Why Vatican II Emphasized the Lay Apostolate

Interview With Russell Shaw

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WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 28, 2005 (Zenit.org).- One of the problems in the Church since the Second Vatican Council has been the greater emphasis placed on lay ministries rather than on the lay apostolate.

So says Russell Shaw, a longtime Catholic journalist and former secretary of public affairs of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Shaw, the Washington correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor newspaper and a contributing editor of Crisis and Columbia magazines, is also a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

He shared with ZENIT his thoughts about Vatican II’s decree on the apostolate of the laity as it marked its 40th anniversary this month.

Q: What led the Council Fathers to adopt the broadened view of lay apostolate found in the decree on the apostolate of the laity, «Apostolicam Actuositatem»?

Shaw: Two things — facts and theology.

The facts were: first, that due to secularization and anti-clericalism, priests and religious no longer had effective access to many areas of society in a number of countries, so that, second, if the Church was to be present there, lay people would have to do the job. At the time of the Council, the problem was particularly acute for the «Church of silence» behind the Iron Curtain, but it also was a growing problem in the West.

The theology was the new understanding of the Church as a communion that we find in the dogmatic constitution on the Church, «Lumen Gentium.» In place of the top-down pyramid model of the past, the Church is seen as a hierarchically structured reality, with diverse offices and functions, within which nevertheless all of the members have a fundamental equality in dignity and rights. To speak of the Church as «Body of Christ» and «People of God» expresses this insight.

Of central importance among the rights and duties of the Church’s members that arise from baptism are the right and duty to participate in the mission of the Church. The generic name for that mission is apostolate. So, the participation of lay people in the mission of the Church is properly called «lay apostolate.»

Also enormously important was «Lumen Gentium’s» teaching that the laity, just as much as the clergy and religious, are called by God to strive for the highest levels of sanctity — to be saints. That is stated very clearly in Chapter 5 of the constitution on the Church, while the situation of the laity in relation to the Church and its mission is discussed in Chapter 4.

The decree on the apostolate of the laity therefore is the Council’s practical, programmatic application of the principles set out in «Lumen Gentium.» The two documents complement each other.

Q: What are the rights and duties of the laity in regard to apostolate that the decree speaks about and how are they reflected in everyday life?

Shaw: Unlike the pre-Vatican II understanding of lay apostolate found in the Catholic Action movement — the idea, that is, that the apostolate of the laity is a participation in the apostolate of the hierarchy which comes to them by way of hierarchical delegation — the Council teaches that lay people have a right and duty to engage in apostolate simply because they are members of the Church.

The call to apostolate comes to the laity from Christ and is grounded in baptism and confirmation. It is not something delegated by the hierarchy — though obviously if lay people wish to act in the name of the Church, they have to have hierarchical approval.

Thus, the Council endorses the idea of autonomous lay apostolate, which it says takes two basic forms: individual apostolate and group apostolate. Whether they participate in a group apostolate or not, all Catholic lay women and men are called to do individual apostolate.

All this is spelled out in the decree on the apostolate of the laity. The basic message is this: «The Christian vocation is, of its nature, a vocation to the apostolate» [«Apostolicam Actuositatem,» No. 2].

Ideally, individual lay people put this vision of lay apostolate into practice in their everyday lives by discerning their personal vocations. How is God calling each one of us to serve him, to serve our neighbor, and to carry on the redemptive work of Christ — which is the mission of the Church — here and now?

An individual’s answer to that, based on vocational discernment, is the specific form that the apostolate should take for him or her. Others can offer general suggestions, point to various good options, but in the final analysis, discerning personal vocations is something individuals must do for themselves.

I think you will find all this covered pretty well in my new book «Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church,» which is published by Requiem Press.

Q: According to the document, the laity are not limited to apostolate in their parish. National and even international apostolate is encouraged. What does this mean for a layperson?

Shaw: The parish is not the primary place where lay apostolate takes place. Nor is some other Church structure or institution the preferred setting for the apostolate of the laity. Lay apostolate is properly directed to, and takes place in, the secular world. As «Apostolicam Actuositatem» puts it, lay people «ought to take on themselves as their distinctive task this renewal of the temporal order» [No. 7].

Our current overemphasis on lay activity within ecclesiastical institutions and structures arises from the overemphasis on lay ministries since the 1970s. The Second Vatican Council said very, very little about lay ministry.

In speaking about the participation of lay people in the Church’s mission, it spoke mainly about lay apostolate, and it made it overwhelmingly clear that this is primarily apostolate that carries the Gospel out into the world. Don’t misunderstand — lay ministry is a good thing. But by stressing ministry instead of apostolate, as is now commonly done, we are getting what the Council intended exactly backward.

Q: Given the declining number of priests, especially in the West, how important is «Apostolicam Actuositatem»?

Shaw: The declining number of priests and religious makes it even more important that lay people take up the slack in many ways. But it’s important to be clear. If we are talking about forms of ministry — Eucharistic ministers, lay catechists, things like that — we are talking about lay ministry, not lay apostolate.

The need for lay apostolate in response to the secularization of society exists independently of a shortage of clerical and religious personnel, and it is growing more urgent all the time.

Q: What is the apostolate of the family that the Council speaks of?

Shaw: The expression can refer to several different things.

One of these is the apostolate «to» families. This consists essentially in efforts to build up and support healthy marriages and families. The need is obvious at a time when half the marriages in the United States end in divorce and pressure for legalization of same-sex marriage is intense — and in some places has succeeded.

The apostolate «of» the family refers to efforts by couples and families to do family apostolate themselves by helping their neighbors and friends through good example and word. Families also can and should come together for mutual support. Pope John Paul II says a great deal about this, and says it very beautifully, in his apostolic exhortation «Familiaris Consortio.»

Q: What is the place of apostolic and spiritual formation, in light of the call to apostolate?

Shaw: Formation for apostolate is absolutely essential, and it can’t be separated from spiritual formation. One of the most valuable contributions being made today by the «new» lay groups like Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, the Neocatechumenate and the rest is their strong emphasis on the in-depth, ongoing formation of the laity.

This is doubly important because, aside fr
om what these groups are doing, almost all the effort in lay formation today is directed to lay ministry. Of course, lay ministers do need to be formed — and formed very, very well. But people who are serious about apostolate out in the secular world also need solid, continuing formation, and in many cases I’m afraid they aren’t getting it. Somehow this doesn’t seem to be a big priority in many parishes and Catholic schools.

There is another crucial — and commonly ignored — point about the formation of the laity which Pope John Paul makes in his apostolic exhortation «Christifideles Laici.» It is that lay formation is, or at least it should be, specifically vocational in nature.

«The fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful,» he says, «is an ever-clearer discovery of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live it out so as to fulfill one’s mission» [No. 58]. The Pope is talking about forming the laity for vocational discernment. The lay groups and movements seem to take that seriously. I wish more people did.

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