Day 3 – laity

In the secular world the world `lay` describes a person who lacks the knowledge, training, or designation to be part of a specific professional group. It has a negative connotation, meaning someone who is `not` (a doctor, lawyer, rocket scientist, electrician, engineer, etc.).  We use lay terms to simplify complicated medical, legal, or scientific processes for a general audience. We respect those who have spent their lives to gain the expertise and proficiency in their profession for the good of others. After all, I did not choose to be a doctor and so do not expect to have a doctor`s knowledge. I am a lay person when it comes to the field of medicine.

In the church, the negative connotation of the term `lay` is magnified in our institutional structure, our thinking, and our ways of acting. To be `lay` is not who we are, it is what we are not. We are not ordained. (Technically, vowed religious women and men are still in the lay state.) It doesn`t get any more negative than that. To be not ordained means that you are automatically denied the right to many of the sacramental and teaching ministries in the church. To be not ordained means that you cannot hold any positions of power or authority by right. Lay women and men can be part of consultative processes on the parish, diocesan, and even the Vatican level, but the final decision making powers always lie in the hands of the ordained hierarchy.

Unlike the secular world, no amount of training, wisdom or academic accomplishments will take away the fact that you are still considered a lay person, a lay theologian, a lay minister, a lay pastoral associate, a lay chaplain, etc. If you are a woman, the lay designation is simply redundant. You have no other option but to be lay.

We have come a long way in the post Vatican II years in understanding that through Baptism we all share in the threefold ministry of Jesus Christ as priest, prophet and king/servant-leader. But, as laity we are too often reminded of the great divide between the clergy and us. Of course, this depends greatly on individual deacons, priests and bishops.  Some understand the truth that together we ARE church, and to be true church means to work as one with a respect for the diversity of gifts among all God’s people. But, sadly, there are those who still view the church as a strict hierarchy of priests on pedestals and the laity as  the great unwashed in the pews.

10 thoughts on “Day 3 – laity

  1. But, Isabelle, lay people are enjoined to work and to take leadership positions in the secular world to continue Christ’s mission in the world in a way bishops and priests may not. A priest cannot be an MP, for example. There are many fine lay leaders in public life including Joanne McGarry, who is the head of the Catholic Civil Rights League. (And many Prime Ministers and Premiers, of course, have been Catholics.) And heaven only knows how many saints are laypeople!

    As a baptized and confirmed lay Catholic, I don’t think I ever felt that being a lay Catholic was a negative thing until I went to theology school and older women students told me it was. I couldn’t understand their very strange sort of clericalism that resented priests for being priests (or just male) and yet thought being a priest made you a Catholic, First Class.

    Our young male religious classmates were very wary of laypeople (particularly angry older women) who trash-talked the priesthood and yet thought women should be priests. One woman theology professor told them that they were very unlucky to be entering the priesthood at this time. Certainly they have lost a lot of support and fellowship other generations of priests have enjoyed. And, sadly, I am not sure how many of my foreign classmates–like a later one from Indonesia–are going to die peacefully in bed.

    I cannot help but wonder if 40 years of insisting that there is a nasty divide between lay person and priest, not to mention a hundred liturgical ways in which we have de-emphasized the priest’s sacrificial role at Mass as “alter Christus,” has not done much to dissuade men from going into the seminaries. Happily, young men in traditional parishes and communities do feel enough support from their families and friends to enter the seminary these days. My own waved a happy good-bye to three such men this school year. Lay people have a crucial role in fostering vocations.

    I listened seriously to the older women (as younger women should) at theology school, and the one observation that struck me, from a retired nurse–a lovely woman, a real sweetheart, was that the sight of a whole “bunch of men” concelebrating at the altar made her feel overwhelmed and excluded.

    To be honest, I think she has something there. Concelebration is something new since 1962, and it seems to me to ruin the normal relationship between the people and their spokesman, the celebrant. It would be nice, too, if the priest were on the same side of the altar as the rest of us. In my teaching days, I was careful not to allow a desk become a barrier between me and my students. Alas, when you have many priests divided from their people by a huge table-style altar, it does indeed set up a visual divide.

    However, this should not be a divide in fact. As St. Paul said, the Body has many parts. Lay people should encourage men to become priests, not dissuade them with accusations of spiritual elitism. And lay people should step in to do those things, e.g. run for office, that priests simply cannot.

  2. Oh, and I should add that “rights” language makes no sense when it comes to ministry. Canonically, lay people certainly do have certain rights (e.g. to marry, if they are old enough and there are no impediments; to have Mass said according to the norms), but there is no “right” to sacramental ministry.

  3. It`s so good to hear from you, Dorothy! Thanks for another thought-provoking response. I agree with you that anger runs deep for many, and the anger does little to build bridges across the divides – where divides exist. But anger needs to be expressed, acknowledged, and seriously listened to in order to be understood…as you did with your fellow students.

    Our children are now all young adults, but the challenges of the teen years are still fresh in my mind. The lay reality of the past 40 years in the church is analogous to any young person struggling to find their identity and independence as they leave childhood behind and make those first hesitant steps into adulthood. Parent figures are challenged and questioned. Parameters of authority are tested and stretched. It’s stressful for both parents and children.

    If all goes well, they both survive the battle-fields and emerge with a new, deeper, and more meaningful relationship at the end. The wisdom and experience of the elder is now sought and respected. And, the fresh knowledge and gifts of the younger generation are embraced, empowered, and encouraged.

    I am optimistic that we are slowly reaching a stage in our church of healthy relationships between the clergy and the laity. I hope that the days of paternalistic clerical authoritarianism and child-like lay dependence are behind us. I also hope that we are moving beyond the petty (and some not so petty!) power struggles. It is time for us to work together as adults. I agree that we must acknowledge and empower the gifts of ordination, but without undue deference or blind obedience. Priests today have a tough road ahead. But, we do too. It’s time to work together with mutual respect.

  4. Okay, I know that the 1960s represented a tremendous struggle between Baby Boomers and their parents, but is it not ahistorical to see two thousand years of church history through that lens?

    I have lived my whole life in the shadow of the Baby Boom. And today there is a struggle between young Catholic who wish to recover what was lost in the aftermath of Vatican II–much of which was NEVER mandated by the documents of the Council–and those who thought they “sang a new Church into being” and that should be good enough for these “young fogies.”

    A very bad kind of clerical authoritarianism came about through reformers who ripped out church interiors and insisted that little old ladies not be allowed to quietly say their rosaries during Mass anymore–a very old practice and form of “active participation” that hurt no-one and, in fact, followed the parts of the pre-1970 Mass according to a pattern.

    I think we agree that priests ought not to be the supreme bosses of parishes. This can be prevented by encouraging priests not to make stuff up as they go along but to be attentive to canon law, church teaching and what the documents of the Second Vatican Council (and any subsequent Motu Proprio) have to say.

    1. I don`t think it`s ahistorical to view the present church through the lens of the past 40 years. The 20th century was a time of major sociological, political and technological change. John XXIII recognized this when he announced the convocation of the Second Vatican Council in January, 1959. Which, by the way, is also the month and year of my birth. Yes, I`m a baby boomer and a Vatican II baby. I hope I don`t have to apologize for this. 😉

      1. No indeed! No-one should have to apologize for the time and place one was born. The one thing the Baby Boom has to watch out for, I think, is a certain tendency to think that history revolves around it. It is fascinating to see how a generation, not a class, or men, or ethnic group, managed to dominate its lifetime through sheer numbers, thanks to post-war prosperity and consumerism. But quite a few things that are laid at the door of the Baby Boom, are actually to the credit or blame of the Baby Boom’s slightly older heroes.

        For more on historicity, I encourage you to read Bernard Lonergan and Robert M. Doran on the subject.

  5. Three more thoughts. When I say that the young must listen to the old, I do not mean that the generations born after 1965 must listen only to the generation born between 1945 and 1965, nor do I mean that the Baby Boom generation is exempt from listening to anyone except their grizzled heroes (Hans Kung and Remi de Roo spring to mind). I mean everyone should listen to the generations before them–all the generations. Thus, I listen not only to the 60 year old nurse who has recently had her consciousness raised by a 65 year old nun-professor, but to the 90 year old nun who thinks the idea of women priests is simply hilarious, to St. Ignatius battling the Reformation, and to St. Augustine struggling with the Donatists, the Pelagians and the violence that plagued North Africa.

    As yet I cannot tell what particular and lasting wisdom the Baby Boom has had to offer the church as a generation, as the ideas so many have found worthy of promulgating are actually the ideas of the periti of the Second Vatican Council, who were slightly older than them. Again I think of Hans Kung and Remi Racehorse de Roo. Anyway, it is no doubt too early to see it. Perhaps it is the idea that the very young have unique insights. I hope the Baby Boom has not rejected this excellent idea now that it is not very young itself.

    My second thought is about your metaphor of a teenage church battling its parents. I do not know who the parents are in this scenario, or who is trying to break free from whom. The battle for access to theological education for those who wished it was won in the 16th-17th century by such figures as St. Theresa of Avila who wrote in vernacular languages, women and most men usually not being able to read Latin, even if they could read at all. Of course, anyone who could manage to learn Latin and get their hands on books (not easy in the 16th century) could read the Church Fathers and the great mediaeval theologians. I do hope the parents you are talking about are neither the Church Fathers nor the bishops nor priests in general nor all the generations of Catholics who were born before us.

    If the idea we are breaking free from is that bishops, priests and deacons form an unassailable, semi-divine caste whose own personal opinions trump the magisterium, then I would certainly agree. However, I think we can do that without demonizing them in general while blindly following the ones we like in particular because they are so attractive or exude star power. It would be nice if we accorded priests the same respect we give to medical doctors.

    My third thought is that Baby Boomers often complain that they were treated like children before the Second Vatican Council. This often is coupled with observations that they couldn’t understand the Latin of the Mass. It has occured to me this is because Baby Boomers were, in fact, children before the Second Vatican Council, and many of them couldn’t read the English side of the Missal yet.

  6. First thought: Listen is the first word of the Rule of Benedict. Not only a fine word, but a good path for life. Agreed!

    Second thought: the struggle, I believe, was to gain the rights and recognition that any adult seeks in society. The right to education and formation is only one of these rights. Yes, many mistakes were made along the way. Ideologies and beliefs are often torn apart in the effort to seek the truth. The hope is that the good pieces come back together and the journey ends with a deeper and truer belief.

    Third thought: The paternalistic paradigm went beyond the use of Latin, though I agree that it did cause an intellectual divide.

  7. I disagree that there was an intellectual divide. In the early 20th century people of all classes and conditions had a bilingual Missal, with the Latin prayers almost perfectly translated into the language of their country. If you could read English, you could prayerfully follow the Mass, and certainly altar servers–at the very least– learned the responses by heart. I know men your age who can still say all the responses. Don’t forget, also, that Latin was a standard part of school curriculum until about 1965. You may recall that the teenaged Anne of Green Gables, for example, sat in her farmyard with a copy of Virgil on her knee. The “intellectual divide” of the 16th century was well and truly closed by the 19th. Anyone who cared to learn Latin–and if you stayed in school you did– could read anything any priest could. Meanwhile, as many priests today learn Latin, many books are closed to them. Most of the work of Thomas Aquinas, for example, still lingers in Latin, never translated into a vernacular language. Even such 20th century theologians as Bernard Lonergan wrote in Latin (the language of study in pre-Conciliar Rome). Now, of course, the official language of instruction in Rome is Italian, so brainy young priests sent to Rome to study have to learn that!

    I won’t push the paternalism question, as I wasn’t there, and have to take it on faith that priestly tyranny was a problem. I understand that men-in-general treated women in a paternalist way, though.

  8. Oh, and to priestly tyranny being a problem I should add “as it sometimes is today.” It astonishes me how often priests completely ignore any official instruction promulgated since 1970 about the Mass. And if parishioners point them out, either meekly or (sadly) undiplomatically, Fr. Tyrant often goes bonkers.

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