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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward a doctorate in liturgical theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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“We wish therefore and prescribe, that all observe the law of the Church, and that at home or in the church they shall always wear the cassock, which is proper to the clergy. When they go out for duty or relaxation or on a journey, they may use a shorter [coat] which is to be black in color, and which reaches to the knees, so as to distinguish it from the dress of the laity. They should reject the more elegant and worldly styles of garments, which are found today. We enjoin upon our priests as a matter of strict precept that, both at home and abroad, and whether they are residing in their own diocese or outside of it, they shall wear the Roman collar.”
— Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884)

The Authentic Role of the Laity
published 19 January 2014 by Fr. David Friel

HIS PAST OCTOBER marked 50 years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Since that time, lay people have become involved in many facets of the life of the Church. They work as sacristans & decorators, they sit on pastoral councils & finance councils, they serve as lectors & cantors & extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. But if we look at those things as though they were the authentic role of the laity, we are very mistaken.

It’s not that all those developments are bad things—although some of them are questionable—but a collective look at them can easily lead to a misunderstanding of what the Council taught about the role of the laity. Just by looking at those things, it might appear that the Council called for a “clericalization” of the laity—turning lay men and women into mini bishops, priests, or deacons. But that would be entirely missing the point. (All this relates to another recent post, in which I consider the authentic notion of ministry.)

The first time I actually read the documents of Vatican II was when I was in the seminary. I discovered that what the Council actually said is rather different from what I had often been told growing up. What the Council actually envisioned is often rather different from what was implemented.

So what is the authentic role of the laity? Let’s let the Council speak for itself:

The laity “exercise the apostolate . . . by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. . . . They are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 2).

What the Church expects of the laity is significant, not something shallow. There is no mention in Apostolicam Actuositatem of running bake sales or pulling bingo numbers.

Too often, perhaps, we have thought of the layperson in terms of what he or she is not. The laity, for example, are not bishops or priests or deacons or ministers. But the focus of this decree from Vatican II is on who the layperson really is. The layman, as a baptized person, is expected to evangelize & sanctify the world; he is expected to penetrate & perfect the temporal order with the Gospel message. That is the role of the laity.

OWHERE DO WE SEE a finer example of this put into practice than in the example of St. John the Baptist, one of the greatest laymen who ever lived. What did he do? He went out in the streets and proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” He gathered people together and pointed out Christ to them. Notice that he didn’t wait to be prompted by a priest or bishop. Nor did he clericalize himself, pretending to be a priest or bishop. This is especially clear from the fact that he used a “baptism of repentance” that was a precursor to the sacramental Baptism of Jesus. John was not a minister at all, but he didn’t see that as some sort of limitation on his power to spread the Gospel. He was a committed layman who simply went about evangelizing and drawing people towards the Lord.

John the Baptist should be the patron saint of the laity. He knew who he was, and he knew who he was not. He did his job, and he did it with great love. Through his life and work, he brought many followers to Christ. Why did he do it? The Baptizer explains for himself: “The reason why I came baptizing with water was that He might be made known to Israel” (John 1:31). This is our task, too: that Jesus “might be made known” to all the world.

Those involved in the work of sacred music have a special avenue for making the Lord known. Liturgical musicians, though, should realize that they are not exempt from the layman’s vocation in the rest of their lives. In every age, the Church needs lay people—not lay people pretending to be priests, but lay people living out their own unique vocation to evangelize & sanctify the world in & through their daily affairs.

My role as a priest does not make me any more of an evangelizer than a layperson. What is different about my role as a priest is that, in addition to evangelizing & sanctifying the world, I am also charged with nourishing & supporting the laity as they go about the same work, the same apostolate.

Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council, how are we doing? Have we really understood and put into practice the specific vocation of the laity? In many places, it seems like the lofty vocation envisioned by the Fathers of the Council has been watered down to encouraging folks to participate in this or that parish committee.

What the Church expects is so much more beautiful! Catholics in commerce & industry should be leading the way in establishing fair business practices. Catholic leaders in government & in the courts & in the military should be leading us closer to a just and lasting peace. Catholic students should be learning their faith and telling their friends about the joy of following God’s will. Ordinary lay people should be speaking freely about their faith and encouraging their families and neighbors to return to the Church.

None of that is just your priest’s job or your bishop’s job or the pope’s job. That is all the awesome work entrusted to every baptized person.