What’s the Role of the Laity?

I was given a review copy of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church: Living Out Your Lay Vocation by Russell Shaw.

I looked at the cover: a blob of faceless people dressed the same, doing no-skill-no-brains heavy lifting, participating serf-like in yet another Hidebound Church Ritual. As my mother-in-law says: Oh dear.

I anticipated the usual disembodied dull platitudes and tiresome restatements of the obvious. Fortunately, I read the book anyway, and was pleasantly surprised. I thought it was the opposite of the cover. It’s about each lay person as a uniquely-gifted individual, not all of us en masse.

The book kicks off with a history of the laity, the clergy, and their relationship, from Acts of the Apostles to the end of the 19th century. Huh; I didn’t even know the laity had a history. Turns out we do, and it bears directly on what our roles may be today.

Moving on to the 20th century, you’ll be familiar with Catholic Action, the Catholic Worker movement, and Opus Dei. They’re included not so much to explain what they are, but to show how they fit into a 2000-year-old stream of the non-clergy doing their own thing. I like that.

Vatican 2 is treated at length, both in its specific attention to encouraging the laity to Get Out There Without Waitin’ for Faddah an’ Sistah t’Tell Ya What t’Do; and the difference between what V2 asked the laity to do, and what the laity’s actually done so far.

Apparently lay Catholics are still too much beholden to the clergy, which I understand completely, having been born in 1957. It wasn’t that the Church didn’t say, “Y’all lay folks got your own charisms, go use ’em.” It did. But the people were thinking in terms of doing stuff within the established system, and following the initiatives of that system; and the Church didn’t argue. Even today the typical Catholic has yet to jump on the chance to figure out his or her unique gifts, and then act on them without necessarily seeking the Church’s approval, guidance, or control. But that was still V2’s message.

So what’s the problem? We could rattle off a few, but I would not have included clericalism among them. You know, what Pope Francis talks about every Tuesday. Shaw writes: “Clericalism….assumes that clerics not only are, but are meant to be the active, dominant elite in the Church, and lay people the passive, subservient mass.” Careful attention is given to clericalism; how it curbs the laity’s initiative and sense of responsibility; and how to minimize its effects. (Shaw wrote this book in 2005. Francis must have read it.)

That’s the first half of the book, thematically if not physically. The second half discusses how the laity can get on with it:

1. Taking the idea of lay vocation seriously. That is, every lay person is called by God to Do Something, no less than Faddah or Sistah. God called you. Yes, you. Get on with it.

2. Figuring out your vocation and the charisms you received at Confirmation. So you can get on with it.

3. Taking responsibility for the Church.

4. Evangelizing the World wherever you find yourself. Get on with it. You could die tomorrow. OK, that’s me talking, not the book, but a sense of urgency is a good thing.

If you’re already on the New Evangelization Express, doing the Intentional Disciple Thing, you probably don’t need to read this book. But you’ll profit from its broad and deep scope if you do read it. If you’re on the fence, or behind the fence, then yes, you need to read this book.

Get fired up about Jesus and His Church.

Copyright 2014, Christian LeBlanc

Christian LeBlanc

Christian LeBlanc

Christian LeBlanc is a revert whose pre-Vatican II childhood was spent in South Louisiana, where he marinated in a Catholic universe and acquired a Catholic imagination. During his middle school years in South Carolina, Christian was catechized under the benevolent dictatorship of Sister Mary Alphonsus, who frequently admonished him using the nickname "Little Pagan." After four years of teaching Adult Ed and RCIA, he returned to Sr. Alphonsus' old classroom to teach Catechism himself. Married to Janet, the LeBlancs have five children and two grandsons. Christian and Janet belong to St. Mary's Parish in Greenville, South Carolina. Christian also posts at Amazing Catechists and his blog, Smaller Manhattans. He is the author of The Bible Tells Me So: A Year of Catechizing Directly from Scripture.

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