A Discourse on Laity and Participatory Church

A Discourse on Laity and Participatory Church

by Hamid Henry

The Church Teachings on the Laity

Paul Lakeland in his The lay theologian in the Church observes that since the end of the Vatican Council there have been many changes in the church, whether in the spirit of the Council or in reaction to it. He adds: ‘since Vatican II , the laity have been understood to be as integral to the Church as the clergy. Anticipated in Pius XII’s remark that ‘the lay faithful… ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church but of being the Church, Lumen Gentium went to considerable lengths to rehabilitate the laity as full members of the Church, sharing a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ. (LG 32)

The active role of the laity in the mission of the Church is the subject of the Council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem. The genuine apostolate they exercise is one of bringing the gospel and holiness to men… penetrating and perfecting the temporal sphere of things through the spirit of the gospel (AA2). In this apostolate the Holy Spirit distributes charismata to the laity, from which arise for each believer the right and duty to use them in the Church and in the world for the good of mankind and for the up building of the Church’ (AA 3). To focus our overriding concern in the language of Vatican, we might ask whether theological learning is an appropriate charisma of the lay apostolate. Indeed, the question of whether theology is an ecclesial charisma or an official function in the church is itself highly germane. The identification of the lay apostolate with ‘witness in the world’ has usually gone along with a commitment to what Gustavo Gutierrez calls the ‘separation of planes ‘, that is, he relegation of the laity to teaching by example what they have learned from the clergy. Too frequently this simply mirrors and disguises clericalism.

There are, for example, one or two passages in recent documents where it seems that the Church might recognize a lay role even in theology. Discussing the lay apostolate, Lumen Gentium adds that ‘the laity can also be called in various ways to a more direct form of cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy’, and even that lay people ‘have the capacity to be deputed by the hierarchy to exercise certain church functions for spiritual purpose’ (LG 33).

Apostolicam Actuositatem sees the laity in the parish ‘bringing to the Church community their own and the world’s problems as well as questions concerning human salvation, all of which should be examined and resolved by common deliberation’ (AA 10). It is difficult to imagine this being done effectively without some theological reflection, it should be reassuring that the bishops go on in the same document to call for theological training where appropriate. Those laypeople whose apostolate ‘is one of making the gospel known and men holy’ must ‘learn doctrine more carefully’ (AA 30). And to that end there should be more ‘centers of documentation and study… for the better development of natural capacities of laymen and laywomen’.

The Participatory Church

What exactly is meant when a term such as ‘participatory church’ is used? We need to be clear that organizationally speaking, this is in fact, something new. It is much more than simply doing what we are already doing now; but doing it more effectively. New hockey sticks will not make for a better football team! Moreover, it is not just one more new project like a school or a dispensary, where one searches for the funding, completes the job and then carries on as before. Building participatory church is a process: it is the very process of creating participative structures that brings about a participatory church. Because of deeply embedded non participatory habits, fostered by both cultural and ecclesial practice, it is not something that will come about quickly or easily.

Inevitably, it is a project that will meet with resistance and rationalization. This will be especially the case among those who mistakenly fear that they have much to lose by facilitating more participative structures. There will be a tendency to borrow the terminology but not change the reality. Some may well wish to make of it a participatory church in the sense of many of the lay faithful busily involved in carrying out what the priest tells them to do. For others, what seems to be on offer is a kind of participatory church ‘by decree.’ A meeting decides it is a desirable goal and this goal is decreed and a participative church is then deemed to have come into existence, though in reality, nothing has changed. Yet again, for others it means developing the life of the church even more around festivals, prayer conventions, visits of holy shrines, as if a participatory church were to be equated with fanfare. Sometimes it seems as if it is a kind of subterfuge: we repaint the shop front, re work the advertising, invest a new logo but continue to trade in exactly the same product and with the same management structure.

By contrast, a truly participatory church is a spelling out of the theological truth-reemphasized in Lumen Gentium, that the mystical reality of church is made visibly firstly in the People of God. It seems to tease out the full implications of the vocation to communion, drawing deeply on the Pauline theology of the variety of the gifts and the unity of the body.
To this way of thinking, Christ calls each of the baptized to be a friend and not just a servant and, as a friend, brings them into his confidence and shares his project and the means of its accomplishment. It is a theology that sees the full active and conscious participation in the sacred liturgy called for in Sacrosanctum Concilium, as something pertaining not only to the laity’s participation in the priestly office of Christ, but also in his office of prophet and king and thus calling for free, active and conscious participation in the process of evangelizing cultures, and the decision-making processes at the service of this evangelization. In short, its point of departure is the re-discovery of the baptismal vocation as the foundation for active and responsible participation in the life and organization of the church.


The different ministries which are being practiced in the Church must be community centered. They must be used for the betterment of the people without discrimination. Through them, the Church should move along with the people especially with the poor. Through them she is called to live in communion as human family in order to help strengthen and support each other. Unless the Church inserts herself in the day to day existing realities, it cannot claim to be a “participatory church.” Therefore in order to be the true Church of the poor, she must stand with the poor, downtrodden, oppressed and homeless. She has to play a prophetic role in the Asian context.



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