The Reawakening of the Laity
In the Church there is a diversity of ministry but a oneness of mission. Christ conferred on the Apostles and their successors the duty of teaching, sanctifying, and ruling in His name and power. But the laity likewise share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world. - Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem), The Second Vatican Council
One of the major gifts to the Church emerging from the Second Vatican Council, was the renewed emphasis placed on the role and mission of the Laity. In the reflections of the Council Fathers concerning the Laity, we can see why some have referred to the Second Vatican Council as Newman’s Council, for it is the theology of Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman whose life and thought in the 19th century eventually took root in the official teachings of the Church in the 20th century. Newman was a great defender of the Laity, and their importance throughout the history of the Church in defending the truths of the faith.
Throughout his long life, from its beginnings in the Church of England and the influence he exerted there, particularly in Oxford, to its close as a cardinal of the Roman Church, it is possible to see in Newman’s thought on the laity a continuing, harmonious pattern. In Newman, wherever we look, we see a concern to create of the laity an active force that would be at work both in the Church and in the world at large. For this task the laity needed to be properly educated and equipped, and Newman saw this work of education as one to which he was particularly called: “From first to last education, in the large sense of the word, has been my line.” After 1845, when Newman became a Catholic, this call to educate the laity inspired a whole host of his undertakings; more than ever he felt called to take up arms in order to awaken in the Catholic Church the slumbering significance of the laity. An educated laity could capture and transform the public mind and in so doing make it that much more receptive to Catholic truth.1
Newman’s keen sense of the importance of all the baptized as concerns the mission of the Church came not so much from his Anglican beginnings, as from his study and knowledge of the Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine and also the Eastern Fathers. It was this same knowledge and love of the Fathers which lead him to the begin the Oxford or Tractarian Movement in the Anglican Church and eventually convinced him of the truth of the Catholic Faith.
Newman was always deeply conscious of the importance of history in the Church and of how it was ever a determining factor for both its present and its future. Newman noted the importance the laity had in halting the growth of the Reformation, and his earlier studies of the Arian crisis and St. Athanasius had already planted firmly in his mind the indisputable fact that the laity not only might be but actually had been the champions and preservers of the orthodox Faith in the dark days of the fourth century.2
In the earliest age it was simply the living spirit of the myriads of the faithful, none of them known to fame, who received from the disciples of the Lord, and husbanded so well and circulated so widely and transmitted so faithfully, generation after generation, the once-delivered apostolic faith; who held it with such sharpness of outline and explicitness of detail, as enabled even the unlearned instinctively to discriminate between truth and error, spontaneously to reject the very shadow of heresy and to be proof against the fascination of the most brilliant intellects, when they would lead them out of the narrow way.3
In Eastern Christian thought the dignity of the laity indeed of all the Baptized is rooted in Chrismation. In Chrismation the Holy Spirit ushers us into the Trinitarian life and therefore make us people of the end-time, eschatological beings.
The anointing formerly reserved for kings, priests, and prophets, is extended in the Church to all believers. It is Christ who unites in Himself all those baptized “into the people of God” where everyone belongs to “the priestly people”. It is not a question of “priest” in the sense of “a presbyter” and of his sacramental power. A priest of the royal priesthood, that is every believer, is one who participates in the Priesthood of Christ, not through his sacred functions but by virtue of his sanctified being. It is in view of this ontological sacerdotal dignity that each baptized person is sealed with the gifts, “anointed by the Spirit” in their very being. The believer offers the totality of his life and being as a sacrifice, that he makes of his life a liturgy. Every lay person is the priest of their existence.4
In Eastern Christian thought the life of all believers is a liturgy in which one’s life is sacrificed to God. In doing so the believer is freed from the idols of this world, so that the “One Who Is Holy” may be worshiped in “Spirit and in Truth”. The Trisagion of the Eucharistic Liturgy is the common proclamation of all believers, that unites us with the praises of the Angels who stand before God, “Qadeeshat aloho...”.
Unfortunately, the separation of Baptism and Chrismation (Confirmation) often by years in the Latin Church (which would have been unthinkable in the first centuries of the Church, East and West) leaves the Sacrament of Chrismation (Confirmation) without its proper theology in relation to Baptism. The Gospel tells us to “go and teach all nations”. These words are addressed to all who have received Initiation into the Church and the life of Grace. “This call means that alongside the missionaries specifically accredited by the Church every Anointed person is a missionary in his or her own way. It is through his entire life as an interiorized liturgy and a Trinitarian dwelling, it is through his entire being that every layperson is called to give unceasing testimony.”5 It is even to this end that all are consecrated.
The reawakening of the laity, in mission and in theology has been central to the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council. While many aspects of the Council have gone unnoticed and others aspects misunderstood; the recapturing of the ancient tradition as concerns the life and dignity of the laity has been a bright light in the Church.
(Rev.) David A. Fisher
1 - Chavasse, Paul “Newman and the Laity”, The Catholic Education Resource Center,
2 - Ibid.
3 - Historical Sketches (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1970), Vol. I, pp. 209-10.
4 - Evdokimov, Paul, The Sacrament of Love, SVS Press, Crestwood, New York, 1985, p. 85.
5 - Ibid. p. 87.