The role of lay people as in the Plenary Framework

The Framework for Motions for the Second Assembly of the Australian Plenary Council has now been published and can be read or downloaded here:

There are many good things in the Framework for Motions.

However, since time is short to propose changes, it’s necessary to focus on its gaps and shortcomings.

One of the greatest of these is surely the almost complete lack of reference, indeed lack of consciousness of the specifically lay vocation of lay people in their lives, communities and society.

Here is a listing of every mention of the terms “lay” or “laity” in the document.

10. It (Hope) urges us to build  on the good that has been achieved through the commitment of so many clergy,  religious and lay people, both employed and volunteers, in parish ministry and mission,  education, health and aged care, social services and community development.

Here the focus is clearly on the parish and Church services with no distinction between the roles of clergy, religious and lay people.

21. The Plenary Council joyfully receives the following recommendations of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC):

• Developing the cross-cultural competency of clergy, religious and lay workers in the Catholic Church to enable more effective and appropriate ministry with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Here the reference is to “lay workers,” impliedly at least meaning those lay people working for the Church.

26. As the Plenary Council of the Church in Australia, we express our profound sorrow that  children and young people and vulnerable adults have been abused by clergy, religious  and lay workers of the Catholic Church, and that religious leaders have failed to act  sufficiently to prevent abuse.

Here again, clergy, religious and lay Church workers are placed on an equal footing. To say the least, this is a surprising area in which to note the responsibility of lay workers!

38. The Plenary Council affirms a culture of synodality for parishes and dioceses, where  healthy and fruitful relationships between clergy and laity “recognise different but  complementary charisms and opportunities for co-responsibility”, and desire  “consultative and collaborative approaches to governance at all levels in the Church.”

Here, finally, there is a recognition of the different “charisms and opportunities” of clergy and lay people but again the focus is on the internal operations of the Church.

39. 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 long-standing commitment and service of Catholic religious women and men within these sectors is well-recognised and has been extraordinary. In these  domains they continue to provide lay people with opportunities for professional  formation and participation in leadership. The unique role of Ministerial Public Juridic  Persons demonstrates how both ecclesial governance and service to Australian society  may operate in a mature, innovative and effective way.

Yet again the focus is on formation and leadership opportunities for lay people within Church institutions.

Note 52. At the Amazon Synod, the bishops with a deliberative vote approved paragraph 103 by a vote of 137– 30: “In the many consultations carried out in the Amazon, the fundamental role of religious and lay  women in the Church of the Amazon and its communities was recognised and emphasised, given the  wealth of services they provide. In a large number of these consultations, the permanent diaconate for  women was requested.

Again the reference is to the role of lay people (women) in the provision of Church services.

58. Members of the Church are diverse, and their  vocations are complementary. They are the laity, ordained and religious. Lay Catholics  may be single or married; they may participate in ecclesial movements; they may be  connected with religious communities. The Church desires to foster vocations in every  aspect of Church life, knowing that disciples can serve Christ’s mission according to their  unique gifts. In recent times, the universal Church has broadened criteria for admission  to the ministries of Lector and Acolyte. Together with the ministry of Catechist receiving  a greater emphasis, we are witnessing a broadening of the range of vocational calls that  the Church in Australia can foster more fully.

Here we finally have a reference to the “diverse” and “complementary” vocations of lay people, priests and religious. Yet, apart from the recognition of “single or married” vocations, the emphasis appears to be on the role of lay people within the Church.

69. Motion: That the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference establish provisions and  guidelines for lay people to participate in a formal ministry of Preaching, as provided for  in canon 766 of the Code of Canon Law. 

This again speaks for itself, creating a formal ministry of preaching for lay people.

71. Cf. First Assembly Proposals, pp. 40, 41, 65. In January 2021, Pope Francis issued the motu proprio,  Spiritus Domini, which allowed that the lay ministries of Lector and Acolyte, “since they are based on  the Sacrament of Baptism, may be entrusted to all suitable faithful, whether male or female.”

See previous comment.

74. Throughout the dialogue and discernment of the Plenary Council, many “recognised the  need for appropriate formation and support to assist lay people in discerning and using  their gifts wisely.” The small group responses from the First Assembly identified the  need for a variety of formation opportunities for members of the Church from leaders  of “Catholic entities to parish family groups, from isolated parishes in the outback to  Archdiocesan chanceries” and for people in formal and informal roles. The formation  and leadership of clergy” was also identified as ”critical to the growth of dioceses and  parishes” and to ”future efforts at evangelisation in the wider community”. The call  for “concrete action…to address improvements in governance and leadership… and  formation for a wider range of ministries” consistently emerged as an important  priority of this Council’s deliberations.  

While this section speaks of formation and support for lay people, it is not clear what it means by assisting them to discern and use their gifts. Even so, the general tenor of the paragraph focuses on the work of the Church and parishes.

77. Much work has already been undertaken in the area of formation, including the  publication by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference of Norms for the Formation  of Permanent Deacons and Guidelines for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons (2016) and a national resource for Lay Pastoral Ministers (Faithful Stewards of God’s  Grace, 2018). New national guidelines for seminary formation have also been approved  by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and are in the final stages of being  confirmed by the Holy See. The National Catholic Safeguarding Standards also require  the development and implementation of policies for the ongoing formation of clergy,  including professional/pastoral supervision, and there are opportunities to extend this  into broader requirements for the professional development of lay leaders and  ordained ministers. Many diocesan agencies and tertiary institutions offer programs  and courses for the formation of lay leaders, and those preparing for or engaged in  ordained ministry. 

Once again, the reference to formation of lay leaders occurs within the framework of forming Church ministers.

80. In doing so, each diocese commits to support, develop or re-institute models of  formation to encourage and deepen the lay apostolate in the world based on an  attentiveness to the “signs of the times”, scriptural reflection, prayerful communal  discernment and a commitment to engagement with the broader Australian community  through listening and dialogue. These models will also support the formation of the  domestic Church by encouraging and accompanying parents, guardians and caregivers in their vocation as “the primary and principal” teachers of faith and recognise the  crucial role of families as the “school” of Christian formation.

At last! A clear and specific reference to forming people for their “lay apostolate in the world.” It only took up to §80 (out of 105) to get there!

94. Cf. International Theological Commission, Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church (2 March  2018), n. 105 and n. 104, which states: “The great challenge for pastoral conversion that follows from  this for the life of the Church is to intensify the mutual collaboration of all in evangelising witness… and  in any case avoiding the temptation of “an excessive clericalism which keeps them [lay people] away  from decision-making.” Cf. Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 102.

And top it off, a quote from Pope Francis warning against the clericalism that keeps lay people out of Church decision making! True enough.

Nevertheless, what could be more “clerical” in a Church document than all but ignoring (or at best paying lip service to) the specifically lay vocation or apostolate of lay people at the heart of temporal (or secular) life?

Stefan Gigacz




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