The lay vocation: Serving the world beyond the Church

Here’s another good paragraph in §42 of the Instrumentum Laboris under the heading “Contributions of the Church to society”:

Of course, most lay Catholics lead and serve in the world beyond the Church, in politics, industry, trades, university, journalism, the arts and sciences, or other areas of social, legal and cultural life. The Plenary Council may promote further engagement by lay Catholics in leadership and service throughout our community.

It’s an explicit recognition that the primary vocation of lay people – their specifically lay apostolate – is in fact in the community and the world.

Unfortunately, once again it appears as an afterthought, tacked on to the end of §41-42, which deal mostly with “the Church’s ministries and services, particularly those in health, aged care, community services and education.” These paragraphs read:

41. Amidst many challenges, the Church makes a unique contribution to Australian society through its ministries and services, particularly those in health, aged care, community services and education. The commitment and service of Catholic religious men and women within these sectors is to be commended. Catholic schools make a significant impact as they educate more than 750,000 students. As “places of evangelisation, formation and enculturation”, they allow students and teachers to explore and experience the Catholic faith tradition. Catholic education offices have developed new curricula and pedagogies in religious education that relate to the contemporary student population of our schools. For many children, the first time they hear about God in a substantial way—or experience prayer and liturgy—is through attendance at a Catholic school.

42. Catholic hospitals and aged care facilities offer care and healing to more than two million people. Pastoral care teams minister to the spiritual needs of the sick and their families. The St Vincent de Paul Society and other Catholic social service agencies work with over a million Australians each year. Catholic Mission and Caritas, among others, promote outreach to communities internationally. The Church is also aware of the religious diversity of those who serve and who are served in the Church’s name. Many staff do not personally identify with the Church yet share a passion for and contribute greatly to their specific ministry.

This is surely a very institutional conception of the Church’s contribution to society. No doubt this also explains the question on the Plenary Agenda:

How might the Church in Australia be better structured for mission, considering the parish, the diocese, religious orders, the PJPs and new communities?

To put it bluntly, this is all completely back to front.

Chapter I on The Vocation of the Laity to the Lay Apostolate in Apostolicam Actuositatem starts in the correct place:

Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ.

Pope Francis offers further guidance, stating that among the many fruits of Vatican II was “a new way of looking at the vocation and mission of the laity in the Church and in the world, which found magnificent expression first and foremost in the two great Conciliar Constitutions Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes.”

These fundamental documents of the Council consider the lay faithful within an overall vision of whole of the People of God, to which they belong together with the members of holy orders and religious, and in which they share, in their own way, in the priestly, prophetic and kingly functions of Christ himself. 

Hence, the Council did not see the laity as if they were members of a “second order”, at the service of the hierarchy and simple executors of higher orders, but as disciples of Christ who, by virtue of their Baptism and of their natural insertion “in the world”, are called to enliven every environment, every activity, every human relationship according to the spirit of the Gospel (cf. Lumen Gentium, 31), bringing light, hope, and the charity received from Christ to those places that otherwise would remain foreign to God’s action and abandoned to the misery of the human condition (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 37). 

There is no one more appropriate than they to carry out the essential task of seeing “that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city” (cf. ibid., 43).

And let’s us not forget what Cardijn said in 1949:

At the root of the YCW and of our whole conception of life, there is one great truth: that each young worker has here on earth a vocation, a personal mission to fulfil; and each one must fulfil this mission through the ordinary acts of his daily life in his natural environment.

And later at the First World Congress on Lay Apostolate in 1951:

Each Christian, each Catholic, by his Baptism, must be an apostle and a missionary – he has an apostolic and missionary vocation. Each one is called by God to Existence, to life, and to a collaboration in His creative and redemptive work. The earthly vocation is an apostolic and missionary vocation… The apostolate of the laity is the vocation both Christian and human of the laity in the Church and in the world.

From this Vatican II point of view as reflected by Pope Francis, a key question for the Plenary would be:

How can the Church in Australia form and support laypeople living in the midst of the world and its concerns in their mission of enlivening every environment, activity and human relationship according to the spirit of the Gospel?


How can the Church’s institutions assist in this task?

How can the Church offer greater support to those movements, communities and groups which take on the task of forming and supporting laypeople in their human and Christian lay vocation?

Author: Stefan Gigacz


Instrumentum Laboris §41-42

Plenary Council Agenda

Apostolicam Actuositatem, Chapter I, The vocation of the laity to the apostolate

Pope Francis, Message of His Holiness Pope Francis on the occasion of the 50thanniversary of the Decree “Apostolicam Actuositatem”

Joseph Cardijn, The young worker faces life, 1949.

Joseph Cardijn, The world today and the apostolate of the laity, 1951.

Stefan Gigacz, The Plenary Council Agenda

Stefan Gigacz, What are PJPS and what’s there relevance to the Plenary?





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