Not until Vatican II was the vocation of the laity brought into sharp focus.  Two thousand years earlier, the early Church was made up of bishops and lay disciples, at first Jewish converts, followed by those from all walks of life. The timid and the weak came.  The deeply religious followed.  Paul of Tarsus embraced The Way only after being knocked to the ground.  Then he summoned others to serve as his emissaries. 

How did the apostolic Church grow from a few frightened men and women to large numbers? Wasn’t it a high crime to join a sect that refused to worship pagan gods? A community, ablaze with fervor and revealing the face of God, prompted others to ‘come in.’ Nothing could surpass being gathered round its bishop celebrating the Eucharist. 

These baptized laity took their vocation so seriously that, if it became necessary, they were ready and willing to die for their belief in Jesus Christ.  And many did. In the third century, Tertullian could say in his Apologeticus that “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church.” As the persecutions intensified, converts multiplied in number.  The crime of belief in Jesus Christ would likely be followed by cruel death, a phenomenon that is today being repeated throughout the world.

The Middle Ages and Beyond

By 315 AD, Christianity was the established religion of the Roman Empire.  In the next century, the clerical and monastic states of life began to organize, expand, and win high praise. Priests and monks separated themselves from ordinary lay people. Nuns were already cloistered. Whereas some monks entered a completely enclosed life, Benedictine monks educated sons of the rich but within the confines of the monastery. A sharp hierarchical division arose:  first bishops, clergy, then monks and friars who disparaged the material and ‘evil’ world, and finally, the laity.

Vatican II and Beyond

98 percent of the Catholic faith-tradition is composed of the lay faithful, defined most often as the People of the New Covenant, the People of God, or more precisely, the Body of Christ.  In the years leading up to Vatican II, lay movements such as the Grail began to spring up not only in Europe but here in this country.  They attracted young men and women to weekly gatherings that worshiped around the Eucharist. Vibrant social apostolates like those of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin welcomed these young people. 

It was not until the conciliar Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity and later, the 1987 World Synod on the Laity that the vocation of the laity was placed on equal footing with the clergy and those in consecrated life. Holiness, they affirmed, is a universal call. 

On the eve of Vatican II, Pope John XXIII assembled a group of prominent theologians:  Jesuits Henri De Lubac, Jean Daniélou, and Karl Rahner; Dominicans, Yves Congar and Edward Schillebeeckx, and diocesan priest, Josef Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI). They saw the need of rekindling the fiery zeal of the early lay Christians and to revitalize their apostolic roles.  

A Variety of Ministries

Standing shoulder to shoulder with others, lay people take their place in public life and in the social milieu. The roles in the Body of Christ are varied, and everyone has a specific ministry that must be fulfilled.  No substitutes will do.  

Lay faithful act as leaven in the masses bringing Gospel values directly to the world, their specific mission. According to 1 Corinthians, chapter 12, the ministry of the Body is done through the duties inherent in the work of each member.

A bishop builds up his Local Church; a mother and father build up their family as the Domestic Church. Secular institutes of men and women serve the world differently from the communities that follow the spirit of St. Bruno or Charles de Foucauld. A person in public service ministers differently from those in the social milieu.  No one was more aware of his ministry than Tim Russert who died in 2008.  America lost a dedicated and shrewd journalist, a devoted family man, and a devout, Catholic gentleman. 

The manner is ordinary, as John LaFarge, S.J. wrote years ago. What appears ordinary is far from ordinary however.  It is the “sacrament of the present moment,” a phrase used by Jean-Pierre Caussade, S.J.