Lay apostolate vs ministry in Ad Gentes

I’ve posted previously about the difference between “ministry” and “lay apostolate” in the Vatican II documents.

But it’s in Ad Gentes, the Decree on Missionary Activity, that the contrast is made most clearly and explicitly.

Thus, §15, which forms part of Article 3 on “Forming Christian Communities,” reads:

This congregation of the faithful, endowed with the riches of its own nation’s culture, should be deeply rooted in the people. Let families flourish which are imbued with the spirit of the Gospel and let them be assisted by good schools; let associations and groups be organized by means of which the lay apostolate will be able to permeate the whole of society with the spirit of the Gospel. Lastly, let charity shine out between Catholics of different rites.

To obtain all these things, the most important and therefore worthy of special attention are the Christian laity: namely, those who have been incorporated into Christ and live in the world. For it is up to them, 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.

But it is not enough that the Christian people be present and be organized in a given nation, nor is it enough to carry out an apostolate by way of example. They are organized for this purpose, they are present for this, to announce Christ to their non – Christian fellow – citizens by word and example, and to aid them toward the full reception of Christ.

Now, in order to plant the Church and to make the Christian community grow, various ministries are needed, which are raised up by divine calling from the midst of the faithful congregation, and are to be carefully fostered and tended to by all. Among these are the offices of priests, of deacons, and of catechists, and Catholic action. Religious men and women likewise, by their prayers and by their active work, play an indispensable role in rooting and strengthening the Kingdom of Christ in souls, and in causing it to be spread.

In other words:

a) The Church needs “ministries” in order for the Christian community to grow. Significantly, these ministries include “catechists” and “Catholic Action,” which are mainly “lay ministries.”

b) Associations and groups are to be organised to foster the “lay apostolate” in view of “permeat(ing) the whole of society with the spirit of the Gospel.”

Could the text be any clearer that the role of “ministries” is to build up Church communities while “lay apostolate” is oriented towards the transformation of the world?

And in a recent series of articles on New Zealand Catholic, this is exactly what Emeritus Bishop Peter Cullinane argues:

The front line of the Church’s work is the Christian people whose lives are leaven in the dough of all the ordinary circumstances of ordinary life. The purpose of ministries within the Church is to provide nurture and formation for that mission. It is the mission that matters.

Surely, this is the way in which the Australian Plenary Council ought to be heading?


Ad Gentes (Vatican II)

Peter Cullinane, Mission, ministries and co-responsibility (NZ Catholic)



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