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The Laity: Movers in the New Evangelization

Interview With Ramiro Pellitero

PAMPLONA, Spain, JUNE 10, 2006 (Zenit) - The role of the laity as the principal force behind the evangelization and transformation of society has been rediscovered, says Ramiro Pellitero.

The professor of pastoral theology at the University of Navarra, has written "The Laity in the Ecclesiology of Vatican II," published in Spanish by RIALP Editions, in which he brings together the writings of 13 authors on the vocation and mission of the lay faithful, in the light of the Second Vatican Council.

In this interview with us, the author discusses what the role of the laity in the Church.

Q: Let's begin with questions of language that might be obvious to experts, but not for those unfamiliar with these matters. The word "laity" is used today to designate the partisans of laicism. One speaks of the "lay state," "lay schools," etc. -- a position that is foreign to or even opposed to religion. I suppose that you are not using the word in this sense.

Pellitero: Indeed. The meaning of "laicism" that you are referring to is related to another term, "laicity," whose content is more conciliatory with the Christian perspective, one referring to the quality of a state or society that, without being confessional, is respectful of religion. But that's not the only meaning. My book is not about the "laymen" who are the politicians who make statement about religion but rather lay Christians, faithful Christian men and women who live in the world, and who are called to spread the Gospel message in the heart of civil society.

Q: Also, what exactly is ecclesiology? Wouldn't it be enough to refer to the "role of Christians in the Church," or something like that?

Pellitero: To speak of Christians in the Church would be correct, but confusing. First, because here we are not referring to Christians in general but to certain specific Christians, though they make up the majority of Christians -- those who are neither clergy nor members of the consecrated life. In short, they are the people in the streets, professionals, fathers, mothers, those who circulate in the cultural and political realms, and so on.

On the other hand, to speak of their role "in the Church" might be taken to refer exclusively to ecclesiastical duties or at least intra-ecclesial ones: in the parishes, the seminaries, the convents, etc. That is to say, a "world" different from the ordinary world, the environment of the street.

This is why the focus is ecclesiology -- the perspective of trying to understand the Church and its mission in close relationship with the world, and just how that mission has been understood since Vatican II.

Q: With a touch of malice, someone might ask if the Church hasn't invented the laity because of the priest shortage, or because some priests haven't been doing their jobs.

Pellitero: The laity, in the sense in which we are using the term here, have not been invented by the Church but have existed ever since the first Christians.

Today we know that the Gospel was spread throughout the Roman Empire in very little time, thanks above all to the "ordinary Christians": in families, among seafarers, soldiers, and so on.

As Pope John Paul II said, and as the present pope has repeated, all the faithful are committed to live and to spread the message of the council. That message is that the faithful laity "are" the Church as "are" the clergy, or those that Canon Law calls consecrated Christians.

In the present age of technological globalization, cultures are changing. Multiculturalism is presented as the ideal, but without dialogue, this is risky. While the West is de-Christianizing itself, everywhere there is a confused return to the sacred, blended with and even disguised by the practical idolatry of power or money. This leads to a view of life that is disenchanted and pragmatic.

In this situation, Christians and especially the lay faithful have a great task before them. They need not settle for "business as usual" or take refuge in initiatives that are officially Catholic. They have a mission to personally carry out, along with others, if they wish, who may or may not be believers, with coherence between their faith and their lives, with an attitude of dialogue, in search of love and justice, participating in cultural and political life, and with special attention to the neediest people.

The lay faithful are called to live out all human realities in the Christian spirit. This was the constant teaching of the founder of Opus Dei and the University of Navarra, Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer. Such is the theme of this book.

Q: Could you explain in more detail how the Second Vatican Council understood the vocation and mission of the laity? What is the relationship between Christian faith and the things of everyday life, the preoccupations of the "people in the street"?

Pellitero: Earlier, I mentioned what the book dedicates its first part to: the fact that, by baptism, all Christians are "the Church." Within our common baptismal vocation, diverse conditions and vocations can be found.

The lay faithful are called to take God into temporal realities such as the family, work, culture, the communication media, politics, sports, etc. They do this from within society, in and for the ordinary realities that make up their lives.

Priests have to respect and promote this vocation and mission of the laity "in the middle of the world," in order to spread the Gospel message, working together in an atmosphere of dialogue and co-responsibility.

At the same time, the laity, like all other Christians, must collaborate as they can in the work of the parish as catechists, parish council members, and so on.

Q: Where can one find, in the language of our time, this new way of seeing the Church that you are speaking of? Moreover, what are the consequences of all this?

Pellitero: The Synod of Bishops of 1987 occupied itself precisely with the vocation and mission of the laity in the Church and the world. That is the subject of the second part of the book.

In that synod, many of the experiences of the life of the faithful around the world were studied, which led to a lively dialogue and a rich reflection on the question.

As the fruit of that synod, Pope John Paul II wrote "Christifideles Laici," which drew together the conclusions of the synod along with his own experiences and reflections. My book emphasizes important questions that arose in the synod and were recorded by experts who took part in it.

Above all, we are dealing with the very identity of the laity and its condition in the Church and the world. This identity came to be expressed by the council as that of Christians who are characterized by their "secular nature."

This means that, for the laity, the tasks they are involved in every day are an important part of their Christian vocation and are not foreign to it. That is why they have to live out a powerful unity or coherence in their lives, as the foundation of their mission. Today we have an increasingly lively sense of the role of "ordinary Christians" in the New Evangelization.

Q: Could you give some example of the lack of coherence between the Christian faith and life?

Pellitero: Among the fundamental manifestations of incoherence one sees the search for well-being at any cost, or an unbridled activism in work, that leads one to forget about one's duties to God and, frequently, about love of others.

Another manifestation is, or might be, taking the easiest or most convenient route in the training of one's children without considering the need for effort and sacrifice, or more generally speaking, a family life lacking in Christian habits, which does not mean turning the home into a sacristy, but into a school of human and Christian virtues.

It is also common for leisure-time activities to take place without reference to God or others, or dedicated to a ferocious consumerism, forgetful of sobriety and other manifestations of Christian life in society. This might occur precisely on Sundays and feast days, when one forgets that they are days for taking special care of our relationship with God, and for dedication to others, starting with family and friends, and without forgetting the neediest.

One would also have to mention politicians who are incapable of presenting Christian values as a service to the common good, businessmen who do not practice social justice, editors and publicists who sell themselves to that which sells the most.

Q: So in practice, how can the laity live their vocation and mission?

Pellitero: Christians who live in the heart of civil society and carry out their apostolate can find in the teachings of St. Josemaría Escrivá some very valuable advice. This is developed in the third part of the book.

Above all, the Eucharist has to be the center and root of the Christian life of the lay faithful, just as it is for the whole Church. This leads to what St. Josemaría used to call "priestly soul and lay mentality": All Christians, and especially laymen and laywomen, need to really know that they are priests.

In equivalent language, they have to be mediators between God and human beings, mediators who offer, by means of the hands of the priests in the Eucharist, their entire existence as praise and thanksgiving to God, as intercession for the needs of the world and reparation for the sins of all men and women.

The reality of things, as Christianity sees it, is that the world was made good by God, but has been wounded by sin. Christ has redeemed it by giving himself up to the cross, and Christians are called to carry out the work of Christ in their lives.

The greatest wisdom is still, "the foolishness of the cross." The image of Pope John Paul II, sick and old, praying the Way of the Cross, embracing the cross, speaks for itself.

To sum up, I recall the words of Pope John Paul II when he said farewell to Spain in 2003: "One can be modern and profoundly faithful to Jesus Christ."

Q: This panorama seems very elevated for the times we live in. Interests seem to be attached to the practical: Take care of the most urgent needs, fix the problems that arise every day, seek a greater well-being, etc. Isn't the mission of the laity a pretty dream that is unrealizable? Doesn't it demand an excessive commitment that few will want to assume?

Pellitero: That would definitely happen if it were not for the fact that their vocation gives them strength, above all to be happy. Just see the enthusiasm that dominates the World Youth Days. The Christian mission is a service to the world's joy, a joy that is not naive: Christians are not forgetful of the difficulties but we know that we can count on God.

Thus rooted, lay Christians can propose the Gospel message as the most effective means to solve the personal problems and social crises of our times, as the best means to seek peace and justice in the family and among peoples, as the best way to build, in dialogue with all people of good will, a "civilization of love."

Of course, all this, as you suggest, demands a high level of commitment -- above all, the commitment of each Christian to God in prayer, which is the only way to respond day by day to the divine calling, in order to carry out that irreplaceable mission that corresponds to each one of us.

It is a commitment to oneself not to allow one to be carried away by the comfort of thinking that others will do it better than I can. It is a commitment to others, since the Christian task is carried forward "in the family," in the heart of the entire human family.

It is a commitment, therefore, to all people, especially the neediest, those who are "impoverished" in body and spirit: the poor, the sick, the abandoned, and also those who do not know how to give or receive love, who are, according to Teresa of Calcutta, the poorest of the poor.

As Benedict XVI wanted to remind us in his first encyclical, the Christian mission, in the measure to which we live and transmit love, is the greatest revolution of all times. And it is possible because before we give, all of us have received, or can receive every day, especially in prayer and in the sacraments, the energy needed to carry it out.


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