John Paul II clarifies Vatican II teaching on lay and priestly roles

John Paul II clarifies Vatican II teaching on lay and priestly roles

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II's address to the bishops of the Antilles on 7 May during their ad limina visit concentrated on the "deep complementarity" - not identity - of the roles of priests and laity in the Church.

The following is an edited summary of the Holy Father's address.

First and foremost, bishops are priests: not corporate executives, business managers, finance officers or bureaucrats, but priests. This means above all that they have been set apart to offer sacrifice, since this is the essence of priesthood, and the core of the Christian priesthood is the offering of the sacrifice of Christ.

Some persons, we know, affirm that the decrease in the number of priests is the work of the Holy Spirit and that God Himself will lead the Church, making it so that the government of the lay faithful will take the place of the government of priests.

Such a statement certainly does not take into account what the Council Fathers said when they sought to promote a greater involvement of the lay faithful in the Church. In their teachings, the Council Fathers simply underscored the deep complementarity between priests and the laity that the symphonic nature of the Church implies.

A poor understanding of this complementarity has sometimes led to a crisis of identity and confidence among priests, and also to forms of commitment by the laity that are too clerical or too politicised.

Involvement by the laity becomes a form of clericalism when the sacramental or liturgical roles that belong to the priest are assumed by the lay faithful or when the latter set out to accomplish tasks of pastoral governing that properly belong to the priest.

It is the priest who, as an ordained minister and in the name of Christ, presides over the Christian community on liturgical and pastoral levels. The laity can assist him in this in many ways. But the premier place of the exercise of the lay vocation is in the world of economic, social, political and cultural realities. It is in this world that the lay people are called to live their baptismal vocation.

In a time of insidious secularisation, it could seem strange that the Church insists so much on the secular vocation of the laity. But it is precisely this Gospel witness by the faithful in the world that is the heart of the Church's answer to the malaise of secularisation.

The commitment of lay persons is politicised when the laity is absorbed by the exercise of 'power' within the Church. That happens when the Church is not seen in terms of the 'mystery' of grace that marks her, but rather in sociological or even political terms. When it is not service but power that shapes all forms of government in the Church, be this in the clergy or in the laity, opposing interests start to make themselves felt.

What the Church needs is a deeper and more creative sense of complementarity between the vocation of the priest and that of the laity.

The Church is called to proclaim an absolute and universal truth in the world at a time when in many cultures there is deep uncertainty as to whether such a truth could possibly exist. Therefore, the Church must speak in ways which carry the force of genuine witness. In considering what this entails, Pope Paul VI identified four qualities - clarity, humanity, confidence and prudence.

To speak with clarity means that we need to explain comprehensibly the truth of Revelation and the Church's teachings which stem from it. This is what I meant when I said that we need a new apologetic, geared to the needs of today, which keeps in mind that our task is not to win arguments but to win souls. Such an apologetic will need to breathe a spirit of humanity, that humility and compassion which understand the anxieties and questions of people.

To speak with confidence will mean that we never lose sight of the absolute and universal truth revealed in Christ, and never lose sight of the fact that this is the truth for which all people long, no matter how uninterested, resistant or hostile they may seem. To speak with that practical wisdom and good sense which Paul VI calls prudence will mean that we give a clear answer to people who ask: "What must I do?" In this, the heavy responsibility of our episcopal ministry appears in all its demanding challenge.

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