The Role of Laity in the Church in the Third Millennium

Archbishop Henry D’Souza

Inaugural Address:

1.0 In the post-synodal document Ecclesia In Asia, Pope John Paul II wrote: “With the Church throughout world, the Church in Asia will cross the threshold of the third Christian millennium marveling at all that God has worked from the beginning until now, and strong in the knowledge that “just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent” (EA 1).

1.1 This is indeed a dream. If it is to come true, the responsibility will lie on the shoulders of the lay faithful, more than on the priests and other religious workers. “By the grace and call of baptism and confirmation, all lay people are missionaries; and the arena of their missionary work is the vast complex worlds of politics, economics, industry, education, the media, science, technology, the arts and the sports” (EA 45). In fact the past history of some countries in Asia indicates the important role played by lay persons in the task of evangelization. Korea stands out as the foremost example; the faith was brought there and flourished because of laypersons who received it on their journeys to China. Japan too is a shining example. The faith was kept alive for years through laypersons. The same has been the case in more recent years for the Church in China and the Church in Vietnam and Cambodia – where clerical help was at the minimum and the faith continued to exist and to grow with the faith of the lay faithful. Even in our land, it is the through catechists and lay faithful that the faith has been kept alive and has flourished in villages and outlying stations.

1.2 The topic, chosen for your conference is “The role of the laity in the Church of the new millennium”, is very appropriate. It fits into the dream of the Holy Father for the evangelization of Asia. This dream in fact realizable only if the laity take their rightful place in the mission of the Church.

2.0 Some concerns:

2.1 Formation and the role of pastors: The document Ecclesia in Asia, is clear that the formation of the laity for the task ahead is the responsibility of the pastors. It says: “It is the task of the Pastors to ensure that the laity are formed as evangelizers able to face the challengers of the contemporary world, not just with worldly wisdom and efficiency, but hearts renewed and

strengthened by the truth of Christ. Witnessing to the Gospel in every area of life in society, the lay faithful can play a unique role in rooting out injustice and oppression, and for this too they must be adequately formed. To this end I join the Synodal Fathers in proposing the establishment at the diocesan and national level of formation centres to prepare the laity for their missionary work as witnesses to Christ in Asia today”. (EA 45). It is also important that religious and priestly formation take into account the role of the laity in the mission of the church. Hence religious and exposure and adequate periods of immersion in the social realities.

2.2 Partnership and Team Ministry: The importance of partnership has to be promoted. This should start with the concept of family life where all are partners with each other. Cultural factors demeaning the dignity and equality of persons on grounds of gender or whatever should be addressed. Priests should be encouraged to adopt the team approach where clergy, religious and laity together work for the mission of the Church. Given the impending shortage of religious personnel for our schools and colleges and institutions, the need to prepare laity for this ministry becomes quite relevant and even urgent.

2.2 Women: Special attention has to be given to women. Women should be invited to be trainers; and formators should be helped to understand and appreciate womanhood and its uniqueness. They should also be more effectively involved in pastoral programmes, in diocesan and parish pastoral councils, and in diocesan synods. Their abilities and services should be fully appreciated in health care, in education, in preparing the faithful for the sacraments, in building community and in peacemaking”. (EA 45)

Addressing a General Audience in 1994, the pope said: “Woman has a quite special aptitude in passing on the faith, so much so that Jesus himself appealed to it in the work of evangelization. That is what happened to the Samaritan woman Jesus met at Jacob’s well: he chose her for the first expression of the new faith in non-Jewish territory”. In fact their love and service can have the special quality of bringing the compassionate Jesus, the healer and reconciler, to people especially the poor and the marginalized.

3.0 The arena for Evangelization:

3.1 It is also true that the arena for evangelization has changed drastically. The mass media controls the minds and values of the world. They direct the world to consumer values and behaviour. The media has far greater influence than priests, religious, teachers, and parents. Consequently as a layman writes “materialism, conspicuous consumption, the belief that modernization and progress is inherently good, that only the fittest survive, have become the global dominant values i.e. peace, patience, tolerance, generosity, harmony with nature, respect for elders, love of family and community, and yearning for spiritual values of compassion, love and other-centredness are devalued.” (Evangelization and social communication, Fr S. Dias. P. 138)

3.2 Evangelization of modern culture goes far beyond just entering the field of mass media, or just using it for preaching Christ. There is need to integrate the Gospel message into the new culture realizing that there is now a new language, a new technique and a new psychology. This

is an area where priests and religious may find themselves often out of depth, and could find competent support from the professional services of laypersons. In fact the complementarity of the roles of the lay and non-lay faithful will find its most beautiful opportunities in this venture.

4.0 Gifts and Charisms:

4.1 Having said so much, there is now need to think about the special gifts and charisms of the lay faithful. No one is devoid of any. Each person has something, which he/she can contribute for the mission of the Church. Sadly laypersons are seldom encouraged to recognize their gifts of charisms. Pastors would want to be adept in discovering and uncovering such talents. Otherwise the laypersons remain in the church as the servant who wrapped his talent in a kerchief and hid it in the ground. In a meeting of Asian youth, it was said: “We are working in executive jobs in our companies and dealing with policy and important matters for it; but when we come to church, we are only needed to shift tables and settle the chairs for a function. Who wants to do that, while the oldies dominate the positions of power and influence”.

4.2 This happens when the pastor works out of a “task-oriented” church model. But if the pastor would take the trouble to identify the gifts of his community, he will soon discover so much potential that there would be an explosion of power for the good of the community and the mission of the church.

Will this consultation help towards the release of that potential? In fact the CBCI in January is meeting to discuss the same topic, and it is hoped that the whole Church will become aware of its latent gifts and charisms.

This fact in turn should bring to light new ministries relevant for Asia. We need to go beyond the liturgy-related ministries. We have two such recognized ministries-the lector and the acolyte, both of which are given only to those who are moving towards the priesthood. Other ministries could now emerge to meet the new needs – they would be related to inter-religious dialogue, to the new evangelization, to social service, to hospital visitation, to basic ecclesial communities etc.

5.0 Conflict Situations:

5.1 An area of concern today is the growing number of court cases of Catholics against the priests and bishops and vice versa. We need to remind ourselves of the prime advice given to us in the gospel about situations of dispute. A ready-made structure for resolving disputes should be available.

5.2. It is important to give a quick response to any form of injustice. It is absolutely necessary to uphold the rights of employees in our schools and institutions, and when injustice is done against them to stand for justice even if it means taking a stand against the religious personnel involved. The rights of the laity should be known and respected. Often there is need to give time for passions to cool down. Christians are not normally violent or desirous of hurting their pastors or their church. Good sense can be made to prevail when love of Christ pervades in the ministry.

6.0 Small Ecclesial Communities:

6.1 In this context the importance of small ecclesial communities becomes all the more urgent. Here problems are resolved around the bible, the word of God, and the person of Jesus. “A lot of effort will be required from the priests who have been accustomed to minister in another form. The formation of small ecclesial communities requires skills, strategies, leadership and abilities different from the ordinary pastor’s qualities and this can b difficult for those who have been long in routine pastoral ministry” says Bishop Dabre. (Vidya Jyoti p 580, Asug. 2000)

6.2 This is also compounded by the fact that laypersons especially in towns and cities are accustomed to live in isolation. They shut out the neighbourhood. There is usually a lack of acceptance of each other; more often a tendency to be indifferent and lethargic to the needs of the neighbour. Community living makes serious demands – it requires that we mean what we believe. We pray during the Mass that “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us”. This is a call to live in love, harmony and most small Christian communities run into difficulty because of this lack of trust.

7.0 Special Groups and Advocacy:

7.1 In August 1992 FABC held a Far East Asian Regional Laity meeting in Korea. The group identified obstacles for the lay involvement in society. Among them were the lack of knowledge of the full demands of gospel values, especially concerning the Church’s social doctrine, the emphasis on pious personal faith and not seeing the need to be concerned about others and work for societal change.

7.2 Among solutions were proposed not only formation in the Church’s social teaching, but also the need to form group of Catholic Professionals who could support each other in making Christian options in their work and offer specialized services on behalf of marginalized groups and such other sectors of society. This is now known as Advocacy and is being successfully applied by groups as the Pax Romana.

8.0 Conclusion: I could speak more about the possibilities before us. Canonists will no doubt be able to give guidance to the Church on how the role of the laity can be maximized in the mission of the Church and the task of evangelization. Most important however is the need for a realization of the possibilities which lie before the lay faithful to join the challenging task of evangelization and the dignity and responsibility which their calling as Christians already impose on them. May your meeting help towards this cause. As President of the CBCI I am happy that this theme has been chosen. Your findings and suggestions will be of immense help in Calcutta in January 2001. My prayers and blessings for the success of your meeting!