Apostle, apostolate and lay apostolate

Apostle, apostolate and lay apostolate in the Instrumentum Laboris

The Second Vatican Council was the first ecumenical council to devote a document to the “apostolate of the laity” or the “lay apostolate.”

This was a revolutionary concept since the concept of a lay apostolate was long regarded as an oxymoron, since the bishops alone were the successors of Jesus’ original Apostles.

In fact, Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Vatican II Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, uses the term “apostolate” in this context 122 times.

In contrast, the IL only contains six references to the terms apostle/apostolate/apostolic and in four different senses:

  • Jesus’ Twelve Apostles
  • The bishops as successors of the Apostles
  • Religious with an “apostolic vocation”
  • The lay apostolate of Cardinal Joseph Cardijn.

While the reference to Cardijn’s conception of lay apostolate is positive, it also seems to downplay its significance, as is the lay apostolate is something exclusive to followers of Cardijn rather than something integral to the Church’s mission.

At the end of the day, the IL’s understanding of “apostolate” and “lay apostolate” is a pre-Vatican II understanding.


Nonetheless we recognise that the bishops as successors of the apostles and when teaching in communion with each other and with the successor of Peter, have a particular role in safeguarding and articulating Catholic faith and morals, and in governing the Church.


This spiritual diversity within the one Holy Catholic Church, was expressed in the preamble of the Vatican II decree on the Catholic Churches of Eastern Rite, Orientalium Ecclesiarum: “for in them [Eastern Churches], distinguished as they are for their venerable antiquity, there remains conspicuous the tradition that has been handed down from the Apostles through the Fathers and that forms part of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church”.


Since the Second Vatican Council, Church teaching has often read the signs of the times by employing the See-Judge-Act method associated with the lay apostolate of Cardinal Joseph Cardijn.


Bishops have a fundamental role in this ministry of service, a role shared particularly, though not exclusively, with priests and deacons. It is summed up in the Church’s tradition as one of teaching, sanctifying and governing. While it is the responsibility of the whole Church to maintain fidelity to the teaching of the Apostles and the unfolding appreciation of that faith across the centuries, it is through the communion of each local Church with its bishop, with the other local Churches scattered across the world, and with the Bishop of Rome, that the Church can fulfil its mission to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic.


The Plenary Council offers a unique opportunity to foster collaboration among all the local Churches and Eparchies, Religious congregations, spiritual and liturgical traditions, cultural and multilingual expressions, contemplative and apostolic vocations that exist within the Catholic community in Australia, together with the extensive education, health and welfare agencies of the Church, and to call forth all the gifts and charisms given by the Holy Spirit for the Church’s mission (1 Cor 12:7).


Let us remember that closed spaces grow musty and unhealthy. When the Apostles were tempted to let themselves be crippled by danger and threats, they joined in prayer to implore parrhesía: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29).

Stefan Gigacz



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