Nature of Lay Apostolate To Be Discussed at Council

The assembly of churchmen now deliberating in St. Peter’s basilica in Rome is the first of the 21 ecumenical councils to consider the lay apostolate as a separate matter.

How will the Fathers of the council approach the subject? What are some of the problems they face? What are the expectations of the laity? What actions might the council take in this regard?

These are some of the basic questions being asked these days in Rome and around the world.

Two and a half years ago, when Pope John XXIII announced the formation of the 10 preparatory commissions for the Second Vatican Council, he made one of them the Commission on the Lay Apostolate.  He appointed a veteran Vatican diplomat, Fernando Cardinal Cento, as chairman. To assist him, the Pope named distinguished consultors who were pioneers in various spheres of apostolic activity in countries around the world. All were bishops and priests.

That no laymen were appointed was initially a source of disappointment for many who were following closely the preparations for the council. But the experience and dedication these men brought to the commission were such as quickly to allay this initial reaction.

Cardinal Cento began the work of his commission by noting that there was no historical precedent to guide the body. This uniqueness presented an initial difficulty. But the commission met regularly and hammered out its proposals for the Fathers of the council. No one other than the bishops and the consultors, and some to whom the matters have been referred under the oath of secrecy, know the presentation’s exact contents.

But interested observers can draw some conclusions both from what has been published in this regard and also from the record of the lay apostolate itself.

For example, the Preparatory Commission of the Lay Apostolate divided itself into three subcommittees: one devoted to the general notions of the lay apostolate, one to social action concepts, and the third to the field of organized charity. Under “general notions” comes consideration of the nature of the lay apostolate, its structure and terminology. Under “social action” come such matters as those with which the encyclical Mater et Magistra concerned itself. The field of charity relates to the works of mercy which are to engage the attention of the laity.

How free is the “free lay apostolate”? How strictly dependent is “Catholic Action” on the teaching authority of the Church? What constitutes both? How do they relate? What of the permissive organized apostolate?

These are basic questions troubling laymen today and the council could include such a consideration in its discussions. There are many distinctions to be made on the degree of dependency in all areas of the apostolate, from the “free” individual apostolate to the organized efforts of Catholic Action organizations, mandated by local bishops.

Will the council reinforce the concept of a tightly organized Catholic Action with limited freedom and scope of activity? Or will it accent the importance of the apostolate of individuals in the complexity of modem life?

What of the structure and terminology of the lay apostolate? Is it in need of reform? Pope Pius XII apparently thought so. In his address at the time of the 1957 Second World Congress of the Lay Apostolate, he indicated that there was considerable confusion in the minds of many.

Should Catholic Action be reserved exclusively for organizations bearing that name, as had been the case in Italy, Spain and other Latin countries? Or is the term Catholic Action applicable to all organizations mandated by the bishop in a diocese or by the hierarchy of a country in the case of national organizations?

At Pius XII’s request, lay organizations studied these and similar questions. They submitted their conclusions during the intervening years to the central Rome office of the world lay apostolate congresses. But there has been no real answer to the questions of terminology, structure or definition.

Cardinal Cento in a recent interview assured his radio audience that the council would not lay down a fixed organizational structure for the laity of the world. “Variety amidst unity” would be the direction of the council discussions, he said.

This raises the question of what kind of unity is best suited for the full development of the lay apostolate in the Church. In recent years, beginning with the last World Congress of the Lay Apostolate, churchmen all over the world have begun to speak of a “federative lay apostolate” as the answer to the essential unity and coordination that is required in the lay apostolate. In the United States, the Bishops seem to have anticipated this development when they established the National Council of Catholic Men and the National Council of Catholic Women as federations of the lay apostolate organizations in this country.

Will the Second Vatican Council encourage this same development throughout the world? Whatever the form, unity and coordination of all apostolic movements, they are certain to be encouraged by the council findings.

Those engaged in the work of international Catholic organizations will he looking for guidance from the council. There are now some 35 international Catholic organizations grouped together in a single Conference of International Catholic Organizations. What is their role and function in a society that is rapidly becoming internationalized? What directives are needed to bring this tremendous Christian witness to bear on the institutions that are shaping the world policies of governmental and intergovernmental organizations?

Women engaged in the lay apostolate are deeply concerned about the role of women not only in the apostolate hut in the Church itself. Do Church policies satisfactorily reflect the 20th-century demand for “equal rights-equal opportunities”? Will the council take cognizance of the growing influence of educated, dedicated women and their potential in the mission of the Church?

The question of the married diaconate has been much discussed in recent years. The council may consider this question, for it would seem to hold some promise particularly for the mission countries. On the other hand, only six years ago Pius XII felt such a move would be premature. In the United States there would not appear to be as much interest in this kind of question as in matters related to religious freedom, the liturgy, and the relationship of Church and State; the role of “freedom of speech” within the Church and many others of equally fundamental importance.

In recent months there have been a number of recommendations made about the establishment of a lay board of consultors in dioceses, to whom the bishops could turn for an expression of lay opinion. In many dioceses, the N.C.C.M. and the N.C.C.W. are serving this function; in others, special lay committees have been established. For example, in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan has made 36 lay appointments to various diocesan committees in the first three months of his installation. There is a definite trend in this direction in the United States. But it is doubtful that the Universal Church will legislate this specifically at the council.

An intriguing question at the international level is the one posed by the suggestion that a congregation for the lay apostolate be established at the Vatican to give the movement equal status with other essential activities of the Church. This seems unlikely due to several factors, the most important of which is that the lay apostolate is a “horizontal” activity that cuts across and becomes involved in areas under the jurisdiction of other offices at the Vatican. However, perhaps some other way might be found to give status to the lay apostolate within the Vatican. One suggestion sometimes heard is that of a pontifical commission such as that for motion pictures, radio and television. Presumably laymen might serve on such a commission. If so, this will be about as close to the “lay senate” idea as the council will come.

The lay apostolate cannot be separated from the apostolate of the priest. They are intimately related but distinct. The council may well feel the need to clarify the role of the priest in relation to the lay apostolate. Does he best serve as chaplain, moderator or director? What is his function as a pastor to “1ay apostles” in his parish? How can he best serve the organized movements of the apostolate in providing spiritual formation and inspiration?

It would seem reasonable to conclude that the council insofar as the laity is concerned will do little detailed legislating and will devote itself to the creative synthesizing of papal teaching of the last 50 years. The lay apostolate as we think of it today has not been sufficiently formed in the universal mind of the Church to permit a sharp crystalization at this time.

Perhaps this is just as well, because experience may teach us many things in the years ahead that we are not aware of at this moment and it might be unwise to “freeze” the movement at its present stage of development.

If the council declares the mind of the Church officially on the matter of the laymen’s role in society and in the Church, points the direction in which progress should take us, and urges us, as members of Christ’s Mystical Body, to be living members, and renews the inner life of the Church so that the channels of grace flow with even greater freedom and directness, these things alone will be enough to carry us forward in the mission of the Church until the next ecumenical council.

Martin H. Work

Mr. Work has served as executive director of the National Council of Catholic Men since 1950 and is a member of the board of directors of the Permanent Committee for the International Congresses of the Lay Apostolate.

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