The Laity, the Council & the New Apostolate

In this preview of the Second Vatican Council from May 6, 1961, Fr. Robert Graham excitedly announced that “the age of the lay apostolate is arriving”:

Without waiting for more developments, we can safely assert that the Second Vatican Council will mark a historic turning point in the apostolic life of the Church. The relatively untapped energies of the lay Catholic will be channeled at last into the main stream of the Church’s apostolate. Pope John XXIII indicated as much when receiving the Permanent Committee of the International Congresses for the Lay Apostolate on February 8. He said that this question would be “an object of vital concern and special study.” Later, in the annual official publication, Activities of the Holy See in 1960, the Central Preparatory Commission stated categorically that the nature, prerogatives and limitations of the lay apostolate would be studied in detail at the council, on the level of both theory and practice, with special reference to its relations with the hierarchy.

Such authoritative forecasts reflect the virtually unanimous wishes of the bishops of the whole world. The age of the lay apostolate is arriving. To speak more accurately, that day has already arrived. It remains only for the Fathers of the council to give it formal recognition.

The council’s concern with the apostolic possibilities of the layman is a simple response to the sensus fidelium, the ground swell that has been sweeping the Church for many years. One would have to go back to the 13th century and the popular revival aroused by St. Francis of Assisi to find a comparable grass-roots upsurge of lay religious zeal. It seems as though the more society becomes secularized, the more pronounced becomes the spiritual outlook of individual Christians in the face of their environment. The evolving world circumstances also suggest that Providence itself is kindling this fire to coincide with the advent of a revolutionary era.

In the newly developing countries, where Christianity’s roots are still tender, unprecedented opportunities are opening at the very moment when, as in Africa and Asia, political independence has tolled the bell for the 19th-century missionary methods which depended so largely upon the prestige of the colonizing power. As if these political and social changes were not enough, rapid technological advances put a premium on specialists trained as no priest or religious worker can be trained. Even if the shortage of priests is not felt in the former mission-sending countries, laymen can perform much of the work now indicated in the apostolate better, if not exclusively.

The needs and the opportunities are evident. Why must we wait for an ecumenical council in order to get the lay apostolate moving? How is it that the recent decades have witnessed so much backing and filling, such unmistakable experimentation and, most of all, such prolonged and indecisive theoretical discussions?

The nub of the difficulty lies precisely in the apostolic nature of this lay action. The layman is doing the work of the Church. Yet, by the will of Christ and the constitution of the Church, the preaching of the gospel and the sanctification of souls are entrusted directly to an order of priesthood, with the bishops at the head. Without abolishing the distinction between clergy and laity, it seems difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of a lay apostolate in the strict sense.

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