Francis: Lay people not ‘second class’ members of Catholic church

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has strikingly called for continued development of the role of lay people in the Catholic church, saying they cannot be considered “‘second class’ members” after priests and religious but instead participate in Christ’s priestly role through their own work in the world.

In a new letter to the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the pontiff states that the Second Vatican Council “brought, among its many fruits, a new way of looking at the vocation and the mission of lay people in the church and in the world.”

Reflecting particularly on the conciliar constitutions Lumen gentium and Gaudium et spes, Francis says those documents state that lay people “participate, in their own way, in the priestly, prophetic, and royal function of Christ himself.”

“The Council, therefore, does not look at lay people as if they were ‘second class’ members, at the service of the hierarchy and only executors of orders from on high,” states the pope. “But as disciples of Christ who, by force of their baptism and their nature inserted ‘in the world,’ are called to animate every space, every activity, every human relation according to the spirit of the Gospel.”

Lay people, he states, bring “the light, hope, [and] love received from Christ in those places that, otherwise, might remain unknown to the action of God and abandoned to the misery of the human condition.”

“No one can carry out better than them this essential work ‘to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city,’” the pope continues, quoting Gaudium et spes.

Francis writes on the role of lay people in a new letter addressed to Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, the head of the pontifical council, and released by the Vatican Thursday. The pontiff wrote the letter in advance of a study day the council is hosting for the 50th anniversary of the 1965 council document Apostolicam actuositatem, the decree on the apostolate of the laity.

That council document, the pope writes, indicated that the work of the church is meant to be undertaken by all.

“This document has recalled with force that … the proclamation of the Gospel is not reserved to some ‘mission professionals’ but should be the deep yearning of all lay faithful, called, in virtue of their baptism, not only to the Christian animation of temporal realities, but also to the explicit works of evangelization, proclamation and sanctification of peoples,” states Francis.

The pope also calls on the conference and the wider church to continue developing and working towards integrating the council’s teaching into the life of the church, using Pope John Paul II as an example.

“This was the pastoral stress that always animated St. John Paul II, as bishop and pope: Apply the Council, bring it to the daily life of every Christian community,” states Francis.

“I pray to the Lord ... so that your conference may be a stimulus to all -- pastors and lay faithful -- to have in their heart the same stress of living and carrying out the Council and bringing to the world the light of Christ,” he concludes.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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