Monday, January 18, 2021

Lay Ministries Obscure Both the Laity’s Calling and the Clergy’s

The recent motu proprio Spiritus Domini has a personal resonance for me. Under the regime of progressive Catholicism in which I grew up, I recall hearing one message loud and clear: “Show your faith by signing up for XYZ ministry.” The underlying assumption was that merely assisting at Mass was not quite good enough; that was for the uncommitted, the uninterested, the unmotivated.

So I dutifully signed up to be first an altar boy, then a lector, and finally, an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion (this would have been in the 1980s). Throughout boyhood and adolescence, I didn’t understand at all what the Mass was about; I hardly had a clue what the Eucharist was; I’m not even sure my views would have differered, in essence, from how Protestants view their services. Actually, that’s not true; a Protestant would have had a much higher view of Biblical inspiration and inerrancy than I would have had. I was serving at something, I knew not what; I was reading something, I knew not what; I was distributing something, I knew not what.

It was for me a huge breakthrough, a profound liberation, to discover through the traditional Latin Mass that one can simply be at the liturgy and soak it in like a sponge; one can come to find this receptivity utterly fulfilling. Perhaps that is the saddest lesson of Spiritus Domini: its change to canon law makes sense only in the context of a liturgy that has lost its raison d’être.

The motu proprio once again raises the question of the vocation of the laity. What are laypeople supposed to be doing? Have they a proper work of their own, or do they just collect the scraps that fall from the clergy’s table — better yet, climb up and jostle elbows?

The Church’s answer has always been consistent: the laity’s work is to influence, purify, and elevate temporal affairs, bringing them as much as possible into conformity with the law of God and the Church’s mission to glorify God and save souls. The Second Vatican Council espoused this traditional point of view: Gaudium et Spes exhorts the laity “to impress the divine law on the affairs of the earthly city” (n. 43), while Apostolicam Actuositatem sets as our goal “rectifying the distortion of the temporal order and directing it to God through Christ” (n. 7).

The latter document establishes a distinction between those who teach principles and those who implement them: on the one hand, “Pastors must clearly state the principles concerning the purpose of creation and the use of temporal things and must offer the moral and spiritual aids by which the temporal order may be renewed in Christ” (ibid.); on the other hand, the “apostolate in the social milieu,” which is proper to laity, involves “the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives” (n. 13). As John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia in Oceania: “It is the fundamental call of lay people to renew the temporal order in all its many elements. In this way, the Church becomes the yeast that leavens the entire loaf of the temporal order” (n. 43).

Police taking part in a Sacred Heart procession
Thus, in spite of Pope Francis’s talk about the “co-responsibility” of the ordained and the lay faithful, we may say that the true responsibility of the laity is not the taking on of tasks inside the church, but taking on the world outside the church. Confronting unbelief with Christian witness, defeating secular narrowness with the grandeur of the Gospel, leavening temporal occupations with a supernatural perspective and motivation, and doing all this consistently and courageously, is far more challenging — and far more urgent — than mounting an ambo and reading a text, or donning an alb and passing cruets. In fact, the more that laity see themselves as fulfilled in aping the clergy, the more they will be deceived into thinking that they have done what they were supposed to do as Catholics. They have, as it were, punched their religion ticket, and can get back to secular life in its total secularity.

In the sacred liturgy, the laity exercise the Marian role of receiving divine gifts, which is the creature’s highest activity. No charism can be more honorable or more important than this receptivity. The gifts bestowed upon the clergy, and the various liturgical ministries, are at the service of the charity and holiness of the Church; they do not exist as ends in themselves, but as instruments for the pilgrimage of mankind to the City of God, where there will be no sacraments and no temple, since God will be “all in all” (cf. Rev 21:22–23; 1 Cor 15:28). The Marian receptivity of laymen and laywomen furnishes the light and strength necessary for their active, transformative mission in the family and in the world. Without drinking deeply from the wellspring, there can never be watered gardens. How ironic and how tragic that the laity’s misplaced liturgical activism seems inversely proportional to their zeal for the irreplaceable mission that is theirs in the home, on the land, in the city! The laity are meant to offer themselves up in sacrificial love (cf. Rom 12:1), so as to be a leaven in the world. That is their domain, that is their honorable and salvific “service.”

The Catholic peasants and aristocrats of the Vendée lived a pure Marian faith during the Terror by fully assuming their role to defend the Faith, to protect Catholic cities and families, to do battle against hostile forces; never did they try to substitute for clergy when their priests went missing. They knew, intuitively, the teaching of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 — how the Body of Christ has many diverse and unequal members that depend one upon another; that the eye has to be the eye, the hand the hand; each part has to be just what it is, to the best of its ability, and not a poor substitute for some other one. The “dignity” of the laity is in no way augmented by their taking on of quasi-clerical liturgical functions, just as neither is their dignity diminished by being spouses, parents, workers, citizens.

The Virgin Mary receiving her Son from the hand of St John
I couldn’t help noticing this past weekend in the usus antiquior, in which we celebrated the Second Sunday after Epiphany, that “the liturgical providence of God” furnished us with an Epistle and a Gospel that both referred expressly to “ministries.” We can learn some important lessons from meditating on these readings.

The Epistle is Romans 12:6–16:

Brethren: Having different gifts, according to the grace that is given us: either prophecy, to be used according to the rule of faith; or ministry, in ministering [Vulg.: ministerium in ministrando]; or he that teacheth, in doctrine; he that exhorteth, in exhorting; he that giveth, with simplicity; he that ruleth, with carefulness; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without dissimulation. Hating that which is evil, cleaving to that which is good: loving one another with the charity of brotherhood, with honour preventing one another: in carefulness not slothful: in spirit fervent: serving the Lord: rejoicing in hope: patient in tribulation: instant in prayer: communicating to the necessities of the saints: pursuing hospitality. Bless them that persecute you: bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that rejoice, weep with them that weep: being of one mind one towards another; not minding high things, but consenting to the humble.

The Apostle gives us here a rich portrait of the true variety of gifts to be found in the Holy Church of God. There are gifts of ministry, but there are also gifts of prophecy, teaching, exhorting, ruling, and works of mercy. The passage then shifts from special charisms to the fundamental Christian vocation of loving: loving without dissimulation, with the charity of brotherhood; hating what is evil and cleaving to what is good; honoring, serving, praying, and offering hospitality.

When we read about offering hospitality, should we not be thinking of the baptized and confirmed laity? Hospitality has always been seen as one of the great duties and privileges of lay people: to open their homes, to share with the needy, to welcome friends and strangers. Indeed, what greater hospitality can husband and wife exercise than by giving food and shelter, love and education, to the children who are their common bond and the chief calling of their life? They own and manage property precisely for that reason: to share generously. Their primary calling is to bring Christian prayer, witness, and virtues into the home, and thence, into the workplace and marketplace, the political arena, the broad world of culture. The sanctuary is not their home, but their home can become an extension of the sanctuary. They do not “mind high things,” as if seeking a rank or a task that does not belong to them; rather, they consent to be found among the humble (another translation has: “do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly”).

The clergy, stewards of the mysteries of Christ, are busy with their own proper work, according to the gifts bestowed on them in the Mystical Body. Their primary calling is within the temple of God, offering Him exalted praise and ministering to the people, and in this work they will find fulfillment and sanctity, if — and this is a crucial if — they enjoy the freedom to be fully what they are and to utilize fully the armory and treasury of the Church’s liturgical inheritance. In short, they must have the best wine, drink it freely, and give it to others to drink.

The Gospel for the Second Sunday after Epiphany is John 2:1–11:

At that time there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee: and the mother of Jesus was there. And Jesus also was invited, and His disciples, to the marriage. And the wine failing, the mother of Jesus saith to Him: They have no wine. And Jesus saith to her: Woman, what is that to Me and to thee? My hour is not yet come. His mother saith to the waiters [ministris]: Whatsoever He shall say to you, do ye. Now there were set there six water-pots of stone, according to the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three measures apiece. Jesus saith to them: Fill the water-pots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And Jesus said to them: Draw out now, and carry to the chief steward of the feast. And they carried it. And when the chief steward had tasted the water made wine, and knew not whence it was, but the waiters [ministri] knew who had drawn the water: the chief steward calleth the bridegroom, and saith to him: Every man at first setteth forth good wine: and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now. This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee; and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.

In this Gospel, Jesus is the Eternal High Priest who will offer the perfect sacrifice when “his hour” has come to glorify the Father (note how His Holy Name is mentioned seven times, which underlines His perfection as God and man — readers of St. John will know that this is anything but accidental); wine will be the symbol of the sweetness and abundance of His redemption. The architriclinus or chief steward is like the deacon who ministers to the priest at Solemn Mass; the “waiters” (ministri in Latin) are like the subdeacon and the acolytes who minister, in turn, to their superiors.

The guests at the wedding feast are the congregation. They are not serving, they are not busy with providing the food and drink; they are simply taking it all in and feasting. Theirs, in a sense, is “the better part” of Mary of Bethany.

The Virgin Mary is neither a minister nor a simple guest. Like the ministers, she brings about results, but in the mode of an intercessor — one who joins the power of the priest to the needs of the people, even as she joined in her womb the supreme deity with the neediness of human nature. Like the guests, she gratefully and joyfully receives good things from the Lord.

The Epistle and Gospel of the Second Sunday after Epiphany remind us of the wisdom of the Catholic Church in her traditional hierarchical and Christocentric liturgical praxis. Compared with the irrefutable coherence of the usus antiquior as it returns to more and more altars, the “polyesterdays” of liturgical experimentation are shown to have no staying power, no future — even on the artificial life support of canon law. 

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