Mission of Lay Catholics Defined : Pope Warns of Laity’s Role in Priestly Duties

Times Staff Writer

Pope John Paul II warned Monday against excessive use of lay people in priestly roles, telling secular Roman Catholics that their obligation to the common good can be fulfilled by their actions in society.

“The world is the place and means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation,” John Paul said in a 44,000-word papal exhortation to the world’s 850 million Catholics.

The document is the Pope’s response to a 1987 Synod of Bishops on the role of the laity within their church. It evoked many of his favorite themes in formulating a concept of communion or solidarity as the basis of positivist Christian action.

“This is a document for all Christianity,” said Cardinal Eduardo Francisco Pironio, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, in presenting the document Monday. “It is a mission of communion, a relaunching of a church which is immersed in the world.”


Officially dated Dec. 30, 1988, the exhortation is entitled “The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World.” It is in effect a survey of John Paul’s social thought.

“Against the pessimism and selfishness which casts a shadow over the world, the church stands for life,” the pontiff emphasized.

He urged Catholics to exercise their full responsibilities on issues ranging from politics to biogenetics to ecology. Touching themes he has publicly addressed time and again, he called on the laity to exercise moral judgments in areas as diverse as abortion and euthanasia, the mass media and the family, poverty, materialism and social injustice.

Manual for the Laity

“The Pope wanted to give the laity and religious alike a kind of manual on the mission of the laity,” said Archbishop Jan P. Schotte, who is secretary general of the Synod of Bishops.

Without breaking new ground, the document addressed the role of women in the church, the family and society. The role of women had been a particular concern of American bishops at the synod, who had hoped to win approval for women to serve as lectors and altar girls at Mass.

That idea won no support at the synod, and no support from the Pope, although it is among the issues under consideration by a Vatican study commission. However, in some archdioceses, including Los Angeles, women have been allowed to perform these roles pending official permission.

John Paul’s exhortation Monday celebrated the dignity of women and emphasized their contribution within the church but restated papal opposition to their ordination.

The pontiff also echoed the synod’s concern with “a too indiscriminate use of the word ministry . . . the lack of observance of ecclesiastical laws and norms.”

Priests and the laity have two distinct ministries, John Paul observed, cautioning against “the tendency toward a ‘clericalization’ of the lay faithful and the risk of creating, in reality, an ecclesial structure of parallel service to that founded on the sacrament of the priesthood.”

Underlying the document’s specifics is the papal conviction that a Catholic’s commitment to his church must be reflected in his commitment to the world.

“The concept of ‘communion’ is the essence of this document,” said Father John Navone, a Jesuit theologian at the Gregorian University in Rome. “What the Pope is saying is that Christians must have communion with God, with their church and with one another before they can make a Christian contribution to the common good of society.”

John Paul, he said, reminded the faithful of their particular vocation of “seeking the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God.” Catholics must never relinquish participation in public life at any level, he said.

The papal document said: “Charges of careerism, idolatry of power, egoism and corruption that are often directed at persons in government, parliaments, the ruling classes or political parties, as well as the common opinion that participating in politics is an absolute moral danger, does not in the least justify either skepticism or an absence on the part of Christians in public life. Public life finds its basic standard in the pursuit of the common good, as the good of everyone, and as the good of each person taken as a whole.”