St. Peter's Square. Wikimedia Commons

Lay, that is Christian

The World Congress of the Catholic Laity in Rome. From Vatican II to the Jubilee of 2000. Baptism, the new creature, and witness to a change. Vocation and mission: the challenge of a reasonable faith.
Alberto Savorana

Promoted by the Pontifical Council for the Laity within the framework of the Jubilee Year, the Congress of the Catholic Laity on the theme, “Witnesses to Christ in the New Millennium,” from November 25th to 30th, brought together in Rome 550 people from every part of the world. Among the participants, in addition to the members and consultors of the dicastery, there were delegates from the Episcopal Conferences of more than 90 countries and the representatives of 114 associations, movements, and new communities. Also attending were cardinals, bishops, general and major superiors of religious congregations, chaplains of international Catholic organizations, and ecumenical observers. The congress followed in the wake of the great international gatherings that in the past fifty years have marked some of the milestones along the path of the laity. For five days, the participants–the great majority of whom were lay people with experience of involvement in the life of the Church and of Christian witness in the world–discussed the vocation and mission of the lay faithful, from the Second Vatican Council to today. The culmination of the event was the Jubilee with John Paul II on Sunday, November 26th. Without claiming to exhaust the complexity of this lengthy congress, we offer on these pages a synthesis of some of the talks and of the Pope’s message and homily, referring readers, for a complete panorama of the work of the congress, to the acts that will be published by the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

To Follow Jesus
Synthesis of the introductory address given by Cardinal James Francis Stafford, President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity (November 25th)

John Paul II has summed up the identity of the lay faithful in the Church and in the world as “defined by their newness in Christian life and distinguished by their secular character” which comes to them through Baptism (cf. CF 15-10). The lay faithful must therefore bring to their families and workplaces the fresh light of the morning of the first day of the week, the light of the Incarnation of the Son of God. More specifically, what morning light does the Incarnation shed on the “radical newness” of the baptized and on his secular character? In Dominum et Vivificantem, the Pope is clear: “The Incarnation of God the Son signifies the taking up into unity with God not only of human nature, but in this human nature, in a sense, of everything that is ‘flesh’: the whole of humanity, the entire visible and material world” (cf. 50). The Incarnate Word gives all of reality the form and logic of love. What will the baptized person’s sequela of Christ be like as it is put to the test in the present time? During our Congress, I suggest a reflection on at least these four areas:
A–War/peace. The violence of the twentieth century represents a terrible failure on the part of Christians–the paralysis of the Christian conscience in the face of evil. The Spirit of the Risen One calls the lay faithful to make their way through this changing world with the great ability of peacemakers. “Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you” (Jn 14:27). Lay confessors are those who are guided by God. God truly makes them experience the blessing of being bearers and builders of peace–peacemakers.

B–Molecular genetics and reproductive medicine. Ethical, theological, and legal questions concerning genetics have as a premise the meaning of humanum. The decisions made on these issues cannot ignore man as a person.

C–Globalization and the so-called new economy.

D–The relationship between man and woman. “One of the greatest challenges that the baptized must face is the uncertainty of relationships. It is difficult to be certain about relationships, even in the family” (Luigi Giussani). Mistrust pervades relationships between men and women, beginning with couples, within families. There is an unbreakable unity between the radical new creation that our Baptism brings about and the lived experience of the Christian life. Facing and dealing with these four questions listed above requires awareness and reflection. And not only that. None of this will be resolved by simple analysis. Nihilism will be defeated in the end not by analyses, but by the baptismal freshness that shapes your conscience.

From Baptism, a New Protagonist
Synthesis of the talk by Bishop Stanislaw Rylko, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity (November 25th)

The heart of Christianity is a Person. The Christian is a disciple of Christ. Christ has called him by name, and that call has changed his existence. He has acknowledged Christ–the Son of God made man for our salvation–as his only Lord and Master. Being Christians is a choice that implies a profound conversion of the heart (metanoia). Following Christ means adhering totally to Him and to His word. Paul writes, “…yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me” (Gal 2:20). The crucial moment is Baptism. The identity of the layperson springs from the ontological reality of this sacrament…. Baptism establishes the fundamental equality of all the members of the people of God. The baptized thus become “new creatures” (cf. 2 Cor 5:17) grafted onto Christ and given life by the Holy Spirit. Therefore all are called to witness in the world to the newness, beauty, and fascination of this life. The Church is an “organic communion,” in which there are diversities and complementarities of vocation, ministry, service, charism, and responsibility. Not oppositions and divisions, but reciprocity and coordination. Thanks to this diversity and complementarity, every member of the lay faithful is in relationship with the whole body and offers his own contribution to it. Vatican II thus definitively overcomes a unilateral identification of the Church with the hierarchy, which had prevailed for a long time in ecclesiology, and opens the way not only to rediscovery of the lay vocation, but also to a new style in the relationships between the various conditions of life in the Church. But to live the reality of the Church in this way, the gaze of faith is needed, and a living sensus Ecclesiae. In our time, also among Christians, there is a strong tendency to consider the Church as a social institution like many others, and this tendency is accompanied by the claim to be able to modify her structure in accordance with the criteria of the dominant culture. But the Church is a different reality, and her founding principles are not those of modern democracies…. For the lay faithful, the world is the place and the means for realization of one’s own vocation and mission. The dialogue between faith and culture implies the dialogue between faith and reason. In his Fides et ratio, John Paul II insistently urged the definitive overcoming of attitudes that place reason and faith in opposition to each other. John Paul II shows us the way: “A faith that does not become culture is a faith that is not fully accepted, not completely thought out, not faithfully lived.” In the period after the Council, within the sphere of Catholic associations, new phenomena have been manifested of astounding spiritual depth and having an extraordinarily incisive Christian presence in society. The most significant expression of this newness is the astonishing development of the so-called ecclesial movements. And today, in a spirit of communion and mutual consideration, traditional lay groups, new movements, and new communities make a generous contribution to the mission of the Church. We live today in a world which is strongly secularized, not to say de-Christianized and in many ways neo-pagan, which tries in numerous ways to neutralize our being Christians and our Christian presence. In today’s pluralistic society, faith is becoming more and more a strictly private fact, stripped of any social and cultural value; at the same time, in every way possible, models of a Godless life are offered and subtly imposed. Every explicit form of Christian presence is labeled as fundamentalism or proselytism. At the same time, among Christians themselves attitudes of indifference and ways of living the faith are spreading that are superficial, selective, and accommodating to the dominant mentality, with which many of them easily come to a compromise. The gap between faith and life grows wider and wider. Being Christian is often reduced to a mere biographical fact. We must return to the essence of the Christian event, that is to say, to life as a daily encounter with the Lord. Today, two thousand years after the birth of Christ, we Christians are still a minority. But this is not the problem. Christianity is not measured by the numbers of statistics. The real problem is not that of being in the minority, but the risk of becoming marginal, that is, irrelevant and useless to the world.

The Question of Method
Synthesis of Msgr. Angelo Scola’s talk, Rector of the Pontificia Università Lateranense (November 25th)

1. Vocation and mission of the lay faithful. “The field is the world.” This synthetic statement made by Matthew in his Gospel can help us outline the aspect of the Church’s mission at the dawn of the third millennium, by immediately placing the lay faithful in the foreground. The Church is essentially intertwined with the world because she occurs, above all, in the person. The essence of the Church is missionary because the Kingdom is growing, almost emerging from the soil of the world. Who is the Christian? This is the question that for two thousand years the world of men has never stopped asking the men of the Church! But how can it be answered except through the daily witness (martyrion) of those who live scattered in a capillary way in all spheres of human existence; that is, the lay faithful? The centrality of the lay faithful in the mission of the Church thus derives from the centrality of their belonging to the Church. Because their freedom has been called upon, through faith and baptism, the lay faithful move toward its fulfillment (holiness) in their daily communication (mission) of the surprising and gratuitous novelty of “being found in Christ.” The pairing of the terms vocation and mission offers a balanced practical solution to an age-old controversy: that concerning the relationship between charism and institution in the Church. A real distinction exists between charism and institution, within their original indistinguishability. As John Paul II has recalled time and time again, the institutional dimension and the charismatic dimension are co-essential to the life of the Church, because they express the call of her children (vocation) to make the total gift of themselves (mission) through a persuasive identification (charism) with the real and objective presence (Eucharist-institution) of Jesus Christ in the history of all men of all times.

2. A “mission” ecclesiology. The union of person and mission in Jesus Christ is so constitutive that the theologian Balthasar has repeatedly posited it as a fundamental axiom of Christology and, consequently, of Christian anthropology. The full content of the Christian mission is the event of Jesus Christ Himself. The event is transmitted physically from person to person. Uninterruptedly, the event of Jesus Christ has come from His Mother and a handful of friends, the humble fishermen of Galilee, all the way to us.

3. Mission as the method of Christian life. The Incarnation–and the logic that derives from it–therefore reveals itself as the method the Holy Trinity chose to communicate Itself. Incarnation is the method of mission! The Christian is called to be, in his very being and in all his actions, in every sphere of human existence, a sacrament of the event of Jesus Christ. An event can be grasped only through another event. Perhaps the most radical objection raised today to Jesus Christ, not only by non-believers but often found also among the baptized, is the same one that, beginning with the Enlightenment and Romanticism, always crops up like a multiform Protheus. It denies to Jesus Christ the characteristic of an event, reducing His life to a mere fact in the past. By canceling out His contemporaneity, it renders this fact vain, and at the most relegates Him to the evanescent form of a myth or even a fable. At best it acknowledges that Christ was a great Man, perhaps the greatest of all mankind, who can inspire one’s own life, but it does not admit that He can be living and present here and now. An event can be communicated only through another event. A living reality, in fact, in order to remain such in space and time, needs another living reality, the vehicle of a reality that happens here and now for my freedom.

4. Mission, gift, and freedom. A mission ecclesiology testifies that the Church must live only out of the event of her Lord in order to be convincing as she communicates Him to the world. Not everything lies within her power! Rather, her power is that of obedience to the event of Jesus Christ. One sole condition is demanded of Christians: that they never take their eyes off Jesus Christ, the only Way (method) to the Truth and the Life. Here is the great event: a fact of the past, the life, death, and resurrection of the Nazarene, becomes an event of today by virtue of its objective memory in the sacrament, an ever-renewed gift from Jesus Christ to my freedom. The miracle of the Church is this!

What Laity for the Third Millennium
Synthesis of the talk by Guzman Carriquiry, Undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity (November 30th)

Speaking of the lay faithful means speaking of the baptized, of Christians, who are called to live the newness of Christ in the most diverse and concrete circumstances of existence and co-existence, to witness to the glory of Christ in the midst of men. Reality demonstrates to us that we Catholic lay faithful are part of a “little flock” (Lk 12:32) or, as Paul VI said, of a “race sui generis” among nations. So let us shun the vainglory of including ourselves among the “few but good,” the “pure and unchanging,” the consistent and committed. We are, to be sure, ecclesia, a community of the chosen and called, convoked and gathered together by the Spirit of God, poor sinners who have been reconciled only through His merciful grace. Our identity as Christians, at the dawn of the third millennium, undergoes the capillary and powerful influence of a secular culture that is increasingly distant from Catholic tradition, which tends to compress and reformulate the Christian confession and experience in accordance with its own logic and interests. For this reason, we cannot avoid being on our guard and vigilant in the face of the three forms of reduction which loom over Christianity. One is reduction to an irrational religious preference, confined among the many interchangeable “spiritual” offerings that crowd the shop windows of this consumer and “showy” society and is expressed both in the “light” form of sentimentality and in the rigid reactionary forms of pietism and fundamentalism. Another is an exclusively moralistic reduction, as though Christianity were only a symbol of compassion for one’s own kind, an edifying social volunteerism, a mere ethical input with “holding power” useful for a social texture that is falling apart under the blows of love of money, of exclusion and violence, and of impoverishment of the human factor. And finally, there is the clergy-like reduction, concerned mainly with power, in which the programs and styles of the clergy are modeled by the pressure of the media. Lay faithful, that is, Christians above all, christifideles, faithful to Christ! This is the major qualification of our dignity and responsibility, of how we welcome and confess, share and celebrate, nourish and communicate the gift of faith, which has been given to us gratuitously. The “heart” of man–his reason and his affectivity–is made for truth, for justice, for happiness, for beauty. These are the desires that are part and parcel of the nature of the person; they cannot be constricted or remain unmet. Now, it has been given to us to experience and to believe that only Jesus Christ can give a more than satisfactory answer to these desires for truth, happiness, and justice, and the certain promise of their full satisfaction. The profound roots of the physiognomy of the Christian–yesterday, today, and always–lie in the event of Christ who, in the sacrament of the Christian community, gives Himself up and proposes Himself to the freedom of the person, calling him to decision throughout his whole life. We can expect from the lay faithful of the third millennium a real human witness of persons committed with their very lives, who approach the human condition with realism and passion, who affirm their freedom with truth and responsibility, impassioned in their approach to life and the destiny of others, because they are filled with gratitude, joyousness, and hope for the gift of new life which they experience and share. Mission, in effect, is nothing but communicating the gift of the encounter with Christ that has given a new taste, a new freedom, happiness, and humanity to our life.

Holiness and Testimony
A synthesis of Cardinal Bernard Law’s talk on November 30th

The Archbishop of Boston has the impression that the “sleeping giant” of the laity has begun to awaken: “My hope for the Church at the beginning of the third millennium is largely based on what God is doing to help the Church understand more profoundly her nature and the role of the lay faithful.” Indeed, Cardinal Law finds precisely “in the Council’s stress on the lay faithful, so strongly reiterated by the teaching and life of John Paul II, hope for the future.” The Cardinal, recalling what, according to the teachings of the Council, are “the two poles of the lay vocation, the call to holiness and the call to witness to Christ specifically in the world,” spoke of how this vocation is realized by referring to his own experience in the Archdiocese of Boston, where lay people hold positions of responsibility in many diocesan offices, in the Catholic schools, and in the sphere of catechesis. At the same time, as was reiterated often during the congress and echoing the words of the Pope’s message, the Cardinal warned against the “temptation that the involvement of lay faithful in the Church be reduced to her internal life.” An ever greater “temptation”–he affirmed–is the separation between faith and life: “In a culture that is increasingly hostile to faith, characterized by a skepticism about truth and by moral relativism, allowing the truth of faith to permeate all of life is difficult and requires great courage. In particular, Catholic universities must be more effective in stimulating students to approach culture from the perspective of faith.” “Let’s hope that the lay faithful of the third millennium,” he concluded, “may find new and effective ways of translating the social doctrine of the Church into the worlds of politics, the economy, and culture. Our communion with Christ through Baptism and our communion with each other as a consequence of our communion with Him are the truth that can free us from the divisions and polarities that are so destructive to human society.”

The Message from John Paul II
Passages from the message the Pope sent to the participants in the Congress, read by Cardinal Angelo Sodano (November 25th)

The last decades of the 20th century saw the seeds of an encouraging spiritual springtime blossoming in the Church. How, for example, could we not be grateful to God for the clearer awareness that the lay faithful–men and women–have acquired of their own dignity as baptized persons who have become a “new creation;” of their own Christian vocation; of the need to grow in the knowledge and experience of faith as christifideles, that is, as true disciples of the Lord; and of their own belonging to the Church? At the same time, however, in a climate of widespread secularism, many believers are tempted to leave the Church, and unfortunately they let themselves be infected with indifference or make compromises with the dominant culture. Many of the faithful, too, have selective and critical attitudes to the Church’s Magisterium. The vocation and mission of the lay faithful can be understood only in the light of a renewed awareness of the Church, which “is in the nature of sacrament–a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men” (Lumen gentium, n. 1), and of one’s personal duty to adhere more firmly to her. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. She is the People of God who, made one by the same faith, hope, and charity, journey through history to their definitive homeland in heaven. And we, as the baptized, are living members of this marvelous and fascinating organism, nourished by the sacramental, hierarchical and charismatic gifts that are coessential to it. That is why, today more than ever, it is necessary for Christians, enlightened and guided by faith, to know the Church as she is in all her beauty and holiness, so that they can listen to her and love her as their mother. At the threshold of the third millennium, God calls believers, especially lay people, to a renewed missionary zeal. Mission is not an appendix to the Christian vocation. Christ should be proclaimed by word and the witness of life and, before being a strategic and organized effort, the apostolate involves the grateful and joyful communication to all of the gift of meeting Christ. An evangelically mature person, or community, is motivated by intense missionary enthusiasm, which spurs him to bear witness to Christ in every circumstance and situation, in every social, cultural, and political context. Dear lay faithful, men and women, you are also called to accept willingly and generously your share of responsibility for the life of the ecclesial communities to which you belong. The image of your parishes, called to be welcoming and missionary, depends on you. No baptized person can be idle... However, the risk of distorting the role of the lay person by excessive withdrawal into intra-ecclesial needs should be avoided. Therefore, the identity both of the lay faithful and of the ordained minister must be respected. Today we can speak of a “new era of group endeavors of the lay faithful” (ibid., n. 29). It is one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council. Along with the associations with a long and praiseworthy tradition, we observe a vigorous and diversified flourishing of ecclesial movements and new communities. This gift of the Holy Spirit is another sign of how God always finds appropriate and timely responses to the challenges posed to faith and to the Church in every historical era. Here too we must thank the associations, movements, and ecclesial groups for their work in Christian formation and for the missionary enthusiasm they continue to bring to the Church. It is above all due to the courageous witness of the lay faithful, often to the point of martyrdom, that faith was not erased from the lives of entire peoples. Experience shows that the blood of martyrs becomes the seed of confessors, and we Christians are deeply indebted to these “‘unknown soldiers’ of God’s great cause” (Tertio millennio adveniente, n. 37).