The Ecclesial Co-Responsibility of the Laity, The Anchor, June 12, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
June 5, 2009

In the days leading up to the celebration of Pentecost, the traditional birthday of the Church, Pope Benedict gave his yearly address to the annual synod for the Diocese of Rome. The theme of this year’s synod was “Church Membership and Pastoral Co-responsibility,” and the Pope spoke May 26 on how all the members of the Church are “co-responsible” for the Church’s mission, not merely within the Diocese of Rome but throughout the whole Roman Catholic Church.

Before he launched into the discussion of the topic at hand, the Holy Father wanted first to establish the premises for his conclusions by describing — based on the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which beautifully synthesized the traditional teaching of the Church — what the Church is. This was necessary, the Pope said, because after the Council many misinterpreted its central ecclesiological concepts and, claiming to refer to a presumed “Spirit of the Council,” invented a new conception “in direct contrast with the word and spirit of the Council.”

Vatican II used above all three expressions to refer to the Church: “mystery [or sacrament] of communion,” “the People of God,” and the “Body of Christ.” The three terms must be understood, the Pope stressed, as complementary: The Church is “a communion of people who, through the action of the Holy Spirit, form the People of God, which is at the same time the Body of Christ.”

What happened after the Council, Pope Benedict said, is that the expression “People of God” was interpreted in discontinuity from the tradition and in isolation from the communion with Christ and others. “The notion of ‘People of God’ … was interpreted by some, in accordance with a purely sociological vision, with an almost exclusively horizontal bias that excluded the vertical reference to God.”

These misinterpretations, the Pope continued, have led to two problems that have frustrated the renewal of the Church.

First, despite the “reawakening of spiritual and pastoral energies” brought about by the Council, there has not been the “desired growth and development.” Wild grapes were produced rather than good fruit. “In certain ecclesial communities,” Benedict added, “the period of fervor and initiative has given way to a time of weakening commitment, a situation of weariness, at times almost a stalemate, and even resistance and contradiction between the conciliar doctrine and various concepts formulated in the name of the Council but in fact opposed to its spirit and guidelines.”

Second, the ecclesiological misunderstandings have led in many places to flawed pastoral procedures. “On the one hand,” he specified, “there is still a tendency to identify the Church unilaterally with the hierarchy, forgetting the common responsibility, the common mission of the People of God, which, in Christ we all share. On the other, the tendency still persists to identify the People of God unilaterally, as I have already said, in accordance with a merely sociological or political concept, forgetting the newness and specificity of that people, which becomes a people solely through communion with Christ.”

These issues have been at the root of why the Council, instead of being a supernova in the history of the Church, has produced many shadows in addition to light — “ruptures” instead of a “deep renewal.” Pope Benedict says that the time is now to return to the true teaching of the Council on the Church so that the Church may experience the authentic reinvigoration that the Council intended. That reinvigoration will occur when all the baptized, grounded on the true understanding of the Church, take up the pastoral co-responsibility in the Church’s mission described so forcefully in the Gospels, in St. Paul’s letters and in the Council documents.

While noting that since the Council, many have “become aware that the mandate to evangelize does not only concern a few but rather all of the baptized,” he added, “there is still a long way to go. Too many of the baptized do not feel part of the ecclesial community and live on its margins, only coming to parishes in certain circumstances to receive religious services. Compared to the number of inhabitants in each parish, the lay people who are ready to work in the various apostolic fields, although they profess to be Catholic, are still few and far between.” Many, he said, are resigned to “preserving what exists,” particularly in their parishes, rather than entrusting themselves to the Spirit to help the Church grow.

He specifies five things that need to be done for the Church to achieve the intended renewal, which are equally applicable to the Diocese of Fall River as to the Diocese of Rome.

First, there must be adequate formation of all people in the Church: “We must renew our efforts for a formation that is more attentive and focused on the vision of the Church…  both on the part of priests as well as of religious and lay people to understand ever better what this Church is, this People of God in the Body of Christ.” There are already plenty of means to form consecrated men and women, although better advantage may need to be taken of these opportunities. For the formation of lay people, new initiatives and means will be needed in many places.

Second, mindsets must be changed and pastoral structures adapted in accordance with this co-responsibility: “It is necessary to improve pastoral structures in such a way that the co-responsibility of all the members of the People of God in their entirety is gradually promoted, with respect for vocations and for the respective roles of the consecrated and of lay people. This demands a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy but truly recognized as ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and action.” Pope Benedict calls priests to prioritize nurturing the “spiritual and apostolic growth of those who are already committed to working hard in the parishes … [to] act as leaven for the others.” Priests can sometimes prioritize their care for those on the margins so much that those in the center end up not being equipped to be co-responsible in the Church’s mission.

Third, to bear fruit, parishes must be focused on encountering Christ in prayer and the sacraments: “To prevent them from losing their identity and vigor,” parishioners “must be taught to listen prayerfully to the word of God through the practice of lectio divina.” One reason many communities lack the knowledge that they are Church is because they fail to recognize through prayer that “Christ, the eternal Word of the Father, convokes them and makes them his People.” Moreover, “if it is the Word that gathers the community, it is the Eucharist that makes it one body.… The Church, therefore, is not the result of an aggregation of individuals but of unity among those who are nourished by the one Word of God and the one Bread of Life.”

Fourth, there must be renewed effort to maintain the bonds of communion and peace within parishes, dioceses and the Church universal: “We must learn ever anew to preserve and defend this unity from the rivalry, disputes, and jealousies that can be kindled in and among ecclesial communities.” This is accomplished, not by seeking a lowest common-denominator conflict-less consensus, but through all members’ rooting themselves in the communion with Christ within the Church universal.

Finally, the Church must become a community of Good Samaritans sharing Christ’s love. “Living charity is the primary form of missionary outreach.” It was the experience of the Church’s charity in the early Church that made Christianity so attractive to so many, because it showed the face of Christ the Good Samaritan as “man’s true friend.” It remains the truest face of the Church today.

The renewal of the Church according to the vision of the Council, the new birth the Church awaits in these days after Pentecost, flows through these five priorities. “The future of Christianity,” Pope Benedict concludes, “depends on the commitment and witness of each one of us” to each of them.