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The evolving vocation of the laity in the Church

In the last two centuries, the Church experienced a growing concern about the role and vocation of the laity prompted, to a large extent, by damage done to its intellectual and operational structures by anti-Church government policies in most nations that were once thought of as being Catholic.

In this Year of the Laity, it is important to reflect on the history of the involvement of lay people in the public apostolate of the Church, as understanding the past gives us a greater understanding of where we are today.

The beginning may be pinpointed at 21 June 1773 with the abolition of Society of Jesus, followed by the expulsion of monks and the taking over their lands and monasteries, which not only minimised the number of religious orders in existence, but saw the confiscation of buildings, libraries and archives.

It also impeded the expression of their charitable and educational charism. In other words, it dismantled the elite troops of the Church.

In response, the Church began to rely on the educated Catholic bourgeoisie, organising it into Catholic congresses, fostering its social initiatives and encouraging the formation of Christian-inspired political parties.

This movement matured in 1930, when Pope Pius XI launched the worldwide movement Catholic Action, which he described as being for “the participation of the laity in the hierarchical apostolate of the Church” under the guidance of local bishops.

This prompted a number of theologians to reflect on the role of the laity in the Church in the light of faith and the circumstances of the times.

The common mentality of the period mostly saw the laity merely as a recipient of grace and an extension of the clergy. Up until 1983, even the Code of Canon Law described lay people as “baptised persons... not inducted by tonsure into the clerical state… who have the right to spiritual assistance... do not wear clerical dress [and] can belong to three kinds of associations erected or approved by the ordinary—pious unions, third orders and confraternities.”

That was about it.

However, a future saint, Father Josemaría Escriva, was conducting a retreat in the house of the Vicentian Fathers in Madrid on 2 October 1928, when he saw what he described as a light coming from God, calling him to devote his life and energies to reminding all baptised men and women that it is God’s will that they sanctify themselves and contribute to the building of the kingdom of God on earth, within the circumstances of their own lives.

He described it as a universal call to the laity to sanctity and a life in the apostolate. He broadened the understanding of sanctity at that time to include all the baptised, saying it was not an exclusive call to a few chosen people in consecrated life.

He also preached that the apostolate was not just a mandate from the hierarchy, but a vocation received by all Christians through baptism and confirmation.

Father Escriva said that because lay people engage themselves in professional endeavours, they are free to form their own opinions on many religious issues, to discuss them and act on their own initiative and responsibility.

As a young priest, Father Escriva understood that lay people spend their time at work and with their families, and that unless they sanctify themselves and help to sanctify others within the context of their own lives, they would not be able to fulfill God’s plan for them.

He was also aware that ordinary Christians need help in achieving such a lofty end, so he devoted his life to the realisation of that with the setting up of the Personal Prelature of Opus Dei.

He saw it as a light to lead the laity to transformation and a guide to walking the divine path, as it is expressed in the Apostolic Constitution of the Church by Vatican II.

“By virtue of their special vocation, it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs... that they may contribute to the sanctification of the world as from within, like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties... Since tasks and forms of life are many, but holiness is one... in all conditions and duties and circumstances of their life and through all these, they will sanctify themselves more and more... showing forth in that temporal service the love with which God has loved the world.”

However, a genuine Copernican revolution in the understanding of the role of the laity in the Church had been effectively put into practice by St. Josemaría a generation earlier.



Father Javier de Pedro