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Why Vatican II Emphasized the
Interview With Russell Shaw
WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 28, 2005 (Zenit.org).-
One of the problems in the Church since the Second Vatican Council has
been the greater emphasis placed on lay ministries rather than on the
So says Russell Shaw, a longtime Catholic journalist and former
secretary of public affairs of the U.S. bishops' conference.
Shaw, the Washington correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor newspaper
and a contributing editor of Crisis and Columbia magazines, is also a
consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
He shared with ZENIT his thoughts about Vatican II's decree on the
apostolate of the laity as it marked its 40th anniversary this month.
Q: What led the Council Fathers to adopt the broadened view of lay
apostolate found in the decree on the apostolate of the laity, "Apostolicam
Shaw: Two things -- facts and theology.
The facts were: first, that due to secularization and
anti-clericalism, priests and religious no longer had effective access
to many areas of society in a number of countries, so that, second, if
the Church was to be present there, lay people would have to do the
job. At the time of the Council, the problem was particularly acute
for the "Church of silence" behind the Iron Curtain, but it
also was a growing problem in the West.
The theology was the new understanding of the Church as a communion
that we find in the dogmatic constitution on the Church, "Lumen
Gentium." In place of the top-down pyramid model of the past, the
Church is seen as a hierarchically structured reality, with diverse
offices and functions, within which nevertheless all of the members
have a fundamental equality in dignity and rights. To speak of the
Church as "Body of Christ" and "People of God"
expresses this insight.
Of central importance among the rights and duties of the Church's
members that arise from baptism are the right and duty to participate
in the mission of the Church. The generic name for that mission is
apostolate. So, the participation of lay people in the mission of the
Church is properly called "lay apostolate."
Also enormously important was "Lumen Gentium's" teaching
that the laity, just as much as the clergy and religious, are called
by God to strive for the highest levels of sanctity -- to be saints.
That is stated very clearly in Chapter 5 of the constitution on the
Church, while the situation of the laity in relation to the Church and
its mission is discussed in Chapter 4.
The decree on the apostolate of the laity therefore is the Council's
practical, programmatic application of the principles set out in
"Lumen Gentium." The two documents complement each other.
Q: What are the rights and duties of the laity in regard to apostolate
that the decree speaks about and how are they reflected in everyday
Shaw: Unlike the pre-Vatican II understanding of lay apostolate found
in the Catholic Action movement -- the idea, that is, that the
apostolate of the laity is a participation in the apostolate of the
hierarchy which comes to them by way of hierarchical delegation -- the
Council teaches that lay people have a right and duty to engage in
apostolate simply because they are members of the Church.
The call to apostolate comes to the laity from Christ and is grounded
in baptism and confirmation. It is not something delegated by the
hierarchy -- though obviously if lay people wish to act in the name of
the Church, they have to have hierarchical approval.
Thus, the Council endorses the idea of autonomous lay apostolate,
which it says takes two basic forms: individual apostolate and group
apostolate. Whether they participate in a group apostolate or not, all
Catholic lay women and men are called to do individual apostolate.
All this is spelled out in the decree on the apostolate of the laity.
The basic message is this: "The Christian vocation is, of its
nature, a vocation to the apostolate" ["Apostolicam
Actuositatem," No. 2].
Ideally, individual lay people put this vision of lay apostolate into
practice in their everyday lives by discerning their personal
vocations. How is God calling each one of us to serve him, to serve
our neighbor, and to carry on the redemptive work of Christ -- which
is the mission of the Church -- here and now?
An individual's answer to that, based on vocational discernment, is
the specific form that the apostolate should take for him or her.
Others can offer general suggestions, point to various good options,
but in the final analysis, discerning personal vocations is something
individuals must do for themselves.
I think you will find all this covered pretty well in my new book
"Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church," which is
published by Requiem
Q: According to the document, the laity are not limited to apostolate
in their parish. National and even international apostolate is
encouraged. What does this mean for a layperson?
Shaw: The parish is not the primary place where lay apostolate takes
place. Nor is some other Church structure or institution the preferred
setting for the apostolate of the laity. Lay apostolate is properly
directed to, and takes place in, the secular world. As "Apostolicam
Actuositatem" puts it, lay people "ought to take on
themselves as their distinctive task this renewal of the temporal
order" [No. 7].
Our current overemphasis on lay activity within ecclesiastical
institutions and structures arises from the overemphasis on lay
ministries since the 1970s. The Second Vatican Council said very, very
little about lay ministry.
In speaking about the participation of lay people in the Church's
mission, it spoke mainly about lay apostolate, and it made it
overwhelmingly clear that this is primarily apostolate that carries
the Gospel out into the world. Don't misunderstand -- lay ministry is
a good thing. But by stressing ministry instead of apostolate, as is
now commonly done, we are getting what the Council intended exactly
Q: Given the declining number of priests, especially in the West, how
important is "Apostolicam Actuositatem"?
Shaw: The declining number of priests and religious makes it even more
important that lay people take up the slack in many ways. But it's
important to be clear. If we are talking about forms of ministry --
Eucharistic ministers, lay catechists, things like that -- we are
talking about lay ministry, not lay apostolate.
The need for lay apostolate in response to the secularization of
society exists independently of a shortage of clerical and religious
personnel, and it is growing more urgent all the time.
Q: What is the apostolate of the family that the Council speaks of?
Shaw: The expression can refer to several different things.
One of these is the apostolate "to" families. This consists
essentially in efforts to build up and support healthy marriages and
families. The need is obvious at a time when half the marriages in the
United States end in divorce and pressure for legalization of same-sex
marriage is intense -- and in some places has succeeded.
The apostolate "of" the family refers to efforts by couples
and families to do family apostolate themselves by helping their
neighbors and friends through good example and word. Families also can
and should come together for mutual support. Pope John Paul II says a
great deal about this, and says it very beautifully, in his apostolic
exhortation "Familiaris Consortio."
Q: What is the place of apostolic and spiritual formation, in light of
the call to apostolate?
Shaw: Formation for apostolate is absolutely essential, and it can't
be separated from spiritual formation. One of the most valuable
contributions being made today by the "new" lay groups like
Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, the Neocatechumenate and the rest
is their strong emphasis on the in-depth, ongoing formation of the
This is doubly important because, aside from what these groups are
doing, almost all the effort in lay formation today is directed to lay
ministry. Of course, lay ministers do need to be formed -- and formed
very, very well. But people who are serious about apostolate out in
the secular world also need solid, continuing formation, and in many
cases I'm afraid they aren't getting it. Somehow this doesn't seem to
be a big priority in many parishes and Catholic schools.
There is another crucial -- and commonly ignored -- point about the
formation of the laity which Pope John Paul makes in his apostolic
exhortation "Christifideles Laici." It is that lay formation
is, or at least it should be, specifically vocational in nature.
"The fundamental objective of the formation of the lay
faithful," he says, "is an ever-clearer discovery of one's
vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live it out so as to
fulfill one's mission" [No. 58]. The Pope is talking about
forming the laity for vocational discernment. The lay groups and
movements seem to take that seriously. I wish more people did.