The nature of the priesthood of the laity has caused a lot of confusion in the post-Second Vatican Council Church, and so it is important to clarify both the beauty…
The nature of the priesthood of the laity has caused a lot of confusion in the post-Second Vatican Council Church, and so it is important to clarify both the beauty of this doctrine and the difference between this priesthood and the ministerial priesthood.
The priesthood of the laity is based on the fact that all those baptized receive not only sanctifying grace, but also a character, or indelible mark, in their souls by which they are conformed to Christ as priest, prophet and king. Vatican II reminded Catholics that all the faithful are truly priests through baptism, but their priesthood differs from the ministerial priesthood in its essence “and not only in degree” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, No. 10). Yet, “the one is ordered to the other” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1547).
A True State of Life
The ministerial priesthood, though it involves the power to define doctrine on the episcopal level, to govern the earthly Church and to consecrate the Eucharist, is only a means to the end of the holiness and consecration of all the faithful. The clergy are the means ordered to the end, which is the faithful.
Vatican II was very clear that the laity constitute a true state of life in the Church as their consecration is more general than priests and religious and oriented to the secular world. However, this recognition of a lay state is to be understood as referring to that state in a broad sense of the term. As the council fathers wrote, “The state of the laity is used in place of condition and mission (terms which occur a little further on) so that the honor of constituting a state is recognized for the laity at least in the broad sense” (“Doctrinal Commission on Lumen Gentium”).
Lumen Gentium’s definition of the laity looks at the lay faithful primarily as distinct from the rest of the Church, but the late Dominican priest and theologian Jordan Aumann, in his book “On the Front Lines” (Alba House, 1990), developed a more positive definition of the laity, one which seeks not just to set the laity off in relief from those with a special consecrated role in the Church, but also to identify their consecration.
To summarize his points: the laity, like all other members of Christ’s faithful, are baptized persons (sacramental aspect) who are thereby incorporated into Christ (Christian aspect) and made members of the Church (ecclesiological aspect) with the right and duty to participate actively in the mission of the Church (missionary aspect).
In addition to all that, the laity, by reason of their secular characteristic, are committed to the renewal and sanctification of the temporal order.
To Sanctify the World
The laity have a place in the Church which is characterized as “mission.” They are distinguished from both the clergy and religious because their true consecration in the Church is of a secular nature. The “world” here is taken not only to mean the world as a kingdom ruled by sin, but also, in a more positive sense, everyday life. The laity are called and gifted to sanctify the world from within.
Meanwhile, the sacred ministry of the sacraments and the separation from secular occupations and interests are part of the nature and mission of the clergy and religious. As the laity are to sanctify the world from within, it would be equally a mistake for clergy to become what Father Aumann called “hyphenated priests” occupied mostly in secular pursuits, or for laypeople to be clericalized so they take over all functions in the liturgy and the parish except actual consecration of the Eucharist.
Though the Church has encouraged the laity to enter formally into the ritual of the Mass by acting as lectors and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, laypeople exercise their proper and characteristic dignity in transforming the secular world of the family and the professions, where they find their proper place. The laity live in the world and work in it; they sanctify the world against the evils which are present in it. In this they imitate Christ who had to act among ordinary people in an ordinary life in order to save us. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “It was in keeping with the end of the Incarnation that Christ should not lead a solitary life, but should associate with men. Now it is most fitting that he who associates with others should conform to their manner of living.”
The laity are not, therefore, some stand-alone vocation in the Church. They are truly called to sanctity, along with priests and religious, albeit in different ways. They truly serve with the bishops and priests as brothers (see Lumen Gentium, No. 10).
This mission includes the threefold nature of the mission of Christ: priest, prophet and king. The teachings of Vatican II clarify this by holding it should not involve too rigid an application of this threefold mission, lest a tripartite theology be applied. Rather, the use of these terms means, more generally, worship (priest), witness (prophet) and service (king).
The priestly aspect of the laity is seen not in offering the sacrifice of the Mass by changing the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Laity are not in themselves ministers of the altar. Instead, it is seen in all the actions of their everyday life when viewed from God’s point of view. These actions are most fittingly offered with the victim in the sacrifice of the Mass. And so, Lumen Gentium teaches, “worshipping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to God” (Catechism, No. 901). The consecration of the world through the actions of the laity is not due to the actions themselves, but rather to the attitude of the one who does them. This attitude is looking at the world from God’s point of view, under the aspect of eternity. At Mass, the laity truly offer what they are with the priest and receive the gift of Christ to transform their way of thinking and action to be that of Christ.
The prophetic aspect of the mission of the laity by which they witness to the truth includes their witness to the last things. Until the end of time, God fulfills the prophetic aspect of Christ’s mission not only in the formal teaching of the hierarchy, but also in the witness of the laity who teach the Faith. Central to this prophetic ministry is the instruction in the Faith which parents should give their children. This adds to the priestly role of the laity in marriage.
The Church has reiterated a long-standing teaching that marriage is itself holy because the ministers are the baptized couple, made holy by baptism. In the exchange of vows, baptized couples are the means of holiness for each other, so they truly are the ministers. The priest and the Church must be present as witnesses because it would be unfitting for Christians to exchange vows of love in any other context than that of Christ and the Church. The union of the couple is not merely religious, but supernaturally holy, because of the character of baptism present in the parties. Marriage is thus the prime exercise of the priesthood of the faithful, which was common to all the baptized.
The priestly character of marriage not only affects the unity of the spouses, but also relates directly to the procreative dimension. The purpose of procreation is not just realized in the existence of children, but also demands nurture and education. Since the body and the soul are the result of the marriage act, and the soul is created for union with God, St. Thomas does not hesitate to repeat with Aristotle that “there is something divine in human seed.”
This divine character of human seed can only be finally completed in the Vision of God, when man sees God face-to-face. Parents are the primary ministers who prepare their children for this mystery. Education does not end at Harvard or Yale, but in heaven. The child must be schooled for the cultus Dei, the worship of God. This schooling is an education in the virtues. This makes the home a domestic Church. St. John Paul II, in his famed apostolic exhortation on the role of the Christian family in the modern world, Familiaris Consortio, explains, “The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for that reason can and should be called a domestic church” (Catechism, No. 2204).
The kingly role is expressed in Christian service, especially in the virtue of justice. One must realize that the power to rule is expressed first in ruling oneself and one’s own inclinations to sin with the help of God’s grace. St. Hilary wrote: “There are kings in whom sin does not reign, who rule their own body…. These are kings and their king is God.” This is accomplished through the self-surrender to God brought about by the rule of the virtues and the gifts. The laity are called to bring forth the kingdom of Christ, first through the interior self-rule by which they can be a leaven in the secular professions. From this interior integrity they can seek to establish justice and mercy in secular life.
In a very real sense, then, the laity are priests, but by an essential difference in the participation in the character of baptism from ministerial priests. The consecration of the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins together with leadership in the parish and true teaching are all meant to nourish the priesthood of the laity.
Father Brian Thomas Becket Mullady, O.P. is an author, retreat master and preacher.
For nearly 1,000 years, the permanent diaconate had all but disappeared from the Church in the West. How were permanent deacons restored, and what service do they offer the Church…
For nearly 1,000 years, the permanent diaconate had all but disappeared from the Church in the West. How were permanent deacons restored, and what service do they offer the Church today?
“At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them” (Acts 6:1-6).
As is clear from this passage in the Acts of the Apostles, the deacon is called to the service of the faithful. The word deacon itself comes from the Greek word diakonos , which means “servant,” or “helper.” In the days of the early Church, deacons traditionally helped the local bishop. In fact, one of the Church Fathers, St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the first century, noted that the deacon had two functions: penning letters for the bishop and assisting him in the ministry of the Word. These first deacons were also active in helping the poor and needy of the community. St. Ignatius emphasized their role as one of service to the Church of God.
An Age of Decline
By the third century, the roles of the deacon began to fall into disuse. Historians say it was due to a number of issues, including tension between the duties of the priest and those of the deacon. Also, confusion existed as to who had authority over them. Priests questioned why deacons were not subject to them, but rather were under the direct orders of the bishops.
By the fifth century, the role of the permanent deacon was all but defunct. Emphasis was instead placed on the identity of the deacon as an introductory step to holy orders, the so-called transitional diaconate. It was and still is today the final step of formation before priestly ordination. Thus the Church was full of transitional deacons — or priests in training — while permanent deacons were essentially gone from the West, and would be for nearly a millennium.
Amazingly, interest in reviving the permanent diaconate was sparked by a group of priests imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. They envisioned men — married or single — taking up the work of the Church beyond the walls of the sanctuary. They also saw the deacon as one who would help overcome the estrangement that many Catholics had experience due to a rigid hierarchical structure. They envisioned deacons as married or single celibate men who would live and work in the world. When the idea of a restored permanent diaconate was presented to Pope Pius XII in 1957, he expressed his support. However, the Pope noted that “the time is not yet ripe.”
In the following decade, the Church decided that the time had arrived. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65), in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church ( Lumen Gentium ), placed emphasis on the restoration of the permanent diaconate:
“The diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy. It pertains to the competent territorial bodies of bishops, of one kind or another, to decide, with the ap- proval of the Supreme Pontiff, whether and where it is opportune for such deacons to be appointed for the care of souls. With the consent of the Roman Pontiff, this diaconate will be able to be conferred upon men of more mature age, even upon those living in the married state. It may also be conferred upon suitable young men. For them, however, the law of celibacy must remain intact” (No. 29).
In July 1967, Pope Paul VI issued the document Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (“Sacred Order of the Diaconate”), which authorized the re-establishment of the permanent diaconate, making it possible for men to become deacons permanently, without going on to the priesthood. He allowed married men, with the explicit consent of their wives, to be ordained permanent deacons. Bishops, particularly those from the United States, began to set up formation programs for those men interested in being ordained a deacon, and, by the middle of the 1970s, the Church around the world saw the ordination of these new permanent deacons.
The Modern Permanent Diaconate
Since Vatican II, much has been discussed about the identity and role of the permanent deacon. Questions arose, for example, as to whether they were “sub-priests” or simply dedicated lay ministers. In 1998, under the direction of Pope John Paul II, two important documents were issued by two offices in Rome: Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, by the Congregation for the Clergy, and Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons, by the Congregation for Catholic Education. Both documents provide the world’s bishops’ conferences with directives and norms on the selection, formation and pastoral care of aspirants, candidates and deacons in accordance with the intent of the Second Vatican Council. In its Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, the Congregation for the Clergy stated that “through the imposition of hands and the prayer of consecration [the deacon] is constituted a sacred minister and a member of the hierarchy” (No. 1).
The document goes on to define the ministry of the deacon as that of service and proclamation of the Word of God: “The principal function of the deacon, therefore, is to collaborate with the bishop and the priests in the exercise of a ministry which is not of their own wisdom but of the word of God, calling all to conversion and holiness. He prepares for such a ministry by careful study of Sacred Scripture, of Tradition, of the liturgy and of the life of the Church” (No. 23).
Today, there are around 17,000 permanent deacons in the United States (the highest total by far for any single country) in full-time ministry, as opposed to holding another job and serving part time in ministry. Worldwide, there are nearly 36,000 permanent deacons. The majority of these men work in parishes, helping in the day-to-day ministries of the parish. Among other things, they preach the Gospel at Mass, baptize, witness marriages and help the faithful prepare for the sacraments.
Pope Benedict XVI made it clear in a 2006 address to the permanent deacons of Rome that whether their ministry is on the weekend at Church or perhaps a weeknight at a nursing home, the call of the permanent diaconate is a universal one. “Union with Christ,” said the Pope, “to be cultivated through prayer, sacramental life and, in particular, Eucharistic Adoration, is of the greatest importance to your ministry, if it is truly to testify to God’s love.”
Feast day, Dec. 26
The Church honors St. Stephen as the patron saint of deacons, and rightfully so. Stephen was one of the seven men named in Acts 6 to take care of needy Christians and to proclaim and teach the Word of God. He was also the first martyr for the Faith when he was stoned to death just outside of Jerusalem.
The feast of the protomartyr, as Stephen is often called, is celebrated each year on Dec. 26. As well as being the Church’s first martyr, Stephen is the first on a long list of saints who served the Church as deacons.
St. Lawrence of Rome
Feast day, Aug. 10
The rise of St. Lawrence, deacon of Rome, could not have come at a better time. It was A.D. 258 when the Roman Emperor Valerian began a fresh round of persecutions against Christians. Among those rounded up was Pope Sixtus II, who was arrested and beheaded just outside of Rome with several of his deacons.
St. Lawrence was one of the pope’s deacons, but he avoided arrest and hurried back to Rome. Fearful that the oncoming mob would rob the Church’s sacred vessels, he sold them and distributed the money to the poor of the city. However, not long after, he was summoned to appear before the Roman court.
There, he was offered a deal. The prefect promised to spare Lawrence’s life if he would bring all of the Church’s treasures to the state. Lawrence agreed and had three days to complete the task. On the third day, Lawrence returned to court with a large crowd of poor, ragged and lame people. He explained to the prefect that these people were the treasures of the city.
The judge was furious and ordered Lawrence to be burned alive in public on a giant griddle. While being roasted alive, the jovial Lawrence is reported to have said to his executioners, “Turn me over, I am done on this side.”
Fittingly, he is the patron saint of cooks and butchers.
St. Ephrem of Syria
Feast day, June 9
Little is known about the early life of this fourth-century saint. It is believed that he served as a deacon under four bishops of Nisibis, an ancient city of Mesopotamia in what is now southeastern Turkey.
Ephrem is known for writing hymns, homilies and poetry. Tradition has it that Ephrem began composing hymns to combat a number of heresies and attacks on the Church during his era. He is often credited with introducing the use of hymns in public worship.
In 363, the area of Nisibis was under attack by the Persians, and Ephrem led a number of Christian refugees to Edessa, roughly 100 miles from his home. There, he established a popular theological school. He died in 373 and was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1920. He is the patron saint of spiritual directors and spiritual leaders.
To be forgiven, tell God that you are truly sorry and then go to confession as soon as possible. After that, commit yourself to a life of service toward others,…
To be forgiven, tell God that you are truly sorry and then go to confession as soon as possible. After that, commit yourself to a life of service toward others, supported and strengthened by a life of prayer and frequenting of the sacraments. And have hope. Remember the great good that Dorothy Day did after her conversion? Remember the great good that St. Paul did after his conversion? Remember the great good that St. Augustine did after his conversion? Yes, there is conversion. There is redemption. There is a second chance, because Jesus who made you loves you and died for you on the cross to redeem you from your sins.
There can be life and there can be hope after abortion for all who have been involved in something so sad. The Church wraps her arms around all of her children, offering the grace of forgiveness and mercy through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the supernatural strength and sustenance that our soul needs through the Eucharist and prayer.
There are a number of programs that reach out to those affected by abortion, and a few that come to mind are Project Rachel, sponsored by Catholic Charities, and Rachel’s Vineyard, sponsored by Priests for Life. All those who have been directly or indirectly involved in an abortion can be forgiven by going to confession. In most dioceses of the United States not only does the priest/confessor have the power to forgive the sin, but he has the delegated ability to lift any canonical penalties such as excommunication. I know the very mention of the word “excommunication” can terrify people, but it just shows how committed the Church is to upholding the dignity and sacredness of life, from the moment of conception until natural death.
For the record, only a person who is aware of the canonical penalty incurs it, and only if they are 18 years or older and fully aware of what they are doing.
Rev. Francis Hoffman, J.C.D., is Executive Director of Relevant Radio. Follow him on his Facebook page “Father Rocky.”
The Church’s Code of Canon Law states, “Laymen who possess the age and qualifications…can be installed on a stable basis in the ministries of lector and acolyte” (Canon 230). The…
The Church’s Code of Canon Law states, “Laymen who possess the age and qualifications…can be installed on a stable basis in the ministries of lector and acolyte” (Canon 230). The text continues, “When the necessity of the Church warrants it, and when ministers are lacking, lay persons, even if they are not lectors or acolytes, can also supply for certain of their offices, namely, to preside over liturgical prayers, to confer baptism, and to distribute holy Communion.”
Pope Paul VI inherited the responsibility for implementing the numerous reforms of the Second Vatican Council. One of these was a fundamental change in the Church’s view of ministry. Inviting lay members of the worshiping community to share the duties of lector and acolyte was one very visible sign of this change. A commentary on the text quoted above remarks: “[The pope] intentionally took this step to emphasize that ministry is not just ordained or sacred ministry. All participate in the mission of the Church.”
One practical result of expanding the Church’s Eucharistic ministry to include the laity is increased service. A well-organized lay ministry can bring the Eucharist to the ill and homebound far more often than an unaided pastor.