The Layman and the Council… Does the Layman ‘Belong’?

Romeo Maione, a Canadian with long experience in the lay apostolate is currently international president of the Young Christian Workers. He sends this article from Belgium. He recently visited Rome for meetings in connection with the anniversary of the social encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI. He will return to Canada at the end of this year to become assistant to the director of the Social Action Department of the Canadian Catholic Conference.

By ROMEO MAIONE

A few years ago, a small group of highly regarded theologians met to discuss the role of the layman in the Church. The principal result of their discussion nicely illustrates a central problem in the life of the Church today. For nothing like a consensus on the role of the layman came out of the meeting. The theologians could agree only that the layman is neither priest nor Religious. Around the world. hopes are running high that the Fathers of the forthcoming Ecumenical Council will have something positive to say about the role of the layman. And there is good reason to believe that these hopes are well-founded. In response to the calls of modern popes, laymen have begun to shoulder more and more responsibility for action. Indeed, the question is no longer whether laymen can bear the responsibility of carrying the Christian message into everyday life, but how far to go.

Lay apostles sincerely attempting to “restore all things in Christ” according to the mandate of Pope St. Pius X are asking for clarification of the limits of their responsibility and the extent of their autonomy. In the absence of a consensus on the necessary distinctions, too-easy solutions have often been provided. Those who have advanced near temporal-spiritual distinctions, and would limit the involvement of the Church in our time to the purely spiritual level, have learned that circumstances demand something more. Many questions are heard, but perhaps the most familiar and the most critical could be put this way; “How far can the lay apostolate go into the temporal order without committing the Church to detailed, debatable, political or economic programs?”

The failure to resolve this question led to the division of the vast and well-organized family movement in France in 1950. One element wanted to plunge into the political field to solve the pressing housing problems, while others insisted the movement remain purely educational. The movement finally split, and the French hierarchy set up a new apostolate to insure live spiritual development of the two movements. Other examples of how pressing this particular question can be have occurred in Australia, Italy and Spain. In Australia, a lay apostolate organization called simply “the Movement” did a very effective job of clearing the communists out of the trade unions, then tried to clean up the small minority of communists in the Labour Party The Labour Party asked the Movement to stop its activities. It didn’t. The Labour Party condemned the Movement and, in time, the Movement split the Labour Party. In Italy, the ACLI (Associazione Christiano Laboratore Italiano), one of the major Italian lay worker movements, is facing a crisis because many of its leaders are also members of parliament. The Church has called on the organization to get out of politics. An ACLI leader can no longer take a responsible job in the political field. The Temporal-spiritual division, it appears, is better made in books than in life. The average worker neither has the theological background nor the time to treat frontiers of action as textbook exercises.

He knows that as a lay apostle. he is called to be a good politician. As the leader of an organized movement, it is his job to develop an apostolic spirit among members, encouraging them to take positions on moral issues in political and economic life, the temporal order. 

At least in Europe, the question of the day is, how far can an apostolic movement go into the temporal order? It cannot escape the attention of the Council. 

In Europe, of course, the rural society in which the Church was actively present and very much involved is gradually giving way to a new and industrialized Europe. This evolution is much slower than in the U. S. In America, the “new ideas” about the lay apostolate came to a new country. In Europe, they germinated and grew in a well established order. Today, the Church in Europe is trying to free itself from the “old order” so that it can embrace and bring the good news to the developing new way of life. In an effort not to be identified with the old ways, some advocate that the Church completely remove itself from the temporal order. 

This, of course, would reverse the whole movement of the lay apostolate to date. From a state of suspended animation, the laity has now been awakened, and responding to the Popes, is attempting to meet some of the serious crises of our age. And inevitably, the spiritual and temporal interests intersect. 

It would be difficult to pinpoint the moment in modern history when the laity was awakened. The lay apostolate itself is, of course, not a new thing in the Church. Pius XII pointed this out to exponents of the lay apostolate attending the First World Congress of the Lay Apostolate in Rome in 1950. The apostles used the Roman roads, and laymen in those times did an effective job of spreading the good news of the Gospels everywhere. 

Pius XII repeated the exhortation of Pius XI in asking laymen to exercise an active apostolate in the Church. The words of both these modern Popes gave new life to many traditional lay organizations, and at the same time gave birth to new lay movements like the Young Christian Workers, Young Christian Farmers, the Young Christian Students, the Christian Family Movement, and a host of others. 

This revival of lay activity was also marked by the creation of international coordinating bodies, based in Rome, designed to implement the work of lay movements. The Conference of Catholic International Organizations, whose main office is in Fribourg, Switzerland, and the Permanent Committee for the Organization of the Lay Apostolate Congresses, whose offices are in Rome, are both working to develop the lay apostolate internationally.

The Permanent Committee for the Organization of the Lay Apostolate, which has already organized two international conferences on the lay apostolate in Rome, is planning a third to be held just after the Ecumenical Council. 

Although preparations for the Council and the work of its various commissions are shrouded in silence, it is becoming clearer that one of the central themes of the Council will be the question of the lay apostolate. One of the commissions of the Council will address itself exclusively to the problems of the lay apostolate. (It is interesting to note that this commission is the only one which does not depend directly on any of the congregations making up the Curia.) 

The setting up of this commission of the lay apostolate was greeted with great joy by laymen active In the affairs of the Church, although some were less than joyful to find that no laymen are present on any of the commissions, particularly the lay apostolate commissions. 

At a recent international meeting a lay leader was overheard to say, jokingly, “Well, it was the men who discussed the role of women in society and finally granted them the right to vote; it is now the turn of the clergy to release the potential energies of the layman.”)

Many lay leaders, particularly in Holland and Austria, have been openly discussing the absence of laymen in the preparatory work of the Council —and some high Church authorities have promised to bring the matter up in Rome. 

While one may regret the absence of experienced laymen in the preparatory work, one can rejoice at the impressive array of internationally-known clerics with first hand experience of the lay apostolate who make up the Commission which will deal specifically with lay matters. 

Fernando Cardinal Cento, the president of the Lay Apostolate Commission, was once a nuncio in Belgium and has first hand knowledge of the lay movements, especially the worker movements. Monsignor Achille Glorieux, secretary of the commission, was once a Young Christian Workers chaplain in France, and is now chaplain of the Permanent Committee for the Organization of Lay Apostolate Congresses. Monsignor Joseph Cardijn, international chaplain and founder of the Young Christian Workers, and Bishop E. Larrain of Chile, vice president of CELAM, the Latin American Council of Bishops, are two others on the commission.

(It was Monsignor Cardijn, incidentally, who was the first to make the see-judge-act method which Pope John recommends in Mater et Magistra as a central part of the modern lay movement.) 

The general lines of the commission study are apparent; the role of the layman in the Church and the relations between the lay apostolate organizations and the hierarchy, the problem of the limit and extent of the autonomy of the lay apostolate in the temporal order, all these will certainly be on the agenda. 

Many well-informed laymen seem to be reasonably sure that the Fathers of the Council will set up a Congregation for the Laity which will play an active part in the Curia. In any event, the question of the laity in the Church is bound to be taken up by several of the Commissions. 

The Commission on Theological Studies will discuss the doctrinal position of the laity. The Liturgical Commission will discuss the participation of the laity in the liturgy. The Seminaries Commission will approach the problem under the heading of the necessary formation of priests who will be formers of lay apostles. The Missions Commission will surely study the question of the laity when it discusses the penury of the clergy in mission lands, and in a more particular way, Latin America. This will lead to a discussion on the pastoral role of the layman in mission countries. 

Finally, the commission set up to deal with the unity of the Churches will be discussing the laity because of the increasing contacts between Catholics and non-Catholics in everyday life. 

So the laity will be very much present in the Council, sharpening the awareness expressed by Bishop de Smedt of Bruges in a pastoral written in preparation for the Ecumenical Council. 

“Jesus continues His priesthood in the Christian community as a whole,” the Bishop wrote. “It is in it and by it that He offers sacrifice to the Father. It is by it and in it that He spreads His gospel. It is by it and in it that He will realize the consecration of the world. It is false to think that Catholic doctrine reduces the faithful to a passive state. It is inexact to pretend that they are but a flock of sheep, docile and forcibly resigned to being led by their pastors. If you have understood correctly. you will know that the Church is a cooperation of all the baptized who —together— form the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ.”

SOURCE

Romeo Maione, The Layman and the Council… Does the Layman ‘Belong’?, Pittsburgh Catholic, Thursday August 31, 1961 (Catholic News Archive)

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