Lay apostolate in various languages

It is interesting to compare the evolution of the use of the terms “lay apostolate” and “apostolate of the laity” in various languages over the past 200 years.

Google’s helpful Ngram tool provides an easy way to determine the use of terms in books published over that period.

Click on each image for a larger view and/or click on the link to the original Ngram.

English: Lay apostolate and apostolate of the laity

Let’s start with English:

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Use of both terms begins to rise after World War II, coinciding with the World Congresses on Lay Apostolate of 1951 and 1957, and peaks during Vatican II and then begins to fall precipitately after the Council.

French: Apostolat laïque, Apostolat laïc, and Apostolat des laïcs

In French, there are alternate spelling of “lay” as either “laïc” or “laïque.” We will track both as well as “Apostolat des laïcs.”

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Interestingly, the use of these terms in French begins much earlier, around the time of World War I. It does not decline nearly so much as in English and reaches a new peak around the year 2000. It then levels of more recently.

Spanish: Apostolado laico, Apostolado de los laicos

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These Spanish results are very interesting. The use of the terms began later, after World War II, corresponding with the rise of the JOC and other Specialised Catholic Action movements. It peaked at Vatican II but declined far less than in English and peaked again around 2000, following a more recent very precipitate decline.

Italian: Apostolato laico, Apostolato dei laici

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Interestingly, the term “apostolato laico” also emerges in Italian around the time of World War I. It rises sharply after World War, peaks at Vatican II, declines somewhat before peaking again around 2000. Finally, it drops right away in recent years.

German: Laien-apostolat, Laien apostolat, Apostolat der laien

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Very interestingly, we find that the term “laien-apostolat” has a very long history in Germany dating back to the 1820s, peaking around 1960, and no doubt associated with the rise of the German Catholic Congresses that began after 1848.

The alternative and more recent term “laienapostolat” rises after World War II and peaks at the Council as does “Apostolat der laien.”

Over the last ten years it appears to have almost fallen into disuse.

Latin: Laicorum apostolatus, Apostolatus laicorum

I guess there aren’t enough books published in Latin these days! So unfortunately there is no Ngram for these terms.

However, looking at the Vatican website,, we see that Apostolatus laicorum appears 33 times and Laicorum Apostolatus 13 times.

In any event, these terms are evidently linked to the Vatican II documents.


What to conclude from the above?

First, it is very clear that the lay apostolate is most closely associated with Vatican II in every language bar German, where it appears much earlier. And this Vatican II peak is clearly linked to the rise of the JOC, Specialised Catholic Action movements and the World Congresses on Lay Apostolate. In other words, great credit to Cardijn.

Second, the use of the term declines much more rapidly in English-speaking countries.

Third, its use in Latin i.e. Vatican documents, clearly dates from Vatican II.

Fourth, the use of the term appears to have declined in every language over the last 10-15 years, except in French, where the term has levelled off but continued in use.

Of course, these findings raise many more questions.

Why did the use of the term decline so rapidly in English-speaking countries? Why didn’t this happen in other countries until after 2000? What caused it to decline then? Why has there been an even more precipitous decline in several languages?

In any event, I believe there’s little doubt that in most countries, the rise of the concept of lay apostolate paralleled the rise of the JOC and its sister movements. No surprise then that it should reach its peak at Vatican II. The contradiction is that it has fallen away since.

To borrow the language of theologians, including Australian Jesuit Gerald O’Collins, who speak of “the reception of Vatican II,” we can say that Vatican II’s teaching on “lay apostolate” has not yet been received by the Church – not least by many theologians and bishops!

Stefan Gigacz




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