The Spirituality of the Lay Ecclesial Minister – Part 1

Daniel Whitehouse

MDiv. Candidate, University of Notre Dame

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The Second Vatican Council, in its dogmatic constitution on the Church, exhorted all members of the Church to recognize and pursue their vocation to holiness stating, “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.”[1] This universal call to holiness is the fundamental vocation of all people, as Christ Himself directs us to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48, RSV). Upon hearing the invitation to perfect charity, the question quickly becomes: ‘how?’ The response to this question of expression is largely determined by many factors including: particular vocation[2] (whether it be ordained ministry, consecrated life, marriage, or single life), personality, and occupation. The emerging role of the lay ecclesial minister could seem to push on the categories of spirituality, convoluting lay and ordained manifestations of holiness and tending towards clericalism in the laity.

This series of three articles will explore the concept of spirituality as it pertains to the lay ecclesial minister. The first article will highlight both the participation of all the lay members of the Church within the threefold mission of Christ. The second will discuss the secular character of the lay vocation. The third will treat the unique features of the spirituality of the lay ecclesial minister, positing that the spirituality of the lay ecclesial minister is an authentic manifestation of lay spirituality, integrally oriented to ministry and organically linked to the Church.

Christifideles Laici, John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the lay faithful, provides a very thorough overview of the lay mission and vocation echoing from the Second Vatican Council. The document begins with a commentary on Christ’s parable of the workers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-16, RSV) stating that, “[t]he call [to work in the vineyard] is a concern not only of pastors, clergy, and men and women religious. The call is addressed to everyone: lay people as well are personally called by the Lord, from whom they receive a mission on behalf of the Church and the world.”[3] The expression of this mission for all the lay faithful is founded upon incorporation into the threefold mission of Christ as priest, prophet, and king through their baptism.[4] This spirituality of proclamation, sanctification, and service in Christ is intrinsic to all the faithful; however, the lay faithful share Christ’s mission in a degree and essence of their own,[5] based on both their state in the world and their apostolate. Briefly treating the threefold mission of Christ of priest, prophet, and king in relation to the layperson will elucidate a proper understanding of a genuine lay spirituality from which we can move forward.

First, we turn our attention to the priestly mission of Christ to sanctify. John Paul II affirms lay participation in this mission by stating: “[t]he lay faithful are sharers in the priestly mission, for which Jesus offered Himself on the cross and continues to be offered in the celebration of the Eucharist for the glory of God and the salvation of humanity.”[6] The baptismal priesthood participates, according to John Paul II, in Christ’s Priesthood through a willingness to sacrifice in order to both glorify God and sanctify the world. Lumen Gentium also expresses the particularly lay dimension of the priestly mission stating:

“[Christ] also gives [the laity] a sharing in His priestly function of offering spiritual worship for the glory of God and the salvation of men…. For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become ‘spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ Together with the offering of the Lord’s body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God.” [7]

In and through uniting his or her prayer, activities, work, recreation, rest, hardships, and family life to Christ in the Holy Spirit, the layperson not only gives glory to God but also works towards the sanctification of the world.  Though exhibited differently, the ministerial priesthood and the baptismal priesthood are complimentary and have a common root in Christ.[8]

Next, the prophetic mission of Christ is also made present in the layperson by virtue of their baptism as John Paul II contends, “[t]hrough their participation in the prophetic mission of Christ, … the lay faithful are given the ability and responsibility to accept the gospel in faith and to proclaim it in word and deed, without hesitating to courageously identify and denounce evil.”[9] While the hierarchy of the Church—those ordained to ministry—preach and proclaim Christ officially, the lay members of Christ are prophetic through the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful), witness of life, and convincing speech such that “the power of the Gospel might shine forth in their daily social and family life.”[10] The essence of prophecy for the layperson is that he or she would bear witness to the truth of Christ by his or her words and deeds, as well as contend against wickedness and sinfulness in everyday life. Lumen Gentium gives pride of place in the lay prophetic endeavor to the Christian family, wherein husband and wife testify to faith and love for one another and their children.[11] Evangelization by word and life is the means by which the world will come to hear the Good News of Christ: “it remains for each one of [the laity] to cooperate in the external spread and the dynamic growth of the Kingdom of Christ in the world.”[12] Even without bearing the authority of the hierarchy, every baptized person, in a manner proper to his or her particular vocation, is charged with the great commission of our Lord: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20a, RSV).

Finally, according to John Paul II, the lay faithful participate in the kingly mission of Christ in two ways. First, John Paul II states that the laity “exercise their kingship as Christians, above all in the spiritual combat in which they seek to overcome in themselves the kingdom of sin, and then to make a gift of themselves so as to serve, in justice and in charity, Jesus who is Himself present in all his brothers and sisters, above all in the very least.”[13] The mission of Christ’s kingship concerns the re-ordering of all creation with its ultimate telos (goal or purpose), namely, the perfection of charity and union with God. Therefore, lay people should seek to govern their own passions and desires in order to overcome sin, so that they can serve God and one another properly. Secondly, John Paul II continues:

[I]n particular the lay faithful are called to restore to creation all its original value. In ordering creation to the authentic well-being of humanity in an activity governed by the life of grace, they share in the exercise of the power with which the Risen Christ draws all things to Himself and subjects them along with Himself to the Father, so that God might be everything to everyone.[14]

With this in mind, sharing in Christ’s governance is demonstrated to include both a personal and communal role, although markedly different from the ordained manifestation of the kingly mission. The laity “must learn the deepest meaning and the value of all creation, … its role in the harmonious praise of God … [and] … [t]hey must assist each other to live holier lives even in their daily occupations,” in order that “the world may be permeated by the spirit of Christ and it may more effectively fulfill its purpose in justice, charity and peace.”[15]

The lay faithful, as demonstrated above, are called to participate in the threefold mission of Christ in an essence and to a degree harmonious with their particular vocation;[16] however, “what specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature.”[17] Given this reality, the next clarification to make is the nature of the lay vocation, which will be treated in next week’s article in this series.


[1] Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium (LG). 21 November 1964, Papal Archive. The Holy See. <http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html>, 40.

[2] Second Vatican Council, Apostolicam Actuositatem (AA). 18 November 1965, Papal Archive, The Holy See. <http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651118_apostolicam-actuositatem_en.html>, 2.
[‘Particular vocation’ and ‘state of life’ are used interchangeably.]

[3] Pope John Paul II, Christifideles Laici (CL). 30 December 1988, Papal Archive, The Holy See. <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_30121988_christifideles-laici_en.html>, 2.

[4] Ibid, 14.

[5] LG, 10.

[6] CL, 14.

[7] LG, 34.

[8] Ibid, 10.

[9] CL, 14.

[10] LG, 35.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] CL, 14.

[14] Ibid.

[15] LG, 36.

[16] AA, 2.

[17] LG, 31.

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