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The Indispensable Role of the Laity and Evangelization

by Jeremy Hiers, OSA

What is evangelization, who is called to be part of it, and what wisdom does Saint Augustine offer us? This series reflects on the New Evangelization and Augustinian Spirituality.

Priests, Prophets, and Kings

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council affirmed that the laity share in the apostolate of the Church:

“The Church was founded for the purpose of spreading the kingdom of Christ throughout the earth for the glory of God the Father, to enable all men to share in His saving redemption, and that through them the whole world might enter into a relationship with Christ. All activity of the Mystical Body directed to the attainment of this goal is called the apostolate, which the Church carries on in various ways through all her members. For the Christian vocation by its very nature is also a vocation to the apostolate. No part of the structure of a living body is merely passive but has a share in the functions as well as life of the body: so, too, in the body of Christ, which is the Church, ‘the whole body . . . in keeping with the proper activity of each part, derives its increase from its own internal development’ (Eph. 4:16).”

Apostolicam Actuositatem, no. 8

Consequently, Canon Law affirms that all Christians (ordained and non-ordained alike) are called to share in the three-fold office of Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King. Those incorporated in Christ through Baptism are called to exercise their priestly, prophetic, and royal calling “in accord with the condition proper to each” (c. 204). In other words, how any one Christian shares in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ is unique by virtue of the specific gifts, talents, and state of life they find themselves in.

The Catechism notes the unique gift of the laity, by virtue of their presence in society, are on the “front lines” of Church life (no. 899). Church teaching therefore speaks of the laity sharing in the apostolate of the Church by working for the sanctification of the world “from within” as leaven does for bread as they make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them it can become “salt of the earth.”[1] 

The Catechism therefore notes how the works, prayers, apostolic undertakings, married life, family life, and daily work all become “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” and ways the laity share in the priesthood of Christ. It is by worshipping “everywhere” through their holy actions that the laity “consecrate the world itself to God.”  One prayer, one act of charity, one daily routine dedicated to God at a time.[2]  

RELATED: Praying the Liturgy of the Hours

The laity fulfill their prophetic mission through evangelization in the “ordinary” circumstances of the world. As the Catechism states, the laity are on the “look out” for occasions and opportunities to announce Christ by word.[3]. The laity are often on the “front line” of denouncing social injustices that take place in our neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, local governments, etc. We see it as they organize public awareness events, speak at events such as Theology on Tap, and publish literature. Likewise, social media has become a major platform for the laity to exercise their prophetic functions by speaking words of truth, justice, and peace. It is no surprise that courses on the theology of social media are popping up in seminaries and schools of theology; there is no doubt in my mind that social media will become a tremendous tool of evangelization in the future.

RELATED: Five Paths of Encounter for Evangelization

The Catechism notes that the laity share in the kingship of Christ by uniting “their forces” to remedy the institutions and conditions of the world.[4]  We see this in the plethora of charities, advocacy movements, church groups, and other social actions led by lay women and men.  An increasing number of lay men and women are assuming top leadership positions within these types of Catholic organizations, including within the Order of Saint Augustine (discussed in more detail below).

Towards a New Chapter of Evangelization

Nearly 50 years later in 2013, Pope Francis called the Church to enter a “new chapter” of evangelization. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis emphasizes that every Christian is a “missionary disciple” to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus.  Every Christian is therefore called to find ways to communicate Jesus wherever they are (no. 20).  The Pope asks us to consider the first disciples who immediately went forth to proclaim they have found the Messiah after encountering the gaze of Jesus as we see in John 1:41.  Similarly, the Samarian woman became a missionary immediately after speaking with Jesus as many Samaritans came to believe in Him as we see in John 4:39 (no. 120).

The essential foundation of evangelization is therefore the “unceasing interplay” of the Gospel and concrete life, both personal and social.  It encompasses all dimensions, all individuals, all areas of community life, and all people.  As the Pope says, “nothing is alien to it” (no. 181).

Yet, as he called for this “new chapter” of evangelization, Pope Francis recognized that the role and function of the laity remains unclear in many areas:

“clear awareness of the responsibility of the laity, grounded in their Baptism and Confirmation, does not appear in the same way and in all places.”

Evangelii Gaudium, no. 102.

From the time of the Decree on the Lay Apostolate (Apostolicam Actuositatem) and issuance of Evangelii Gaudium in 2013, the Church recognizes there is much work left to be done to recognize and promote the role of the laity in the mission of the Church. 

Men and Women With Others

Saint Augustine speaks of his own solidarity with the members of the Body of Christ as a Bishop:

“Where I’m terrified by what I am for you, I am given comfort by what I am with you. For you I am a bishop, with you, after all, I am a Christian. The first is the name of an office undertaken, the second a name of grace; that one means danger, this one salvation.”

Saint Augustine (Sermon 340A, 1)

Augustine, as a newly ordained Bishop, saw Himself as one with others. United with them in the first title: Christian.

The Augustinians are blessed to have several avenues through which to partner with the unique gifts of the laity. The Augustinians partner with lay men and women who lead three of our Augustinian major non-profit organizations in North America: The National Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia, the Augustinian Defenders of the Rights of the Poor, and the Augustinian Volunteer program (mentioned above).

We also share our way of life with other groups of laity who are less directly tied to the specific ministries and mission of the Order but nevertheless engaged in living their faith in various states of life. The Augustinian Seculars are lay men and women who bind themselves to share in the Augustinian way of life and who journey with Augustinian Friars in living their faith, hope, and love through community in their own state of life. Second, the Augustinian Volunteers dedicate themselves to a year of service in many of the ministries Augustinians are involved in, while also learning to live the Augustinian way of life and the Augustinian values in community. Most pursue other vocations after the year comes to completion.

RELATED: How Augustinian Community Life Supports the Goals of Evangelization

[1] Apostolicam Actuositatem, no. 2; Evangelii Gaudium, nos. 75, 114, and 237.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 901.

[3] Ibid., 905.

[4] Ibid., 909.

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11 months ago

Last Sunday I attended a Penitential Service a a local Catholic Church. The Service was brought to my attention in the first place by a notice I read in a local Church of England Church. The Service attracted a small number of people from different Churches to come together to hear about ‘Care as a Culture of Peace’. The Service challenged me to consider who I most resembled: the passers-by, or the good samaritan.
A day later, while travelling on the London underground, a man addressed the commuters to tell us that he was homeless, and he asked us to consider whether any of us could help him to get in to a hostel for the night. I knew that if this man were to walk in my direction down the carriage, I would be compelled at the very least to acknowledge him, and if I could muster my courage, to help him.
I waited, but he did not appear. I looked down the carriage, but he was gone. Someone closer to him than me had already risen to help him.
When I reflected on this moment, I sensed that the difference between me and the man on the train is paper thin. Making good or poor decisions can sway one between positions of security or peril. I hope that I am one of those people on the front line. I also hope that I encounter someone on the front line, when I’m in peril.