Towards a reception of the Vatican II conception of lay apostolate

This is a Friday afternoon reflection on a question that has preoccupied me for a long time, i.e. why and how was the notion of “lay apostolate,” which Cardijn fought so hard to have recognised and which was indeed embodied so clearly in Lumen Gentium Chapter 4, Apostolicam Actuositatem and elsewhere in the Council documents, forgotten?

So here is an effort to explain.

1. Prior to Vatican II, the concept of “lay apostolate” as promoted by Cardijn and the jocist movements was barely recognised outside of these movements (and sometimes not very well inside the movements). Indeed, the conception of “lay apostolate” was often viewed as an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, since “apostolate” referred to the role of the bishops understood as the successors of the apostles. This also helps explain Cardijn’s struggle at the Council.

2. Theologians also struggled with the concept. Since the word, “laity” comes from the Greek “laos” meaning “people,” it was difficult to distinguish the concept of “lay people” from “people” i.e. the baptised, in general – except negatively, i.e. as those people who were not ordained.

2. Cardijn, however, worked hard in the Preparatory Commission and Conciliar Commissions dealing with the lay apostolate to promote a positive conception of lay people as being those with a “specifically lay apostolate” different from that of the clergy.  This he defined as follows:


is the lay (secular) life of lay people, the problems of that life, at every level: local, regional, national and international; 

is the divine value of this life to implement the work of God and Christ, in order to transform life and the world;

is a transformation that must take place with, by and in Christ and the Church, with the resources of the Church (prayer, sacraments, etc.) but which are incarnated in the affairs of the world, the institutions of the world, in view of the inseparable goals that are the happiness of humanity and the glory of God.

In this, he succeeded with the collaboration of the Jocist bishops.

Lumen Gentium recognised this specifically lay apostolate in §33 with the following words:

Now the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth. Thus every layman, in virtue of the very gifts bestowed upon him, is at the same time a witness and a living instrument of the mission of the Church itself “according to the measure of Christ’s bestowal”.

And Apostolicam Actuositatem refers back to this idea in words that are closer to Cardijn’s own in §1:

To intensify the apostolic activity of the people of God, the most holy synod earnestly addresses itself to the laity, whose proper and indispensable role in the mission of the Church has already been dealt with in other documents. The apostolate of the laity derives from their Christian vocation and the Church can never be without it.

3. All this was a struggle, however. There was huge resistance right through and to the end of the Council, e.g. the change of name from “Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate” to the corresponding conciliar “Commission on the Faithful” and the battle over whether Apostolicam Actuositatem would be called a “Decree on the Lay Apostolate” or not.

4. Meanwhile, Suenens, who was opposed to Cardijn’s notion of the specifically lay apostolate, succeeded in having the Lumen Gentium chapter on the People of God moved to the front of the document (Chapter 2: The People of God), i.e. ahead of the chapters on Hierarchy (Chapter 3), Laity (Chapter 4) and Religious (Chapter 6). When Lumen Gentium was adopted by the Council in November 1964, it was this idea that went viral among the Council Fathers and subsequently in the Church.

5. Here perhaps I should also note that Cardijn and his colleagues were in no way opposed to either the notion of the “People of God” or “the priesthood of the faithful.” On the contrary, Cardijn, a youthful follower of the radical 19th century priest, Félicité de Lamennais, was an enthusiast from seminary days for the “People of God.” Moreover, one of his famous trilogies, “serve, educate, represent”, a well-known jocist slogan, is an application of the baptismal sharing in Christ’s roles as “priest, prophet, king.” Jocist theologians such as Belgian Bishop Emile-Joseph De Smedt were key advocates of this concept in the days leading up to the Council.

6. On the other hand, Apostolicam Actuositatem was not adopted until the final days of the Council in November 1965. Moreover, since the idea of “lay apostolate” was not well-established and was in fact opposed by many, the idea of the “People of God” continued to dominate the discourse, as it has done ever since.

7.  The outcome is the situation that we face today, i.e. the Church understood as “People of God” made up of clergy (bishops and priests) and the baptised (i.e. the “People”) rather than clergy and laity. This has become the organising ecclesiological principle of the Church over the last 50 years. Thus, the concept of the specifically lay apostolate has been lost. 

8. Yet if we look at Lumen Gentium, the “lay apostolate” is referred to 11 times, 10 times in Chapter 4 on the laity and 122 times in Apostolicam Actuositatem. Compared to the pre-conciliar situation in which the role of the laity was viewed as “to pray, pay and obey” or at best as to “participate in the apostolate of the hierarchy,” this was completely revolutionary.  Yet, completely falsely, the notion of “lay apostolate” has come to be seen as “pre-conciliar” despite the very clear words of the Vatican II documents.

9. Theologians often speak of the “reception” of the teachings of Vatican II. In this sense, it is very clear that the conception of “lay apostolate” that is so evident in the Vatican II documents has not yet been “received” by the Church in general.

10. Of course, this still leaves us with the question: what is to be done?

Stefan Gigacz (Revised 27/11/2021)


Submission to the Australian Plenary Council on Lay Apostolate 2019 (Australian Cardijn Institute)

Plenary Council Submission 2021 (Australian Cardijn Institute)


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