Lay people and communities in a synodal Church

Congratulations to the participants at the Synod on Synodality for a comprehensive, thought-provoking Synthesis of their month’s work at the First Assembly.

So far the document is only available in the original Italian but here is a quick-Google assisted translation into English.

As others have already commented, on a first reading it’s hard to identify anything particularly revolutionary in the Synod’s proposals. But it would be astonishing if this were not the case. After all Vatican II only adopted its first documents at the end of its second two-month long session in December 1963.

So there’s plenty of time left for the Second Assembly of the Synod to build on what is clearly a solid base of work.

The Church as a community

By way of introduction, let’s take a quick look at the most commonly used words in the Synthesis. See illustration above. As one might expect, the word “church” and its variants or equivalents (ecclesial) stand out.

Perhaps most striking, however, is the frequency of the terms “community” or “communities” of the faithful, terms that by my count appears 94 times in the Synthesis. This corresponds to the document’s emphasis on the Church as a community of the “baptised,” emphasising the egalitarian nature of the Church as People of God rather than its nature as a hierarchical communion.

By way of contrast, the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, only uses the terms “community/ies” twelve times in a document that is 50% longer.

Other words that stand out include “mission” (109 references), “formation” (52), “ministry” (and variants) (76), and “experience” (76), which are undoubtedly pointers to the “pastoral” (42) emphasis of the Synod. The focus on “women” (57) is also clear.

Interestingly, I can find only 36 references to the “world” in the Synthesis which is a significant drop from Lumen Gentium, which contains 79 references to the world (not counting the fact that another major constitution, Gaudium et Spes, was specifically devoted to the Church in the world.

This contrasts with the number of references to “mission.” Does this imply that the Synod’s understanding of mission is narrower than that of the Council? That’s certainly a question for further study.

Lay people in the Church and world

This last observation may also be linked to the fact there are only 29 references to “lay people” or “laity” in the Synthesis compared to 39 references in Lumen Gentium.

On the other hand, there are 70 references to “bishop,” 26 references to “priest,” 16 references to “deacon” and 11 to “ministers.”

Interestingly, we also find 23 references in the Synthesis to “consecrated” men and women compared to only seven in Lumen Gentium, a strong indication of the rise in visibility of the roles of women and men religious over recent decades and particularly during the pontificate of Pope Francis.

From a lay perspective, however, it’s hard to avoid the impression that there has been a drop in awareness of the importance of the role of lay people acting as lay people in the world (as opposed to merely being numbered among the “baptised”).

The role of lay people

Even so, the Synthesis does offer some important passages on the role of lay people, particularly in paragraph d) of Chapter 8 The Church is mission, which capture the essence of their role:

If mission is a grace that engages the whole Church, the lay faithful contribute in a vital way to realising it (i.e. the Church’s mission) in all environments and in the most ordinary situations of every day life. It is they above all who make the Church present and announce the Gospel in the culture of the digital environment, which has such a strong impact throughout the world, in youth cultures, in the world of work, economics and politics, the arts and of culture, scientific research, education and formation, in the care of the common home and, in particular, in participation in public life.

Although it fails to use the term, this vision is very much in line with the vision of “lay apostolate” promoted by Cardijn and the Specialised Catholic Action movements and embedded in the documents of Vatican II.

Moreover, the Synthesis does not hesitate to note that this work must be accompanied by an “explicit” sharing of the faith:

Wherever they are present, they are called to bear witness to Jesus Christ in daily life and to explicitly share the faith with others. In particular, young people, with their gifts and their fragilities, as they grow in friendship with Jesus, become apostles of the Gospel among their peers.

In its next paragraph e), the Synthesis also appropriately notes the growing role of lay people in various Christian communities;

The lay faithful are increasingly present and active also in service within Christian communities. Many of them organise and animate pastoral communities, serve as faith educators, theologians and trainers, spiritual animators and catechists, and participate in various parish and diocesan bodies. In many regions the life of Christian communities and the mission of the Church are centered on the figure of catechists. In addition, lay people serve in safeguarding and administration. Their contribution is indispensable for the mission of the Church; for this reason, care must be taken to acquire the necessary skills.

Paragraph f) further emphasises the need to value the gifts of the laity;

The charisms of the laity, in their variety, are gifts of the Holy Spirit to the Church which must be brought out, recognised and fully valued. In some situations it may happen that lay people are called to make up for the shortage of priests, with the risk that the strictly lay character of their apostolate is diminished. In other contexts, it may happen that priests do everything and the charisms and ministries of the laity are ignored or underused.

Here, however, it also adds a trenchant and timely warning:

There is also the danger, expressed by many at the Assembly, of “clericalising” the laity, creating a sort of lay elite that perpetuates inequalities and divisions among the People of God.

And it goes on in paragraph j) to highlight areas that require further study:

Vatican II and subsequent magisterium present the distinctive mission of the laity in terms of the sanctification of temporal or secular realities. However, in the concreteness of pastoral practice, at parish, diocesan and, recently, also universal level, tasks and ministries within the Church are increasingly entrusted to lay people. Theological reflection and canonical provisions must be reconciled with these important developments and strive to avoid dualisms that could compromise the perception of the unity of the Church’s mission.

Welcoming pastoral structures

Significantly, paragraph l) also emphasises the need for pastoral structures to welcome and foster “lay charisms and ministries” as part of the Church’s missionary dynamism:

Pastoral structures must be reorganised in order to help communities to bring out, recognise and animate lay charisms and ministries, inserting them into the missionary dynamism of the synodal Church. Under the guidance of their pastors, communities will be able to send and support those they have sent.0

What’s more these pastoral structures are to serve lay people in carrying out their own lay mission in the world:

They will therefore be conceived primarily at the service of the mission that the faithful carry out within society, in family and working life, without focusing exclusively on the activities that take place within them and on their organisational needs.

This is an important orientation.

The role of lay groups

Given this positive view of lay people and their role, it is somewhat surprising to find that the Synod’s consideration of lay groups and movements is included in Chapter 10 on Consecrated life and lay groups: a charismatic sign.

Why would these “lay groups” be lumped into a chapter that seems primarily concerned with the role of religious? Here, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that “lay groups” were almost an afterthought in the Synod’s consideration!

Of course, this is hardly surprising when, as I have documented previously, lay movements and groups, particularly international groups, were barely represented at the Synod. This remains a profound flaw but one that can and needs to be addressed at the Second Assembly.

Leaving this aside, however, here’s what the Synthesis actually says about those lay groups in paragraph c):

With equal gratitude, the People of God recognises the ferments of renewal present in communities that have a long history and in the flowering of new experiences of ecclesial aggregation. Lay associations, ecclesial movements and new communities are a precious sign of the maturation of the co-responsibility of all the baptised. Their value lies in the promotion of communion between different vocations, in the enthusiasm with which they announce the Gospel, in their proximity to those who experience economic or social marginalisation and in their commitment to promoting the common good. They are often models of synodal communion and participation in view of the mission.

After the last few decades in which the Church’s focus seemed to be primarily on the role of what came to be known as the “new ecclesial movements,” it is pleasing to note that the contributions of the communities and movements with a “long history” are thus recognised positively.

And in what is perhaps a sign of the Synod’s awareness that its understanding of the role of these groups and movements is still lacking, the Synthesis notes in paragraph (f) that there is a need to “delve deeper” in this area;

It is necessary to delve deeper into how consecrated life, lay associations, ecclesial movements and new communities can put their charisms at the service of communion and mission in the local Churches, contributing to progress towards holiness thanks to a presence that is prophetic.

Is this also an indication that the absence of lay movements may be remedied before the Second Assembly? We can only hope so!

In this context, another sign of hope can be found in paragraph i), which highlights the need to involve lay associations and movements in the synodal organisation of the Church:

At the level of both individual local Churches and groupings of Churches, the promotion of missionary synodality requires the institution and a more precise configuration of Consultations and Councils in which representatives of lay associations, ecclesial movements and new communities converge to promote organic relationships between these realities and the life of the local Churches.

Of particular importance here is the reference to “representatives of lay associations, ecclesial movements and new communities.” As I have previously noted myself, Vatican II itself recognised the need for representativity in Apostolicam Actuositatem §26. It is therefore encouraging to find this issued adverted to in the Synthesis.

In this sense, paragraph b) of Chapter 18 Participatory bodies is also relevant:

The correct recognition of the responsibility of lay people for the mission in the world cannot become the pretext for attributing the care of the Christian community to Bishops and priests alone.

Formation

Lastly, in another encouraging section, Chapter 14 Formation paragraph f) also notes the importance of formation for lay people in their roles in daily lay life:

A synodal formation has the aim of allowing the People of God to fully live their baptismal vocation, in the family, in the workplace, in the ecclesial, social and intellectual sphere, and to make each one capable of actively participating in the mission of the Church according to one’s own charisms and one’s vocation.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Synthesis does indeed offer a solid base for the Second Assembly to develop a profound vision of the role of lay people in the world and the role of lay groups and communities as part of the broader Church understood as a community of communities.

Given that this Assembly will take place in October 2024 – just one month before the 60th anniversary of the promulgation of Lumen Gentium, with its historic Chapter 4 on The Laity – we have reason to hope that the Synod will be able to develop a strong suite of proposals for the implementation of this vision.

But a lot of work remains to be done over the next eleven months!

Stefan Gigacz


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