Pope Benedict on the Laity in the Pastoral Life of the Church

Andrew Rabel, who recently interviewed Australian Ambassador to the Holy See Mr Tim Fischer (see below), also alerted me a few weeks ago to the Holy Father’s opening speech at the Pastoral Convention of the Diocese of Rome. This speech has only just appeared in English in its entirety on the Vatican website, and I can report that it is a very significant address – addressing issues that are of great signficance for the Church at large, not only in Rome, including the nature and intent of the Second Vatican Council, the authentic doctrine of the Church, and his proposed strategy for re-engaging many lapsed or inactive Catholics in the life of the Church.

1) The Nature and Intent of the Second Vatican Council

As I was able to explain in my Discourse to the Roman Curia on 22 December 2005, an interpretative current, claiming to refer to a presumed “spirit of the Council”, sought to establish a discontinuity and even to distinguish between the Church before and the Church after the Council, at times even crossing the very boundaries that exist objectively between the hierarchical ministry and the responsibilities of the lay faithful in the Church. The notion of “People of God”, in particular was interpreted by some, in accordance with a purely sociological vision, with an almost exclusively horizontal bias that excluded the vertical reference to God. This position was in direct contrast with the word and spirit of the Council which did not desire a rupture, another Church, but rather a true and deep renewal in the continuity of the one subject Church which grows in time and develops but always remains identical, the one subject of the People of God on pilgrimage.

2) The Nature and Doctrine of the Church

Here the Pope seemed to have as his aim the reconciliation of two previously “opposed” understandings of the Church: the Church as the “Body of Christ” (as outlined in Pius XII’s Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi) and the newer ecclesiology (which in some senses even Ratzinger himself may be credited with initiating in his pre-Vatican II doctoral work “Das neue Volk Gottes”) of the Church as the “People of God”.

The concept of “People of God” came into being and was developed in the Old Testament… The intention of this particular choice is to reach, through a few, many people and through them to reach all. In other words the intention of God’s specific choice is universality. Through this People, God enters into the reality of history. And this openness to universality is achieved in the Cross and in Christ’s Resurrection. In the Cross, St Paul says, Christ broke down the wall of separation. In giving us his Body, he reunites us in this Body of his to make us one. In the communion of the “Body of Christ” we all become one people, the People of God… Thus we see that the two concepts “People of God” and “Body of Christ” complete each other and together form the New Testament concept of Church. And whereas “People of God” expresses the continuity of the Church’s history, “Body of Christ” expresses the universality inaugurated in the Cross and in the Lord’s Resurrection. For us Christians, therefore, “Body of Christ” is not only an image, but a true concept, because Christ makes us the gift of his real Body, not only an image of it… Thus the concept “People of God” and “Body of Christ” complete one another: in Christ we really become the People of God. “People of God” therefore means “all”, from the Pope to the most recently baptized child.

3) Benedict’s proposed strategy for re-engaging many lapsed or inactive Catholics in the life of the Church

Now we come to what I think is the really important aspect of this speech: Benedict XVI perceives a problem in the way in which the Council’s teaching has been (or rather has not been) received:

It should be recognized that the reawakening of spiritual and pastoral energies that has been happening in recent years [ie. since the Council] has not always produced the desired growth and development… [T]he period of fervour and initiative has given way to a time of weakening commitment, a situation of weariness, at times almost a stalemate, and even resistance and contradiction between the conciliar doctrine and various concepts formulated in the name of the Council, but in fact opposed to its spirit and guidelines… This fact tells us that the luminous pages which the Council dedicated to the laity were not yet sufficiently adapted to or impressed on the minds of Catholics or in pastoral procedures. On the one hand there is still a tendency to identify the Church unilaterally with the hierarchy, forgetting the common responsibility, the common mission of the People of God, which, in Christ we all share. On the other, the tendency still persists to identify the People of God unilaterally, as I have already said, in accordance with a merely sociological or political concept, forgetting the newness and specificity of that people, which becomes a people solely through communion with Christ… To what extent is the pastoral co-responsibilityof all, and particularly of the laity, recognized and encouraged?… Too many of the baptized do not feel part of the ecclesial community and live on its margins [ie. the oft-quoted 85% of Australian Catholics], only coming to parishes in certain circumstances to receive religious services. Compared to the number of inhabitants in each parish, the lay people who are ready to work in the various apostolic fields, although they profess to be Catholic, are still few and far between. Of course, social and cultural difficulties abound but faithful to the Lord’s mandate, we cannot resign ourselves to preserving what exists.

Well, that’s calling a spade a spade if every I heard it. But note his emphasis on the “co-responsibility” of laity and clergy in addressing this problem. He elaborates further on (and I think that this is the really possibly explosive point of his whole address):

[T]he co-responsibility of all the members of the People of God in their entirety [must be] gradually promoted, with respect for vocations and for the respective roles of the consecrated and of lay people. This demands a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as “collaborators” of the clergy but truly recognized as “co-responsible“, for the Church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity.

So, what to do about this? He suggests the following program which I can only “dot-point” here, but which basically – apart from the new and unlooked for emphasis on “co-responsibility” – accords with what we have been saying here on SCE all along (it always makes me feel good when my opinions receive papal approval!):

1) “In the first place we must renew our efforts for a formation which is more attentive and focused on the vision of the Church”

2) “Nurture the spiritual and apostolic growth of those who are already committed to working hard in the parishes” by teaching them “to listen prayerfully to the word of God through the practice of lectio divina”

3) “We must be ever more aware” of “Communion and the unity of the Church that are born of the Eucharist”. “Since the unity of the Church is born from the encounter with the Lord, the great care given to adoration and celebration of the Eucharist, enabling those who participate in it to experience the beauty of Christ’s mystery is no secondary matter.”

4) “The spiritual and apostolic growth of the community then leads to its extension through a convinced missionary action.” [Surprisingly here, he advocates a strong “small group” ministry especially in large parishes – very “protestant”!]

5) “Lastly, the witness of charity that unites hearts and opens them to ecclesial belonging should not be forgotten.”

Well. That should give us enough to be getting on with for the time being. I must say, that as a newly confirmed layman (having had the door closed on my once-dreamed-of vocation to the diaconate) this emphasis on the “co-responsibility” of the laity speaks loudly to me!

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2 Responses to Pope Benedict on the Laity in the Pastoral Life of the Church

  1. Clara says:

    I can just use this opportunity to plug Called and Gifted which does exactly what his holiness encourages – for the laity to be co-responsible for the mission of the Church!

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