed to every person
who comes into the world‟. (n.2) It is interesting to see the „difficulties and dangers‟ which
are cited in this context:
In particular, two temptations can be cited which they have not always known how to avoid: the
temptation of being so interested in church services and tasks that some fail to become actively
engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the
temptation of legitimising the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of
the Gospel‟s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world.
(CFL 2)

In other words, the interest in Church services, far from being the epitome of collaborative
ministry, is distracting from the true lay apostolate.
The theological ground for this lay apostolate is also given weight in the Apostolic
Exhortation. At the second Vatican Council, the lay apostolate was clearly related to the
sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. (AA 3, LG 31) It is these sacraments which
incorporate a person into the mystical body of Christ and strengthen them for their mission.
In Christifideles Laici, the Pope reflects on the mystery of incorporation into the Body of
Christ. He points out that in the image of the vine, „the lay faithful are seen not simply as
labourers who work in the vineyard, but as themselves being a part of the vineyard. Jesus
says “I am the vine, you are the branches”„(n.8)

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Lay Apostolate: the forgotten concern of Vatican II Fr Timothy Finigan

This organic link with Jesus Christ is what characterises the living body of the Church. We
may notice that the lay apostolate deriving from Baptism and Confirmation looks for its
nourishment to the Eucharist.
The love which is the gift of the Spirit, which makes apostolic work alive, comes to them and is
increased in them through the sacraments, most of all through the Holy Eucharist. (AA 3)

Naturally this is so, because the work of the disciple is to bring others to Christ; to say as
Philip to Nathanael, „Come and see‟. Therefore, the lay apostolate will always bear a
relationship to the ministerial priesthood which mirrors the different ways of participation in
the liturgy of the Eucharist. To describe the familial co-operation in the work of God which
flows from this relationship, „collaborative‟ will sound rather cold. The co-operation will be
that of loyalty and love based on a common familial and organic communion. The family
likeness will be to the face of Jesus Christ. We are made to his image and we grow more
brightly in that image as we identify with him through our specific vocation.

A difference in essence
To blur the distinction between the priesthood of the laity and the ministerial priesthood will
be a disaster for both. In particular for the lay apostolate, it will weaken its character and
deprive it of its source of nourishment. It is absolutely essential to the life of the Body of
Christ that Christ himself be present, living and active through the sacraments of the Church
and the teaching and jurisdiction of the Church. In the recent letter On some aspects of the
Church as Communion Cardinal Ratzinger offered a timely exposition of the manner in
which ecclesial communion has both horizontal and vertical dimensions, involving of
necessity both communion with God and communion with men. Therefore,
The Eucharist is the creative force and source of communion among the members of the
Church, precisely because it unites each one of them with Christ himself. (n.5)
He also relates this communion to the episcopate, pointing out that the unity of the local
Churches involves the existence of a Church which is head of the Churches, namely the
church of Rome. This unity with Rome he points out is a „constitutive principle of the
particular Church itself as such‟.
Several consequences flow from this for the notion of collaborative ministry or familial
co-operation in the work of Christ as we might prefer to say. First of all, the celebration of the
Eucharist is at the heart of the lay apostolate. Therefore the lay apostolate flowing from the
vocation of Baptism and Confirmation depends for its life on the ministerial priesthood in the
Church making Christ present in the person of the priest and in the Eucharist at the heart of
the Church. If there is a shortage of priests or if priests are impeded so that they cannot
celebrate Mass, this is a disaster primarily for the laity of the Church. It can never be seen as
the golden opportunity sent by the Spirit so that lay people can carry out their ministry. The
lay ministry provided in such extraordinary circumstances will itself temporarily detract from
the lay apostolate which would, in better times, be thriving. We would suggest that this is
precisely what is happening even though in some cases the shortage is exaggerated.

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Lay Apostolate: the forgotten concern of Vatican II Fr Timothy Finigan

Secondly the powerhouse and the hearth and home of the lay apostolate will usually be
the parish and for good reason. It is in the parish that the local Church finds the clearest
expression of its organic ecclesial communion. In other words, it is in the parish where you
find the local family of Christ‟s body present in its essential elements. There is the priest, the
Eucharist and communion with the Bishop and with Rome. The communion with Rome
should be given more emphasis. The parish is not simply a glorified coffee shop with
services. It is the concrete expression of the universal Church. The visible representation of
the head of the Churches which unites them all is the Holy Father. Whatever his personal
views or characteristics, he is, by virtue of his office, a living icon of the prince of the
apostles to whom the commission was made „Feed my sheep‟. When the parish priest (or
even his humble assistant!) preaches in conscious communion with Rome, he too is carrying
out that same mandate within the family of the Body of Christ.

The importance of groups

At times, one meets readers and other concerned Catholics who are almost in despair at the
state of the Church. This sometimes happens when their parish has been stirred up by
outsiders who have told them that everything is wrong and they must now do it all
differently. Motoring off into the sunset, they can leave a trail of confusion and bitterness.
Sometimes, fortunately, the eyes of the devout are opened to the fact that all is not „business
as usual‟. But there is no need for despair. We do, in FAITH, manage to put our theology into
practice. Especially through the small group in parish or school, we try to foster the lay
apostolate. Among the young it is very helpful to stress the particular and proper vocation by
which they and they alone can work among their peers. It is heartening to read in Pastores
Dabo Vobis that the influence of such groups is being recognised.
We should also remember the numerous groups, movements and associations of lay faithful
whom the Holy Spirit raises up and fosters in the Church with a view to a more missionary
Christian presence in the world. These various groupings of lay people are proving a
particularly fertile field in which vocations can be encouraged and can grow. Many young
people, in and through these groupings, have heard the Lord‟s call to follow him along the path
of priestly ministry. (n.41)

Quite so! In fact, it is an obvious retort to the moan about the „shortage of vocations‟ that this
shortage is unnecessary. In countries or dioceses where consciously orthodox associations of
various sorts are encouraged, vocations come to be plentiful.
Pastores Dabo Vobis also furnishes an admonition which many seminarians may be glad
to hear:
Associations and youth movements, which are a sign and confirmation of the vitality which the
Spirit guarantees to the Church, can and should contribute also to the formation of candidates
for the priesthood, in particular of those who are the product of the Christian, spiritual and
apostolic experience of these groups. Young people who have received their basic formation in
such groups and look to them for their experience of the Church should not feel they are being
asked to uproot themselves from their past or to break their links with the environment which

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Lay Apostolate: the forgotten concern of Vatican II Fr Timothy Finigan

has contributed to their decision to respond to their vocation, nor should they erase the
characteristic traits of the spirituality which they have learned and lived there, in all that they
contain that is good, edifying and rich. For them too, this environment from which they come
continues to be a source of help and support on the path of formation towards the priesthood.
(PDV 68)

This is advice of the most homely and welcome sort because it reflects so accurately the
needs of the parish as the basic unit of the Church. There ought to be one familial communion
from parish and its associations and groups through the seminary and on into the life of the
priest. Then the way will be open for a genuine co-operation since both priest and laity will
have received the same basic formation in the spiritual life at the feet of Christ.
It is this living link with Christ which is the reason for Christifideles Laici insisting that
one of the „Criteria of Ecclesiality‟ for lay groups is:
The responsibility of professing the Catholic faith embracing and proclaiming the truth about
Christ, the Church and humanity, in obedience to the Church‟s Magisterium, as the Church
interprets it. (n.30)
while another is:
The witness to a strong and authentic communion in filial relationship to the Pope, in total
adherence to the belief that he is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity in
the particular Church. (ibid)
It is the truly divine Jesus Christ with whom we collaborate first and foremost and He is
made present for all through the ministry of the priest in the heart of the family of the Church.

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