Lay Movements in Today’s Church
A Phenomenon Unforeseen but Awaited
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Un fenomeno imprevisto eppure atteso
Publisher:Saint John Publications
The ways of the intervention of the Holy Spirit in a particular time are unforeseeable. It is always possible to hope and expect that they will correspond to the spiritual needs of a given time and of the Church living in that time. Thus also the charisms flowering in the area of lay movements, as in other fields of the Church, are unforeseen as in the past, but it is possible to point out immediately the reasons for which they have arisen particularly now.
Though some of them had their beginnings before the Second Vatican Council, the image of the Church given by the Council has without doubt strongly influenced their development: the idea—obviously only a presumption—that Christian perfection could be reserved to the religious state, that the lay person in the world should be content with a secondary form of Christian existence, collapsed because of the clear declaration, genuinely evangelical, that all Christians are called in the same way to holiness; those who live and work in the world no less than religious and priests, those who are married no less than the celibate. It is probably because of this principle that Christians who aspire to perfection no longer adhere with the same assiduity to the Third Orders to participate in some way in the charism of the First and Second Orders, but place themselves in the Church in their own right, even though they then direct themselves towards a specific religious spirituality. Sometimes it is even possible to observe, contrary to times past, that the new ecclesial movements have decisively influenced certain religious communities and are in a position to renew in them their spirit.
In this context we can mention a second point that is linked with certain tendencies of the recent Council: their renewal in the best and most ecclesial sense of the word, that is, the rediscovery and reconsideration of the original mission of the Church in the secular world, appropriate now, in a new world doubly problematical to the Church because of its secularisation and its technology. Along the line of this orientation towards the communal apostolate of the Church it is obvious that the Council expressly addressed itself to the laity and recalled their more than ever indispensable work of mediation between world and Church. From one point of view, within the Church, the hierarchy which forms the structure of the Church and the service of the ministry, can be considered more indispensable today than ever; the intimate hope of the Church in the efficacy of her apostolate can be founded upon prayer, upon penitence, on the efforts of the religious orders, today as never before: but for mediation with the world, recalled as necessary, for the inculturation of the Christian event in the structures and currents of thought in the world, the laity, according to the programme of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and the pastoral Constitution on the relations between the Church and the world (Gaudium et Spes), are placed in a truly central place. Their position was already always one of being “between,” so much so that the Council did not provoke for them any crisis of identity as it did for example for certain religious orders, which were already apostolic but thought that they must gain a new face by means of becoming more close to the world, by means of forms of secularisation; also, on a larger scale, the same happened for the priest who, discovering a certain distance of his vocation from the world believed it necessary to fulfil often excessive and forceful attempts at “adaptation to the world.” The fierce ecclesial crisis following the Council, which was on one side a crisis of secularisation and on the other a crisis of comprehension of authority in the Church, affected the situation of priests and religious orders even in their theology, in a way incomparably more strong than that of the laity, who had no reason to reflect and “question themselves” on their own identity. This difference is very clearly and very concretely reflected, even up to most recent years, in the behaviour of the categories outlined: the contestations within the Church have mainly involved priests and religious and sometimes extended to involve also certain circles of lay people. The ecclesial movements that we are considering here are all immune from attachment to these protests: they are ecclesial in a natural way, without prejudices, they are docile, though not servile, to the guidance of the hierarchy of the Church.
We can further add a third opportune reason for the new lay movements born from specific charisms. In a period of transition the hierarchy had recalled with foresight the necessity of restoring to the laity their function of mediation with the world, but had linked this function strongly to the hierarchy, as if they alone—and not the totality of the Church—could be responsible for the evangelisation of the world. So it happened that lay associations, promoted zealously by the Church, had at the beginning the ability to carry out quite considerable activity; but with passing years this action visibly diminished and the structures set up at one time could only be conserved in the Church with an artificial effort.
From what has been said the role of the lay person in the Church appears in a new light. Today more than ever before there is needed professional competence in the many and very complex problems that occupy humanity in the world. Problems concerning not only development, but pure survival in the near future, force the laity, who unite a professional competence with a genuine Christian sense, into the front line even of the missionary work of the Church. At one time the priests could occupy this first place as official teachers of the faith and this role is still uncontested in many countries with a more simple culture. Always even in these countries, the technical and economic civilization of the world is making inroads bringing with it problems that call anew for the “specialist,” the lay person.
The norms and attempts at solutions offered by faith and by theology to the problems of humanity are certainly fundamental and linked for both the Christian lay person and the rest of non-Christian humanity. But it would be presumptuous for the clergy and theologians to want themselves to direct the application of the principles of the faith in the economic, political and cultural spheres. To answer the pressing need for an adequate solution of the economic problems and of urbanization in Latin America—to choose only one example from many—only lay people who have had a specialized training are competent and not theologians. The example chosen cannot hide the innumerable fields of action which often desperately lack competent Christian lay people; we can cite for example the field of journalism, that of the mass media, of ecological problems, of politics, etc. Here are made the important decisions for the survival and the progress of humanity.
With all this we must not obscure in any way two things; first, the silent and hidden engagement of numerous lay people who are not called to occupy positions where they take decisions which affect world culture; their engagement constitutes the indispensable background which alone makes possible the forward movement of one who is endowed with ability and full responsibility. Such people can only come from families where they have been formed to such a responsible behavior by mothers and fathers, brothers and teachers. All social and professional levels must be penetrated by the leaven of Christians courageous and secure in their faith.
This—and it is the second thing—asks in its turn for the effective presence of well-trained priests, diocesan or religious, who live and announce the faith in a convincing way, as also the prayer and renunciation of numerous contemplatives who live in partial or complete hiddenness. The clear message of Lisieux on this question conserves this full reality. From the intimate force of the prayer of immolation the impulse goes out, to where they fight for the faith and for its influence in a particular part of the world.
Certainly there are individual personalities who have the ability to unite the priesthood with a secular profession. But, generally speaking, this link can have sense only in a field of worldly interest where there might be requested a specifically or prevalently priestly engagement, as for example was and is the case with worker priests. As a whole however, these remain exceptions while the normal case is still the model of a laity counseled in religious problems by an experienced priest.
The associations of Christian laity are today governed by this vision of the situation of the world: these associations must be determined and structured by the task of mediation of the laity which obliges in an ever more pressing way. This is not to say that those types of associations of the past with purely religious purposes—we think of the “Marian Sodalities” which flowered between the 17th and 19th centuries—have today lost their meaning; but they need to be integrated with new lay movements that more consciously will carry their religious impulse into the various fields of work.