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Lay people in the renewal of the Church

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Real reform happens when lay people, who are the vast majority of the Church, assimilate and live it, when the "living stones" of the Church are renewed in holiness.

Father Roger

Earlier this month, I had the privilege to go to New Zealand to give five talks over seven days, sandwiched around two days of sightseeing in one of world's most beautiful countries. The first three talks were to young adults, the last two, at the Auckland Eucharistic Convention, for Catholics of all generations.

Certain talks are easier and more enjoyable to prepare and deliver than others. I loved comparing the thoughts of Popes John Paul II, Benedict, and Francis on love, describing John Paul II's Theology of the Body as a way to holiness, addressing Christ's summons to the young to follow him all the way, and discussing how Jesus Christ in the Eucharist seeks to fill us with courage before all our challenges, which was more or less the theme of the Eucharistic Convention, dedicated to Jesus' words "Take Courage, I have overcome the world." But the last talk I was asked to prepare, on the call to lay people to renew the Church as salt, light, and leaven, struck me as too dry and theological -- in short, too boring -- for an hour-long speech before a large, non-academic Catholic crowd.

Soon after I arrived, however, I quickly saw the caliber of many Catholic lay leaders, especially young adults. In a highly secularized culture in which many are largely disappointed in the Catholic "professional" class -- teachers and administrators in Catholic schools and universities, as well as clergy, religious and catechists -- for watering down the more challenging aspects of the faith, I found the lay people hungry for a theology of the laity that could inspire them to make bold commitments toward assuming and fulfilling faithfully their own responsibilities in the Church. Their reactions made me think of other lay people closer to home who might similarly profit from a robust understanding of the lay people in the renewal of the Church.

I began the talk with two remarkable stories of Catholic lay people in the preservation and transmission of the faith.

The first was on how the Christian faith was introduced into Korea by lay people who, traveling in China, had found Bibles and catechetical texts from martyred missionaries. They took them back with them over the border, baptized each other, and tried to live the faith as best they could. When missionaries were finally smuggled in, they found that there were already 4,000 catechized Catholics hungering for the sacraments and living the faith with such resolve that most of them would remain faithful under torture and be martyred. This is a history that "tells us much about the importance, dignity and beauty of the vocation of the laity," Pope Francis said in a 2014 visit to Seoul.

The second story was about "hidden Christians" of Japan, the lay people who, after all priests and catechists had been eliminated by the 1640s, kept the faith alive for 210 years before missionaries were permitted to enter Japan again. They baptized, prayed together, cared for each other. When a priest began to build a Christian Church, these lay people emerged saying that they had been told that one day fathers would return to teach them better about the way of Jesus. To ensure that they were dealing with Catholic priests rather than Protestant missionaries, they then interrogated Father Bernard Petitjean with the simple questions that had been passed down for 200 years about the Eucharist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Pope and priestly celibacy. Many of these Christians, once they came out of the shadows, would die for the faith before Christianity was decriminalized in the 1880s.

The renewal of the Church needs lay people, I said, with similar faith, hope, courage, virtue and perseverance. The Church is constantly in need of renewal: "ecclesia semper reformanda." Real reform happens when lay people, who are the vast majority of the Church, assimilate and live it, when the "living stones" of the Church are renewed in holiness. At this time in Church history when the Church in many places is struggling, it's essential for lay people to take up Christ's perpetual summons.

I focused on the three images Jesus uses in the Gospel to describe the aspects of the renewal: salt of the earth, light of the world, and leaven. "These images taken from the gospel," St. John Paul in his 1988 exhortation on the Christian Lay Faithful, "although indiscriminately applicable to all Jesus' disciples, are specifically applied to the lay faithful."

Salt has three purposes. The first, in the absence of refrigeration, is as a preservative. The second is as a fire starter: when salt is mixed with dung (at Jesus' time and still today in various developing countries), it is ignited and serves for both cooking and heat. Third, salt gives flavor. Lay people have this three-fold mission within the world: to prevent it from going to corruption; to light people on fire, redeeming even what is considered refuse; and to bring "taste" and joy. But for lay people to live up to this task, Jesus says, their salt must not lose its saltiness, something that happens when they separate themselves from him.

Light has two fundamental purposes. The first is to help people see. "The just man is a light in the darkness for the upright," the Psalms tell us. Christians, illuminated by Christ the Light of the World, reflect his light so that others may see things better, as they really are. Light also warms. When we approach Jesus and others approach us, we and they should feel like someone cold approaching a lit fireplace. But for this purpose to happen, Jesus says, we can't hide our light, too embarrassed or falsely humble to share it.

Leaven raises dough. A pinch of yeast is enough to make much dough rise. One Christian on a street, in a work place, family, or parish is meant to have a dramatic, transformative impact through the power of example and friendship. Jesus warns, however, that we need to ensure that we are in turn not affected by bad leaven. One bad apple can spoil the whole bushel.

There is a need for salt, light and leaven within the Church, preventing corruption, giving flavor, warming people and helping them become ardent, illuminating them with the wisdom of the Gospel, seeking to give them hope and help them become good. But the fundamental mission of the laity is to exercise these missions in the world. Pope Francis has spoken often of the problem of clericalism in the Church and how clergy can clericalize the laity, trying to get them to focus more on things internal to Church life than the Church's mission outside. He adds that many lay people enjoy being clericalized, because it's easier to proclaim the Gospel in Church than at work and simpler to serve Mass than to serve the poor. The reform of the laity, he says, involves forming them within the Church to go out as "missionary disciples in communion" in the midst of the world. The reform of the Church does not come with priests' delegating priestly duties to lay faithful, but when all members of the Church fulfill their mission.

John Paul II emphasized two parables in his exhortation on the Christian lay faithful. The first is the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt 20:1-16), which underlines that Jesus wants and needs all of us with sleeves rolled up working hard in his vineyard. The second is the parable of the Vine and the Branches (Jn 15:1-8), which reminds us that we can do nothing unless we're attached to Christ and to each other. Through Baptism all members of the Church have become united to Christ and share in his mission to proclaim the word, to offer our lives and work together with him to the Father, and to enter into and help others to enter his kingdom Remaining attached to Christ the Vine in the Sacraments, lay faithful are called as branches to be the extension of his holiness and charity in the world.

The renewal of the Church will always involve the renewal not just of the clergy and religious -- which is deeply needed -- but also and especially of the laity. There are many challenges involved, but Christ wouldn't be calling the laity to be salt, light and leaven unless he were prepared to give everything needed for them to live up to this mission.

- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.

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