Clergy and laity are co-participants in the mission of the Church

Father John A. Kiley

When Pope Francis opened the first meeting of the Synod on Synodality last October in Rome, the 363 voting participants came from all over the world. And for the first time, according to news reports, lay people, including 54 women, had voting rights. More than a quarter of the voting members were not bishops. Twenty-four Americans had voting privileges including cardinals, bishops and priests, but also including seven Americans who were religious women, a religious brother, lay ministers and college students.
The religious and lay participants from America were Sr. Maria Cimperman, RSCJ, a professor at Catholic Theologian Union in Chicago; Br. Mark Hilton, SC, superior general of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart; Cynthia Bailey Manns, adult learning director at St. Joan of Arc Parish in Minneapolis; Wyatt Olivas, a 19 year old student at the University of Wyoming; Julia Oseka, an international student attending St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia; Sister Mary Angela Perez, RSM, past president and principal of a Catholic girl’s high school in Guam; and Sr. Leticia Salazar, ODN, chancellor of the Diocese of San Bernardino, California.
The presence of religious and laity at a high level Church enterprise really should no longer surprise the Christian world. Both clergy and laity are co-workers and co-participants in the mission of the Church which is “to restore all things in Christ,” a mission happily broadened since St. Pius X proudly promoted that goal in 1903. All the baptized are called to collaborate with each other in the life and mission of the Church. Accordingly, in 1927 Pope Pius XI gave the term “Catholic Action” its classical definition as “the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy.” Certainly a multitude of ministries has flourished in the post Vatican II church. Lectors at Mass, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, catechesis and faith formation, youth ministry, pro-life organizations and various diocesan apostolates rely greatly on lay participants. Diocesan chanceries, once the exclusive field of the clergy, now rely greatly on religious and laity. However all popes since Vatican II have often emphasized that lay persons are not called simply to participate in the mission and ministry of the clergy nor are they solely to collaborate with their priests in parish life. The laity indeed have been called in their own right to their own mission and their own ministry which is the transformation of the secular world, the permeation of the Gospel message throughout society.
If the number of lay participants in the recent Synod on Synodality and especially the number of women participating still raises eyebrows, consider the number of lay women that helped build up the early Church and that are remembered personally and especially by St. Paul in his writings. Dorcas, also known as Tabitha, was recalled for her hospitality. Priscilla, the wife of Aquila, was a missionary partner to St. Paul. Lydia of Thyatira, a successful business woman, was the first believer after the resurrection and the first to introduce the faith to her household.
Eunice and Lois handed on their faith to the young Timothy. Mary, Julia and Rhoda are warmly remembered. Paul calls Phoebe a minister/servant (diakonon) of the Church of Cenchrea. Junia was regarded highly by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans and was even called an apostle! And to be fair, St. Paul might also have been disappointed by some women during his journeys. He labeled Jezebel a false prophetess.
Nonetheless, yes, nonetheless, authentic Christianity, that is, Roman Catholicism in particular along with Eastern Christianity, is by the plan and will of Christ a hierarchical enterprise. Clergy and laity are not interchangeable within the framework instituted by Christ during his public life. The clergy do not run for public office nor do the laity preside at liturgical functions.
This coming Sunday’s Gospel passage from St. John as well as next Sunday’s Gospel reading from St. Mark make abundantly clear that Christ himself called certain men to teach, rule and sanctify the world with an authority and a mission unique to them and their successors. St. John wrote: “Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas” — which is translated Peter.” And St. Mark recalled, “…he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” These invitations, along with the personal calls of the other apostles and disciples, began a structure that was then and is now framed according to the Will of Christ.
Christianity is more than fellowship and our churches are more than meeting houses. Whether the pyramid narrows upward or swells downward, there are Divinely instituted layers that must be respected as well as encouraged if Christianity is to prosper as the Church instituted by Christ during his lifetime.