Rebalancing lay ministry and lay apostolate

Last month the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life gathered to reflect on the theme “Laypeople and the ministeriality of the synodal Church.”

On 22 April 2023, Pope Francis himself spoke to that theme in his address to participants.

Pope Francis

Noting that ministries in the Church have two origins, namely baptism and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, he insisted that “the ministeriality of the Church cannot be reduced merely to instituted ministries, but rather embraces a far vaster field.”

He continued:

Today too, as in the original communities, faced with particular pastoral needs, without resorting to the institution of ministries, pastors can entrust certain supplementary functions to laypeople, that is, temporary services, as in the case of the proclamation of the Word of the distribution of the Eucharist.

In addition, besides the instituted ministries, supplementary services, and other regularly entrusted offices, the laity can carry out a range of tasks, which express their participation in the prophetic and regal function of Christ: not only within the Church, but also in the environments where they are integrated. There are some who are supplementary, but there are others that come from the baptismal origin of the laity.

I think, first and foremost, of the demands linked to old and new forms of poverty, as well as migrants, who urgently require action of welcome and solidarity. In these areas of charity, many services can arise that take the form of genuine ministries. It is a broad space of commitment for those who wish to live in a practical way, in relation to others, the closeness of Jesus that they have often experienced first-hand. The ministry thus becomes not only a simple social commitment, but also something beautiful and personal, a true Christian witness.

He continued on to warn against potential abuses relating to ministries:

One thing we must remember, though: these ministries, services, offices, must never become self-referential. I get angry when I see lay ministers who – pardon the expression – are “puffed up” by this ministry. This is ministerial, but it is not Christian. They are pagan ministers, full of themselves, aren’t they? Beware of this: they must never become self-referential. Service is one-directional, it is not a round trip: that will never do.

And he went on to say something even more important:

Their (i.e. the ministries’) purpose transcends them, and that is is to introduce “Christian values in the social, political and economic sectors” (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 102). This is the mission entrusted above all to the laity, whose action cannot be limited to “tasks within the Church, without a real commitment to applying the Gospel to the transformation of society” (ibid.). At times you see laypeople and they seem to be default priests. Please: clean up this problem.

(That by the way is my corrected text of the Vatican’s English translation of the presumably Italian original.)

And what does Evangelii Gaudium §102 say?

Lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the people of God. The minority – ordained ministers – are at their service. There has been a growing awareness of the identity and mission of the laity in the Church. We can count on many lay persons, although still not nearly enough, who have a deeply-rooted sense of community and great fidelity to the tasks of charity, catechesis and the celebration of the faith. At the same time, a clear awareness of this responsibility of the laity, grounded in their baptism and confirmation, does not appear in the same way in all places. In some cases, it is because lay persons have not been given the formation needed to take on important responsibilities. In others, it is because in their particular Churches room has not been made for them to speak and to act, due to an excessive clericalism which keeps them away from decision-making. Even if many are now involved in the lay ministries, this involvement is not reflected in a greater penetration of Christian values in the social, political and economic sectors. It often remains tied to tasks within the Church, without a real commitment to applying the Gospel to the transformation of society. The formation of the laity and the evangelization of professional and intellectual life represent a significant pastoral challenge.

In other words, Pope Francis’ message is that ministry is not enough! And in no sense must it obscure the role of Christians penetrating the social, political and economic sectors with Christian values and “applying the Gospel to the transformation of society.”

And yet, for reasons I do not understand, even Pope Francis refrains from speaking of these tasks with the name that Vatican II gave them, namely the “apostolate of the laity” or the “lay apostolate.”

What does the Dicastery say about lay apostolate?

Nor does the Dicastery of Laity, Family and Life itself speak much of the lay apostolate.

I searched the English site for references to the term “lay apostolate”:

There are only 23 in total.

Nine references in fact come from national bishops’ conferences (Portugal, Spain 2, Philippines 2. Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Canada) and another refers to a meeting of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences.

One quotes Lumen Gentium §35 while another quotes Pope Benedict in 2013.

There’s only one from the Dicastery itself here while the rest are dead links.

More generally, a Google search for the word “apostolate” comes up with ten pages of references:

But many of these lack the specific sense of the “lay apostolate” as expressed in Lumen Gentium §31 and in Apostolicam Actuositatem §1:

What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature…. 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.

What does the Dicastery say about “ministry”?

In contrast, I also searched the English website of the Dicastery for the word “ministry”:

Google gives 29 pages of results, i.e. over 290 references.

For the expression “lay ministry”, however, Google only offers four results:

Nevertheless, most references to “ministry” are in fact references to what is in effect lay ministry.


In summary, there’s a huge imbalance between the Dicastery’s emphasis on “ministry” and its lack of attention to “apostolate” and particularly the “lay apostolate.”

And even if Pope Francis doesn’t use the term “lay apostolate,” it’s this imbalance that he seems concerned to correct.

Photo credit

Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life