A representative Vatican body for laity

As the Synthesis from the First Assembly of the Synod on Synodality noted, the promotion of missionary synodality requires “the establishment and configuration of councils and advisory bodies at which representatives of lay associations and ecclesial movements and new communities can meet in order to foster enduring relationships between their life and work and that of the local churches.” (Synthesis Chapter 10, §i)

What might such a configuration look like?

As it happens, leaders and chaplains of several lay apostolate movements, including Joseph Cardijn, sketched out their own answer to this question at a July 1964 meeting to prepare for the Third Session of the Second Vatican Council, which was to discuss the Schema on the Church.

Those movements, also known as Specialised Catholic Action movements, were: the International Young Christian Workers [IYCW-JOCI], International Young Christian Students [IYCS-JECI], International Movement of Catholic Agricultural and Rural Youth [MIJARC], International Commission Hearts-Vaillants-Mes-Vaillantes [MIDADE], International Movement of Apostolate of Independent Social Milieus [MIAMSI], International Federation of Catholic Rural Adult Movements [FIMARC], and the World Movement of Christian Workers [MCW-MMTC].

They presented their vision for a partnership model of the relationship between lay movements and the institutional Church in a paper entitled “For a permanent organisation of the laity at the Holy See.”

Sixty years later, the model proposed those movement leaders and chaplains still offers lessons for the development of a synodal Church. Let’s take a look at it.

Issues of concern

The paper opened by listing the three major issues that the movements wished to highlight.

The first of these was “the discovery and enhancement of the proper mission and specific tasks of the laity in the Church today,” a phrase that strongly echoed Cardijn’s own position in the Vatican II Preparatory Commission and Conciliar Commissions on Lay Apostolate in which he emphasised “the specifically lay apostolate of lay people.” This lay apostolate, Cardijn and the movements contrasted with the “hierarchical apostolate” of bishops and priests.

The second issue the movements highlighted was “the vital necessity” that they had identified “to ensure a direct and permanent presence of the laity with the Hierarchy and in particular with the Holy Father.” This concern similarly echoed a longstanding dissatisfaction on the part of the movements with the lack of understanding of their work by Vatican officials.

Following on from this, the third issue the movements wished to prioritise was the establishment of “institutional forms” in the Church that would be progressively implemented in order “to achieve an effective and efficient dialogue” between clergy and laity. Hence, the need for a permanent Vatican structure to facilitate this.

A representative Vatican body for laity

Concretising their proposal, the movements called for the establishment of a new, permanent, post-conciliar Vatican body based on “representation of the laity at the Holy See.”

Now, prior to the Council, there had been a pre-existing “Permanent Committee for International Lay Apostolate Congresses” or COPECIAL, which had been established by Pope Pius XII after the First World Congress on Lay Apostolate in Rome in 1951. This was a structure in which all members were appointed by the Vatican.

The movements were clearly dissatisfied with this structure. Hence, the movements’ diplomatic insistence on a clean break with the past such that that the new post-conciliar body should “not depend on the past which would impose its own demands”!

Moreover, it was particularly important to get the new Vatican structure right since, as the movement leaders and chaplains were very aware, the new entity would become the model for future regional, national and diocesan structures.

A precise objective

As a result, the paper pays particular attention to setting out the objective of the proposed new laity structure. Here it is perhaps worth quoting the relevant paragraphs in their entirety:

As a community of Christians and also a hierarchical institution, the Church is incarnate in the world to be a leaven of redemption and sanctification. In this global mission, the action of the laity and that of the clergy are inseparable but there are specific tasks which fall more directly to both. The evolution of the world, moreover, tends to considerably amplify the extent and decisive importance for the Church of specifically secular tasks and therefore of the activities and institutions of the laity. This results in the need for a suitable organisation for the latter. This is what the different apostolate movements in different areas strive to accomplish.

It appears that the development of the laity requires that a progressively greater place be given to it in the institutional frameworks of the Church.

Such a presence of the laity at the Holy See will also powerfully help all Christians to become aware of their Catholic character, in a world which is becoming more and more universal.

The concern here of the movement leaders and chaplains was to ensure that the new structure would take on a different form from that of other more hierarchical Vatican bodies.

Instead, they proposed that the new structure should be based on the “specifically secular tasks” of the lay movements and their activities and the need for an “institutional framework” in the Church to support the needs of these movements.

Rather than a regulatory body, the movement leaders and chaplains advocated for a Vatican structure that would assist them in their work.


In particular, the movements proposed a new entity that would facilitate dialogue not only among the movements themselves but also with the institutional Church:

Through the institution that is being studied, an organic dialogue would be established between the hierarchy of the Church and organised laity. This dialogue could include the following two aspects:

– authorised representatives of the laity would keep the pope, his collaborators and the central institutions of the Church informed in a natural way with respect to the evolution of the world, the problems and aspirations of Christians and non-Christians, the action of the laity in the world and in the Church with all its difficulties and its achievements.

– at the same time, thanks to these direct contacts, in a spirit of faith, the representatives of the laity would increasingly assimilate the thought and fundamental orientations of the pastors of the Church.

As a result of such an institutionalised dialogue, the conditions would develop for an official and harmonious participation of the laity in both religious and secular institutions which concern them in the development of concrete orientations in the areas relating to the action of the laity.

Particularly noteworthy here is the emphasis on dialogue facilitating greater understanding of the Church’s teaching in contrast to traditional approaches based on submission to the authority of its teaching.

A representative Council of the Laity

The recommendation therefore was for the establishment of a “Council of the Laity” which would have a secretariat of its own and act as a “centre of dialogue” in line with the above objective.

This in turn necessitated the presence of representatives both of the Holy See itself and of the College of Bishops. Contacts with other Roman Congregations would also need to be developed.

Above all, in order to ensure that the new structure would operate as a Council OF the Laity, an “essential requirement” would be to ensure its “representativity,” particularly among the “organised apostolate,” in other words, among the lay movements:

The composition of this Council must be, as far as possible, representative of the laity of the entire Church. However, the current nature of the evolution of the world seems to us to require that a priority place be given in this Council to the organised apostolate.

This representativity would be achieved as follows:

a) Representation of the Hierarchy

b) Representation of the different forms of apostolate:

– by environments (children, young people and adults):

. rural

. worker

. independent

. student

– other forms of Catholic action and apostolate

– movements of spirituality and piety

c) Representation of the Conference of ICOs.

In concluding, the movement leaders and chaplains also insisted on the need for consultation with national and international leaders from the various continents regarding the design and operation of the proposed new Council of the Laity.


If we now look at Lumen Gentium, as adopted in November 1964, we can see that the Council Fathers did in fact define the role of lay people in terms similar to those that the movement leaders and chaplains had sought.

Thus, in Lumen Gentium §31 we find:

What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature… [T]he laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.

And the following year on 18 November 1965, the Council adopted its Decree on Lay Apostolate, Apostolicam Actuositatem §26, which did indeed call for Councils of the Laity at every level of the Church from parish to international level:

In dioceses, insofar as possible, there should be councils which assist the apostolic work of the Church either in the field of evangelisation and sanctification or in the charitable, social, or other spheres, and here it is fitting that the clergy and Religious should cooperate with the laity. While preserving the proper character and autonomy of each organization, these councils will be able to promote the mutual coordination of various lay associations and enterprises.

Councils of this type should be established as far as possible also on the parochial, interparochial, and interdiocesan level as well as in the national or international sphere.

A special secretariat, moreover, should be established at the Holy See for the service and promotion of the lay apostolate. It can serve as a well-equipped center for communicating information about the various apostolic programs of the laity, promoting research into modern problems arising in this field, and assisting the hierarchy and laity in their apostolic works with its advice. The various movements and projects of the apostolate of the laity throughout the world should also be represented in this secretariat, and here clergy and Religious also are to cooperate with the laity.

We can conclude therefore that the movement leaders and chaplains were largely successful with the proposals they set out in their paper calling for “For a permanent organisation of the laity at the Holy See.”

Now perhaps it’s time to evaluate how those Vatican II orientations were implemented – or not!

Stefan Gigacz


For a permanent organisation of the laity at the Holy See