“Apostolate of the laity” vs “apostolate of the faithful”

One of Cardijn’s key frustrations in his work with the Vatican II Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate in 1961 was the confusion and conflation by Commission members of the concepts of “apostolate of the laity” and “apostolate of the faithful.”

For Cardijn, the “apostolate of the faithful” related to those tasks that lay people “carry out in religious life properly speaking (e.g. their participation in the Holy Sacrifice, in works of charity, etc.).”

In contrast, “apostolate of the laity” (or “lay apostolate”) related to the tasks that lay people “exercise in temporal life (in their profession, civic life, etc.).”

The consequence of confusing or conflating the two, Cardijn observed, was “fail(ure) to adequately highlight the necessity and importance of the proper and irreplaceable apostolate of lay people in temporal life.”

“This point seems to me, however, to be decisive in the world of the present and the future!” he insisted in a note for the Vatican II Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate.”

“The Hierarchy, clergy, religious cannot replace lay people, because it is the latter who ensure the building up of the world and must positively and Christianly resolve the problems that will decide the future of the Church: materialism, secularism, moral and social disorder, etc., which threaten the mass of the whole of humanity,” Cardijn told the Commission.

Vatican II on the apostolate of the laity

Despite his difficulties with the PCLA, Cardijn was ultimately successful. Just three years later, Vatican II largely adopted Cardijn’s conception of the specifically lay apostolate of lay people, as evidenced in Lumen Gentium §31, which states:

But the 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.

Gaudium et Spes §43 further confirmed this stating that “secular duties and activities belong properly although not exclusively to lay people.” 

So too in Ad Gentes §15, which emphasised that “it is up to (lay people) imbued with the spirit of Christ, to be a leaven working on the temporal order from within, to dispose it always in accordance with Christ.”

All of which is reaffirmed in Apostolicam Actuositatem §1.

Vatican II on the apostolate of the faithful

What then does Vatican II say of the “apostolate of the faithful”?

Here again Lumen Gentium §11 is illuminating:

It is through the sacraments and the exercise of the virtues that the sacred nature and organic structure of the priestly community is brought into operation. Incorporated in the Church through baptism, the faithful are destined by the baptismal character for the worship of the Christian religion; reborn as sons of God they must confess before men the faith which they have received from God through the Church. 

This too is close to Cardijn’s formulation cited above in relation to the tasks that Catholics carry out in religious life properly speaking, i.e. participation in the Mass and sacraments, works of charity, etc.

As LG §11 makes clear, these responsibilities flow from baptism and thus apply to all Catholics, priests or lay people.

Australian Plenary Council Proposals

What can we learn from this distinction that could be helpful for the Australian Plenary Council?

Looking at the draft proposals from the First Assembly, most deal primarily with the specifically religious engagement of Catholics, i.e. the “apostolate of the faithful.”

Secondly, even with respect to those proposals that do relate to the temporal sphere, including proposals relating to the family and fatherhood, or social issues such as slavery, trafficking or euthanasia as ecological conversion, no reference is made to the “apostolate of the laity” as understood by the Vatican II documents or by Cardijn.

Still, at least there is some raw material there to work with, as I’m sure Cardijn would acknowledge.

But just as he did with the Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate in 1961, he’d also ask:

Is it not possible to consecrate a whole chapter to the apostolate of the lay person in life, milieux, temporal institutions, chapters which would show methodically the primordial and decisive importance of this apostolate? Among other points:

  • the apostolic conception of temporal life;
  • the proper and irreplaceable character of the apostolate of lay people in this temporal life, its importance, its inseparability from religious life properly speaking, sacramental, liturgical, hierarchical; 
  • the formation and education to be given to lay people and to priests with respect to this conception and this apostolic action in  temporal life; 
  • the absolute necessity of forming young people who work outside and far from the family, uniting them and organising them in view of the apostolate at a level appropriate to the world of today and the future.”

What a great vision for the Plenary Council such a chapter would provide.

Stefan Gigacz


The apostolate of the laity vs the apostolate of the faithful (Cardijn @ Vatican 2)

Joseph Cardijn, Note 11 – Reflections on the three documents of the Commission (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)


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