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THE CATHOLIC REVIEW: The Layperson’s Distinctive Role

09/18/2020 | Comments

A few weeks ago, I served with Bishop Sheridan and Father Kirk Slattery of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in a COVID-delayed Confirmation Mass for 53 young people.

 Most of the time I worry about getting the sequences, prayers, and actions right as a deacon. What struck me at this Mass was the homily of the Bishop. The exact words escape me now, but his opening words to the young people were “Are you ready?” I remember clearly the Bishop’s tone as he posed the question. It was as if these young men and women sat in an athletic locker room of sorts, and this seasoned coach wanted to make sure that his charges were prepared for the greatest contest in their young lives.

As one who knew the field of play, this coach knew all too well the tests, the challenges, the times when they would stumble. But his words did not reflect the resignation of someone who had tried and failed, but of one who also knew the great victories, the enthusiasms, and both the joys and the peaceful contentment — when all had ended — that this was a contest that was worth their very best resolve. I prayed that these young people listened well before being anointed and commissioned in the sacrament of confirmation and that they walked out of Mass thrilled to take on the great mission of being Christ’s disciples in this world. I had witnessed Bishop Michael Sheridan —“Coach Michael,” if I may — coaching up these young men and women for the great contest for Jesus Christ and his Church.

It is with that same spirit that Francis Cardinal Arinze, Nigerian Cardinal Bishop of Velletri-Segni outside Rome, former Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (2002-2008) wrote “The Layperson’s Distinctive Role.” This slim book is spiritually dense beyond its pages, providing a thorough perspective on the role of the laity in the church. Written in 2013, it does not incorporate the thoughts of Pope Francis but includes those of Emeritus Pope Benedict, drawing richly also from St. Pope John Paul II.

Cardinal Arinze uses a sports analogy to illustrate the proper role of the laity: “There are no spectators in the Church. The apostolate is not like soccer, where 22 people are playing and 22 million are watching, cheering, yelling, or booing! Everyone in the Church has a role to play.” (p.11) By “apostolate,” Cardinal Arinze means the mission of the Church, the motive of Christ in founding his Church.

Instead of making ordained clergy — who represent a mere .01% of the world’s Catholics — responsible for all the outreach and service in spreading the message of Christ to the world,  we should strive to imitate the early Christians, who regardless of their profession were equally dedicated to spreading the Gospel, Cardinal Arinze says. Specifically, we should adopt the model that St. Paul described to the Church in Ephesus, where he explained various gifts, talents, and charisms as having this shared purpose that “some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12, RSVCE).

Cardinal Arinze declares solemnly that “It is the lay faithful — the overwhelming majority of the members of the Church, who are “called by Baptism to witness to Christ in the secular sphere of life, that is, in the family; in work and leisure; in science and culture; in politics and government; in trade and mass media; and in national and international relations” (p.11).

Cardinal Arinze starts with scripture and walks through the relevant catechetical coverage, paying attention to the collected works of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Also drawing heavily on the conciliar documents of Vatican II — the often-overlooked “Apostolicam Actuositatem” (Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, §§2-7); “Lumen Gentium” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, §§32-37); and “Gaudium et Spes” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, §43) — Arinze discovers a clear definition of what composes the laity (from the Greek word laos, meaning “people”). It is a far more helpful definition than other descriptions that seem to only highlight what the laity is not — they are everyone who is not clergy. Cardinal Arinze, citing the Vatican II documents, describes a lay person as “one who by Baptism is incorporated into Christ and the Church and is called to evangelize the secular order” (p.14). Cardinal Arinze spotlights an area that is missing in our teaching and formation of disciples — that “we entrust to faithful [people] who will be able to teach/disciple others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).

Citing Eucharistic Prayer I of the Mass for other worthy exemplars, we are reminded of such valiant martyrs as Cosmas and Damian (medical doctors), John and Paul (court officials at the time of Julian the Apostate in 361-363 A.D.), Felicity and Perpetua (the former a pregnant woman, the latter a twenty-two-year-old mother with a baby at her breast, both from Carthage in North Africa), also Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, and Anastasia. The lay faithful were conspicuous in the biblical and liturgical record; the modern practice of “putting money in the plate to pay for someone else to evangelize” is far from these worthy lay disciples. Cardinal Arinze does not move far from this central theme, stating that “the point here is that the right of the laity to be involved in the mission of the Church is not a benevolent concession from bishops or priests. The laity have this right and duty by reason of their Baptism” (p.30).

Cardinal Arinze draws from the Gospels for his conclusions as well. From the Samaritan woman in John 4; the Gerasene demoniac who, when healed, witnessed in the 10 cities on northern Galilee of Christ’s healing power; the centurion Cornelius who brought his entire household to baptism (Acts 10); Cardinal Arinze seizes on the lengthy list of greetings in the 16th chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans as indicative of how vital lay people (and the lay women far outnumber the men here) with various gifts were in the spreading of the Gospel.   

In addition to calling the lay faithful back to their prime mission, the Vatican II councils also decry what they have called “the divorce between religion and daily life.” Citing the conciliar documents, Arinze says that “people are mistaken to imagine that religion consists only in acts of worship and the discharge of certain moral obligations and therefore figure they can plunge into earthly affairs as if these were altogether divorced from their faith” (p.34).

Such a lay calling is high, holy, and invigorating; the church can replace with what has been called “the Great Omission” with the original “Great Commission” of Jesus in Matthew 28 — to evangelize the world. Such a lay influence — properly led by helpful shepherds and pastors whose guidance is gratefully appreciated — will be salt and light to a world that has grown distrustful of clergy and organized religion. Their impact will be undeniable.

Cardinal Arinze cites “Apostolicam Actuositatem” §7, “The laity must take on the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation. Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church, and motivated by Christian love, let them act directly and definitively in the temporal sphere. As citizens they must cooperate with other citizens, using their own particular skills and acting on their own responsibility. Everywhere and in all things they must seek the justice characteristic of God’s kingdom.” (p.41).

“The Layperson’s Distinctive Role” is a book whose timeliness is even more poignant as we arise from the isolation of pandemic, gather our Catholic communities and rediscover our main purpose as Christ’s people.

His book would make for an inspiring study guide for the formation of communities of lay disciples seeking to bring the message of Christ to a fallen world. No committees, less handouts, fewer logistics, and more prayer and discussion about how this prime directive of Christ can be fulfilled would be the result of a thorough reading of this handy and dense “little book.”

And I would bet we already have a few “coaching clergy” in our midst who are only too eager to help us in this work.  

(For comments, reactions or to suggest a book or resource that might be helpful for Catholics, contact Deacon Rick at

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