2023: The laity’s share in the Church’s mission

Over 120 current and former local, national and international leaders of various movements and groups from 33 countries — many from the Global South — have endorsed a contribution to the First Assembly of the Synod on Synodality that calls for a greater focus on the promotion of the lay apostolate and on representation of lay movements and groups in Church structures.

Signatories include Australian Emeritus Bishop of Darwin, Eugene Hurley, Rienzie Rupasinghe, originally from Sri Lanka and a member of the first Pontifical Council of the Laity (PCL) in 1967, and Patricia Jones, another former member of the PCL from the United Kingdom.

Joceline Minerve, former minister of social welfare in Mauritius, is another prominent signatory.

A variety of groups have endorsed the statement, including the International Young Christian Workers (IYCW) and the Cardijn Community International. In the Asia-Pacific region, these groups include the Woori Theology Institute in Seoul, Korea, the Asian Lay Leaders Network based in the Philippines, The Splendour Project in Malaysia and the Australian Cardijn Institute.

The contribution, which has now been forwarded to senior Synod officials and to the Dicastery on Laity Family and Life, aims to draw Synod participants’ attention to several important issues.

Promotion of the lay apostolate

The first is the need for a clear focus on the promotion of the lay apostolate of lay people as envisaged by Vatican II, particularly in Lumen Gentium Section31, Gaudium et Spes  Section 43 and more generally in Apostolicam Actuositatem.

It is a genuine paradox that this very concept of “lay apostolate” has largely disappeared from Church discourse in recent decades, particularly in English, where it has been displaced by a growing emphasis on “ministry,” including “lay ministry.”

In the Vatican II documents, the term “apostolate” refers to the Church’s mission, which for lay people largely revolves around their “secular” lives at work, in the family and in the community. On the other hand, “ministry” in the conciliar documents mostly relates to the internal needs of the Church.

With Pope Francis’ emphasis on developing a missionary Church, a rebalancing is required here that will again shift the focus toward the promotion of the lay apostolate.

Participation and representation of lay movements

The second issue addressed is the need for better representation of international Catholic (lay) movements and networks among participants at the Synod.

At Vatican II and also at the Synod on the Laity in 1987, these movements were extensively represented by the “lay auditors.” Indeed, many of these movements were pioneers in the promotion of the laity and what we would today characterize as a synodal way of working based on a partnership between lay people, clergy and religious.

It is somewhat ironic then that very few participants from these movements have been chosen to take part in the current Synod that seeks precisely to promote synodality, understood as walking and working together.

This is even more astonishing if we recall that, beginning as far back as the 1920s, a series of popes specifically endorsed the work of these movements as genuine participation (Pius XI), collaboration (Pius XII) and cooperation (John XXIII) in the work of the Church. How has this all been forgotten?

Certainly, it is a great step forward to see so many lay theologians and other experts at the Synod. However, their knowledge in no way substitutes for the very different expertise of movement leaders often with decades of experience in organizing, working with and mobilizing communities from local to global level.

Another rebalancing is therefore needed in the selection of participants for the Second Assembly of the Synod in October 2024.

Representative structures

The third issue highlighted is the need for a fresh look at the provisions of the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem  Section 26, which clearly called for more representative and participative Church structures involving grassroots lay movements and organizations at parish, diocesan, national and international level.

During Vatican II, the lay apostolate movements also known as Specialized Catholic Action movements successfully advocated for representative Church structures that would involve the lay movements at all these levels. Apostolicam Actuositatem Section 26 endorsed and adopted these proposals.

However, to the great disappointment of the late Cardinal Joseph Cardijn, founder of the Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement and the leaders of the lay apostolate movements, these reforms were not implemented when the first Vatican Council of the Laity was established in 1967. Even today, its successor body, the current Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, is still not a representative body.

Worse, the one body that was somewhat representative of lay movements and groups, the International Catholic Organizations (ICO) Conference, founded in 1927, was dissolved in 2008 at the instance of the Holy See, which claimed that the category of “ICO” no longer fitted into the framework of public and private associations of the faithful envisaged by the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

These too are issues that need to be addressed by the Synod on Synodality. And yet how to do so when the very movements and groups concerned are barely represented at the Synod?

There are no doctrinal issues at stake here. On the contrary, it is simply a matter of implementing what the Vatican II Council Fathers — with the strong support of the lay auditors and their movements — decided almost 60 years ago in 1965.

Surely, lay movements, groups and communities should not have to wait another 60 years for the vision of Vatican II to finally become reality?

*Stefan Gigacz is secretary of the Australian Cardijn Institute and author of “The Leaven in the Council: Joseph Cardijn and the Jocist Network at Vatican II.” He is currently researching the development of international Catholic movements and organizations during the 20th century. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.