I have written before of my admiration for Pope Paul VI (1897-1978). With his recent canonization — one of only eight popes in the 2,000-year history of the Church — much attention has been given to him and his papal teachings. He was, of course, the pope who presided over the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council (1962-65). Many of the writings he authored both during and after Vatican II are considered “landmark” documents for the Church in the modern world.
To me, one of the greatest legacies of his pontificate (1963-78) is the attention he devoted to the role of the laity in the Church. Unfortunately, the lay faithful have too often been simply described as the “non-ordained.” True, the laity do not share in the Sacrament of Holy Orders but their significance and place in the Church cannot be defined by a negative.
We should remember that the “ordained” were members of the laity first, before they received Holy Orders and that, once baptized and confirmed, all the faithful share in the one priesthood of Christ, as Vatican II makes quite clear. While there is a true distinction in the Church between the “priesthood of the faithful” (via Baptism and Confirmation) and the “ministerial priesthood” (via Holy Orders) in terms of roles and functions, all the baptized faithful — laity and clergy alike — are equal members of the Church, the Body of Christ, with right and duty to participate in its mission to proclaim and live the Gospel. That understanding underlies so much of the teachings of Vatican II and Pope St. Paul VI that it is hard to miss as the Church continues to “unpack” and implement this central vision.
As Bishop and Shepherd of the Church of Trenton, I hope to give deeper attention in future writings and catechesis to the identity and role of the lay faithful in both the universal and local Church.
Here in our Diocese, we are so blessed to see the laity participate significantly in the governance of the Church at the highest levels and to benefit from their experience and wisdom: in the Curia, for example, five of the nine diocesan officials are lay women and men: the Chancellor, the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Administrative Officer, the Executive Director of Catholic Social Services and the Executive Director of Communications and Media/Diocesan Spokesperson; the Finance Council of the Diocese, whose consultation and consent regarding diocesan financial matters is mandated by Canon Law, is almost completely a lay body; the Diocesan Review Board which oversees issues of alleged misconduct by clergy, religious or lay employees within the Diocese — so much on our minds and in the media these days — is also almost completely a lay body composed of lawyers, psychologists and other experts; participants in the ongoing diocesan planning initiative “Faith in Our Future” are predominantly lay women and men from the parishes as are the members of the advisory parish pastoral and finance councils. And these are just a few examples of governance functions.
The teaching mission of the local Church has always been and continues to be lay-driven as are social service ministries to the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, the imprisoned and those cared for by Catholic health care professionals. The sanctifying mission of the Church, evidenced through Diocesan spiritual movements, parish prayer groups and Bible study, retreats and multiple parish ministries are the result of the dedication and commitment of lay women and men working closely with their pastors and parish priests.
The Church depends on the laity to fulfill its mission, not simply because of the shortage of ordained clergy but because it is their baptismal grace and responsibility as lay members of the Church to evangelize the world in which we live along with the ministry of good priests, deacons and religious. God has blessed us in them to carry on his work. May our efforts — laity and clergy together — continue to joyfully and effectively bear fruit in his name.