Ministry in the Vatican II documents

In order to better understand the term “lay ministry” I think it is worthwhile to first look at how the word “ministry” and its derivatives are used in the Vatican II documents.

The term is used around 160 times in the English versions of the Vatican II documents published on the Vatican website.

I have copied those instances into a Google Doc which can be viewed here:

Let us look at a few significant instances drawn from the four Vatican II constitutions.

Dei Verbum

The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation contains six references to the term and naturally these are in relation to preaching the Word of God.

Thus, §12 refers to the Church’s “divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God.”

§19, 23 and 24 follow with references to ministry and ministers of the word.

And §25 emphasises that “all the clergy must hold fast to the Sacred Scriptures through diligent sacred reading and careful study, especially the priests of Christ and others, such as deacons and catechists who are legitimately active in the ministry of the word.”

It is clear from this that the “ministry of the word” is thus primarily associated with the ordained or ministerial priesthood. There is no reference here to “lay ministry.”

Lumen Gentium

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church naturally has a broader notion of ministry and makes use of the term some 28 times in English. §4 speaks of “works of ministry”.

§7 notes that “there is only one Spirit who, according to His own richness and the needs of the ministries, gives His different gifts for the welfare of the Church.” It speaks of the “gifts of ministries.”

It goes on to emphasise that “the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood” “differ from one another in essence and not only in degree” but “are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ.e

§12 notes that in addition to “sacraments and ministries” the Holy Spirit enriches the Church and “the faithful of every rank” with “virtues” and “gifts” which contribute to the renewal and building up of the Church.

§13 emphasises that there are “various ranks” in the Church, including particularly “the sacred ministry” which clearly refers to the ordained priesthood.

§18 in Chapter 3 on “The Hierarchical Structure of the Church” again insists on “a variety of ministries” particularly including “ministers who are endowed with the sacred power.”

§20 highlights various ministries in the Church tradition including the ministry of governing while §24 highlights the “ministry of the high priesthood” and §26 “the sacred ministry of the bishops,” who are also the “original ministers of confirmation.”

However, §24 also makes the point that these duties are “a true service, which in sacred literature is significantly called ‘diakonia’ or ministry.”

§28 notes that “various degrees of participation in this ministry” exist. “Thus the divinely established ecclesiastical ministry is exercised on different levels by those who from antiquity have been called bishops, priests and deacons.”

§29 re-emphasises that the “truly sacerdotal and pastoral ministry to the faithful and the infidel” is genuinely a “ministry of service.”

Chapter IV on “The Laity,” however, emphasises in §30 that pastors “also know that they were not ordained by Christ to take upon themselves alone the entire salvific mission of the Church toward the world.”

“On the contrary… it is their noble duty to shepherd the faithful and to recognize their ministries and charisms, so that all according to their proper roles may cooperate in this common undertaking with one mind.”

This is the first reference to ministry in relation to lay people. Moreover, the very next paragraph insists that “what specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature” contrasting this with the “particular vocation (of those) especially and professedly ordained to the sacred ministry.”

Indeed, the whole chapter appears to emphasise the contrast between the ordained ministry and the role of lay people with §32 highlighting the role of those “brothers… in the sacred ministry who by teaching, by sanctifying and by ruling with the authority of Christ feed the family of God so that the new commandment of charity may be fulfilled by all.”

And although §32 refers to the “diversity of graces, ministries and works,” strikingly, there is no reference anywhere in the chapter dealing with the laity of any specific form of “lay ministry.”

This is surely very significant.

Sacrosanctum Concilium

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy contains only five references to ministry, all in relation to “ministry of the word.”

Once again there is no mention of “lay ministry.” However, §28 does provide that “in liturgical celebrations each person, minister or layman, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy.”

§44 allows for lay people to be included in liturgy commissions. And there are two more references to “laity,” one in relation to receiving communion under both species (§55) and the other stating that lay people also should be encouraged to recite the divine office (§100).

Again, it is difficult to overlook the contrast in Sacrosanctum Concilium between the roles of ordained ministers and those of lay people.

Gaudium et Spes

The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Today only mentions “ministry” and its derivatives five times but mostly in the more general sense of service.

Thus, §9 notes that “man is becoming aware that it is his responsibility to guide aright the forces which he has unleashed and which can enslave him or minister to him.”

And §29 provides that “human institutions, both private and public, must labor to minister to the dignity and purpose of man.”

On a more spiritual plane, §38 provides that “the gifts of the Spirit are diverse.” It adds that “while He calls some to give clear witness to the desire for a heavenly home and to keep that desire green among the human family, He summons others to dedicate themselves to the earthly service of men and to make ready the material of the celestial realm by this ministry of theirs.” In other words, the intent again seems to be to contrast the roles of clergy and laity.

Finally, §88 makes mention of “all those dedicated to the ministry of God’s Word” in the life of the political community in a bid to emphasise that there needs to be a Christian way of approaching politics.


Summing up the use of the words “ministry” and “minister” in the four Vatican Constitutions, it is clear that in most instances the terms refer to

a) the ordained ministerial priesthood and roles pertaining to this and/or

b) serving the needs of the institutional Church.

Only in Lumen Gentium Chapter IV on The Laity and in Gaudium et Spes is there a broader sense of ministry as service to the broader community or world – and even here it more implied than explicit.

Unsurprisingly, the same pattern emerges in the other Vatican II decrees and declarations.

Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on the Lay Apostolate, which mentions ministry six times in contrast to apostolate 122 times, highlights the contrast between the role of clergy and laity, noting the “diversity of ministry but oneness of mission.”

Again, it’s worth mentioning §25 here, which provides that “special care should be taken to select priests who are capable of promoting particular forms of the apostolate of the laity and are properly trained” and that “those who are engaged in this ministry represent the hierarchy in their pastoral activity by virtue of the mission they receive from the hierarchy.” In other words, the role of the priestly ministry is to serve the apostolate of the laity.

Lay ministry

Now if this is what “ministry” means in the Vatican II documents, what does “lay ministry” mean? In the Vatican II sense, it can surely only mean lay participation or involvement in a set of tasks that the Council perceived as primarily belonging to the ordained ministry.

It is lay participation in a primarily clerical role – in contrast to the specifically but not exclusively lay role of transforming the world as set out in Lumen Gentium and Apostolicam Actuositatem in particular.

Stefan Gigacz


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