Where are lay people in the Synod docs?

Pope Francis and the Secretariat of the Synod on Synodality have published a new set of documents in preparation for the Second Assembly in October 2024.

In a document entitled “Towards October 2024,” the Secretariat proposes to re-centre the work of the Second Assembly on the key question “HOW can we be a synodal Church in mission?”

Given that 99.9% of the Church are lay people, this raises the question of what is the mission of lay people in a synodal Church and what can be done to promote this mission?

Let us then start this article by recalling what Vatican II said about this, particularly in Chapter 4 on The Laity in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium

Secondly, I will look at how the documents for the Synod on Synodality published so far understand lay people and their role in the world and the Church?

Finally, I will suggest a few steps to be taken in light of the forthcoming Second Assembly.

What Vatican II said

The classic expression of the role and mission of lay people is found in Lumen Gentium §31 (LG31), which begins:

(The lay faithful) are by baptism made one body with Christ and are constituted among the People of God; they are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ; and they carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world.

Baptism is thus the sacrament that introduces a person into the Church as a lay person rather than as an ordained priest or as a religious. In a sense, then, we can say that the default status of a Catholic in the Church is as a lay person.

But §31 continues on to specify this further:

What specifically characterises 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. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.

While this secular character “specifically” characterises lay people, as Cardijn had long argued, it does not exclude the fact that ordained ministers may also “engage in secular activities” or even hold a “secular profession.” Nevertheless, their vocation is “especially and expressly ordained to the sacred ministry.” Although it is not said explicitly, LG31 also implies that while religious are also not excluded from secular activities the priority of their vocation is to “live out the spirit of the beatitudes.”

Thus, while there is no strict demarcation of the fields over which lay people have an exclusive role, it is nevertheless clear that the vocation of lay people is primarily oriented to living out their Christianity in the everyday circumstances of their daily lives in the world.

What the Instrumentum Laboris says

Let us now look at the Synod documents in this light, starting with the Instrumentum Laboris (IL) published in 2023.

In a document that is 27,457 words long, we find 11 mentions of the term “lay” and one mention of “laity,” which may already seem surprisingly few given that lay people comprise so much of the Church’s membership.

The mention of the term “laity” in §B2.2 is particularly interesting and is as follows:

There is a need to give new impetus and more incisive competence to the special participation of the Laity in evangelisation in the various spheres of social, cultural, economic and political life, assuming their own responsibilities, as well as enhancing the contribution of Consecrated men and women, with their different charisms, within the life of the local Church.

The emphasis here is thus subtly but significantly different from that in LG31. The latter emphasises that lay people primarily live out their secular mission in “the ordinary circumstances” of their daily lives “from which the very web of their existence is woven” and in which they act “as a leaven.” The IL, on the other hand, is more concerned with “evangelisation” – however that is defined – not of daily life but of “social, cultural, economic and political life.”

Thus, where LG31 starts with the ordinary life of the ordinary lay person, the IL seems to focus on the macro dimension. Secondly, whereas LG emphasises acting from within as a “leaven”, evangelisation in the IL appears to be something brought in from the outside.

What else does the IL say about the role of lay people as understood in LG31? The astonishing answer is: nothing else!

The next mention of lay people comes in §B2.3 which notes that lay women are often present as “evangelists and first teachers” of the faith, especially in remote areas. Cardijn who often spoke of the important role his mum had played in his own formation would surely agree.

A later paragraph points to the need to improve relationships “between ordained ministers, consecrated men and women, and lay men and women.” This is followed by a mention of the importance of the role of women in “movements and lay institutions.”

Next comes a series of questions asking:

  • “How can co-responsibility in decision-making processes be increased between lay and consecrated women and clergy.”
  • “Can lay people perform the role of community leaders, particularly in places where the number of ordained ministers is very low?”
  • “A perception of distance between the lay faithful and their pastors persists: what can help to overcome it?”

Further on, we find an exhortation to bishops “truly be a principle of unity in their Church, calling all (priests and deacons, consecrated men and women, Lay men and women) to walk together as the People of God and promoting a synodal style of Church.”

Next is a question of how “roles of authority and responsibility not linked to the Sacrament of Orders” can be promoted in various areas including “lay movements.”

This is followed by a reference to “a region where the number of priests is very low -(in which) ecclesial responsibilities have been entrusted to lay faithful who exercise them in a constructive and non-oppositional manner.”

Another paragraph notes that “adopting the perspective of community discernment challenges the Church at all levels and in all its organisational forms,” including “the decision-making processes of associations, movements and lay-led groups.”

Finally, we are presented with the excellent questions:

“What can we learn from associations, movements and lay-led groups?”

“How does the perspective of a synodal Church challenge the structures and procedures of consecrated life, the different forms of lay association, and the functioning of Church-related institutions?”

What is perhaps most striking about these later points and questions is that they nearly all involve questions of the Church’s internal organisation. But none of them really go to the question – at least not directly – of how to promote the mission of lay people in the everyday circumstances of working and family life, where the 99.9% of the Church spend 90% or more of their waking hours.

The Synthesis Report

Now, let’s look at the Synthesis Report from the First Assembly in October 2023. What does this report say about the mission and role of lay people?

This time we find a total of 27 references to “laity,” “lay” people and movements.

The most important references come in §8 entitled “Church is mission,” which clearly recognises the importance of the role of lay people not just in the Church but in their lives in a way that corresponds much closely to the vision of LG31:

If the mission is a grace involving all the Church, the lay faithful contribute in a vital way to advancing that mission in all areas and in the ordinary situations of every day. Above all, it is they who make the Church present and who proclaim the Gospel, for example, in digital culture, which has such a strong impact throughout the world; in youth culture; in the world of work and business, politics, and the arts and culture; in scientific research, education, and training; in the care of our common home; and especially through participation in public life. Wherever they are present, they are called to witness to Jesus Christ in daily life and to explicitly share the faith with others. In a special way, young people, with their gifts and fragilities, growing in friendship with Jesus, become apostles of the Gospel to their peers.

§8j goes further noting that “Vatican II and subsequent magisterial teaching present the distinctive mission of the laity in terms of the sanctification of temporal or secular realities.” The problem is, or rather “the reality is that pastoral practice at the parish, diocesan and, recently, even universal levels, increasingly entrusts lay people with tasks and ministries within the Church itself.”

Here, the document calls for more theological reflection and new canonical provisions, which need to be “reconciled” with these “important developments,” meaning the increasing role of lay people in Church ministries.

This needs to be done avoiding “dualisms that could compromise the perception of the unity of the Church’s mission.” It’s not stated what these dualisms are but perhaps the reference is to a too sharp division between the roles of clergy and laity.

§8l is also very significant, calling for pastoral structures to be re-organised “so they can readily recognise, call forth, and animate lay charisms and ministries, inserting them into the missionary dynamism of the synodal Church.”

The aim of this will be to enable communities to “send” and “sustain” people in their mission. Thus, these structures will be “at the service of the mission that the faithful carry out within society, in the family, and in work life, rather than focusing exclusively on internal matters or organisational concerns.”

The document continues on to insist on the need for local Churches to recognise the charisms and distinct gifts of the laity (§8f).

It warns of “a danger, that was expressed by many at the Assembly, of ‘clericalizing’ the laity, creating a kind of lay elite that perpetuates inequalities and divisions among the People of God.” (§8f) But it also notes what an important resources lay people “for creating bonds of knowledge and exchange of gifts.”

The role of lay associations is also positively recognised in §10 entitled “Consecrated Life and Lay Associations and Movements: A Charismatic Sign”, which states that:

Lay associations, ecclesial movements and new communities are a precious sign of the maturation of the co-responsibility of all the baptised. (§10c)

§10f also recognises that there is “a need to develop a more profound understanding of how consecrated life, as well as lay associations, ecclesial movements, and new communities, place their charisms at the service of communion and mission in local churches, augmenting existing paths towards holiness with a presence that is prophetic.”

§10i also makes an important proposal, which harks back to the Vatican II document, Apostolicam Actuositatem, §26:

At the level of both individual local churches and groupings of Churches, the promotion of missionary synodality requires the establishment and configuration of councils and advisory bodies at which representatives of lay associations and ecclesial movements and new communities can meet in order to foster enduring relationships between their life and work and that of the local churches.

The document also makes other significant recommendations, including calling for greater consultation of lay people in choosing of bishops (§12l).

It also warns in §18 entitled “Structures for participation” that “the proper recognition of the laity for mission in the world cannot become a pretext for assigning the care of the Christian community to bishops and priests alone.”

That may be so if such is the real problem. But is it? I would have thought that the Synthesis Report’s failure to make the mission of the lay person a priority was more the issue!

Moreover, why does the document avoid the term “lay apostolate,” which was the term chosen by the Second Vatican Council to characterise this mission? Indeed, the very title of Apostolicam Actuositatem, is “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity,” a term specifically chosen by Council Fathers but studiously avoided by the Synod.

On the other hand, we find 75 references to “ministry,” “minister” and their variants in the document. Yet even browsing those references illustrates clearly that ministry is overwhelmingly understood as an internal service of and or to the Church.

Perhaps this is why it is suggested that “the expression ‘an all-ministerial Church,’ used in the Instrumentum laboris, can lend itself to misunderstanding.” It goes on to say that its “meaning will have to be clarified in order to remove any ambiguities.”

Frankly, I would suggest that the Second Assembly should give more consideration to the term “lay apostolate”, which was not only chosen by Vatican II after a long debate in the drafting commission, but which actually derives from the Greek term ἀπόστολος or apostolos, which means “a person sent,” or in other words, a person with a MISSION.

Having said all this, what the Synthesis Report does say about the role of lay people is positive and can provide a reasonable starting point for taking the issue further.

Let’s then turn to the preparatory documents for the Second Assembly to see what indications there are of if and how it will address this issue.

Towards October 2024

As mentioned above, Pope Francis and the Synod Secretariat are seeking to re-focus the Synod’s work on the question of how the Church can become a synodal Church in mission.

Here the document quotes Pope Francis’ dream in Evangelii Gaudium of “a missionary option,” which he defines as a “missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”

Once again, although Pope Francis does not say it, this implies mobilising lay people for their mission. But the preparatory documents do not really take this issue any further.

The preparatory document “How to be a synodal Church on mission? Five perspectives for theological exploration in view of the Second Session of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops” notes that it will be important to investigate:

the presence and service of instituted ministries and de facto ministries, which can contribute to configure in a more choral and effective way the work of evangelisation of the local Church in the territory and between cultures, enhancing the charisms and the role of the laity in carrying out the mission of the Church (cf. SR 8d-e), with respect for their specificity (cf. SR 8f) and in relation to the tension between the mission of sanctification of temporal realities and the carrying out of tasks and ministries within the Church (cf. SR 8j), also considering the opportunity to establish new ministries (cf. SR 8n and 16p).

This long rather convoluted phrase does recognise the “specificity” of the mission of lay people and seems to be concerned with how the Church balances the role of lay people in the Church and in the world. This is positive.

If I understand the intent correctly, it seems also be contemplating the development of new ministries for assisting with the promotion of the specific lay vocation. This would be a welcome development.

On the other hand, I would also note that many lay apostolate movements, e.g. the Specialised Catholic Action movements are already doing this. Personally, I would suggest that it would be more important for the Church to recognise the works these movements are doing rather than turning everything into a ministry.

In any event, it is significant that the the document raises the issue.

Study groups

Finally, the Synod proposes the establishment of ten study groups to look at specific issues.

Here it notes the importance of proposing “practical ways, from a theological and canonical point of view, to promote and support the participation of all the baptised in the mission of the Church in different contexts.”

This means that “it is necessary to avoid limiting the participation of the lay faithful to intra-ecclesial tasks without a real commitment to applying the Gospel to the transformation of society.” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 102).

This is important and should surely be the concern of the whole Second Assembly.


In conclusion, let me turn to an invitation expressed by the Synod to the various “lay associations,  ecclesial movements and new communities”, which are invited to study the Synthesis Report in order “to contribute to the work of the dioceses and eparchies where they are present” and to collect “the requests that are most consonant with their situation.”

This is good in so far as it goes. But unfortunately it still fails to recognise the fact that many of the lay apostolic movements have their own internal structures from local to international level.

And as far as I can see there is no mechanism for those movements to contribute at international level, which takes us back to the original problem I wrote about before the First Assembly, namely the failure to involve the international movements in the work of the Synod. At this level, the Synod is still a long way behind Vatican II.

There’s still time to change this. Now it’s up to Synod organisers to LISTEN to those movements.

Stefan Gigacz