New book aims to encourage greater dialogue in the Church on the lay vocation

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New book aims to encourage greater dialogue in the Church on the lay vocation

By Filipe Domingues

ROME — A new book, published by The Lay Centre and Libreria Editrice Vaticana, aims to encourage greater dialogue within the Church on the lay vocation. “Full, Conscious, and Active: Lay Participation in the Church’s Dialogue with the World,” was co-edited by Dr. Donna Orsuto, director of The Lay Centre, and Dr. Robert S. White.

The book will be presented Feb. 20, within the context of The Lay Centre’s inaugural event for its 2020 programming. The event, titled “Planting the Seeds of Hope: Grassroots Initiatives on Creating a Culture of Dialogue,” will include an international roundtable of experts in interreligious dialogue who will reflect on the historic “Document on Human Fraternity,” signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb, last February.

In an interview, Dr. Orsuto spoke of how the book came about and of her observations as regards the participation of the laity currently in the Church.

“I see many signs of hope — some of which are alluded to in this book — of a deeper embrace of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the laity,” she said. “At the same time, we have a long way to go.”

Read the full interview below. 

Q: What sparked the idea for this book?

Dr. Orsuto: The book, co-edited by me and Dr. Robert S. White, is the fruit of an academic seminar that took place in Rome, July 6-9, 2016, to mark the 30th anniversary of The Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas. Jointly sponsored by the College Theology Society and The Lay Centre, the seminar gathered an international and diverse group of Church leaders, professors, and students, who gathered in a scholarly environment for prayer, fellowship, and dialogue. The book is a collection of the papers that were presented. In making these papers available to a wider public, the hope is to continue the dialogue that was begun in Rome during those delightful summer days.


Q: What are these papers about?

Dr. Orsuto: The various essays cover a wide range of topics, such as: the laity in the world, the theology of the laity, the laity in the Church, the laity in familial and professional life, and the laity in dialogue.


Q: What key word would you say unites all of the papers?

Dr. Orsuto: A key word is “dialogue.” This was evident both during the seminar and also in the printed volume. During the seminar, there was an opportunity to enter into an intergenerational dialogue between senior and junior scholars, between clergy and laity. Creating spaces for respectful dialogue is part of the mission of The Lay Centre.


Q: How did this dialogue take place in practice?

Dr. Orsuto: The various scholars not only delivered their respective essays publicly, but they also took time to listen to one another’s contributions and to engage respectfully in dialogue. An important dimension of The Lay Centre’s mission is to create an environment where this sort of exchange can take place, in an ecumenical and interreligious context, but also within the Roman Catholic Church.


Q: Could you explain the meaning of the title, “Full, Conscious, and Active”?

Dr. Orsuto: It alludes to the first of the Constitutions promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, “Sacrosanctum Concilium” (14). Although the focus of this Constitution was the reform of the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, the key role that it played in the ongoing development of the Council’s understanding of the role of the laity in the life of the Church and the world is also evident.

Along with the Constitutions “Lumen Gentium” and “Gaudium et Spes,” and one of the Council’s last decrees, “Apostolicam actuositatem,” new and dynamic horizons emerged for the laity.

The same “full, conscious, and active” participation in the liturgy flows into the everyday life of all the faithful, including lay women and men, who are called to be salt, light, and leaven in the world. Engagement with the world is one of the hallmarks of the lay vocation, thus, the subtitle of this book: “Lay Participation in the Church’s Dialogue with the World.”


Q: Why does this book come out as a Lay Centre publication?

Dr. Orsuto: The fact that these essays focused on the full, conscious, and active participation of lay women and men in dialogue with the world is significant because this is precisely what The Lay Centre aims to do in its international community: prepare future lay leaders to engage creatively in dialogue with others. This conference, and indeed the work of The Lay Centre, has been made possible through the generosity of many friends and benefactors, among them Ralph and Mary Dwan, in whose loving memory this book is dedicated. This couple, who with great simplicity and integrity brought “the beatitudes to life,” was an example of how lay people can live fully their call to participate in a full, conscious, and active way in dialogue with the world.


Q: How does the image of the mosaic on the book’s cover relate to the contents?

Dr. Orsuto: This beautiful mosaic from the 12th century depicts a woman feeding her hen. The centrepiece of that mosaic is the cross as a Tree of Life, with bright, green branches circling out to cover the entire apse of the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome, as if to reach out to all men and women at all times and in all places.

From the crucified Christ comes new life that nourishes those who are caught up in the vine, including the woman feeding her hen. Encircling the mosaic are the words, “We have likened the Church to this vine: the law made it wither but the cross causes it to bloom.”

The position of the mosaic above the basilica’s altar is a reminder that the Eucharist is the font and summit of Christian life. Liturgy and everyday life embrace. This living union with Christ comes about as the faithful take part in the Eucharist celebrated at the altar. The “full, conscious, and active” participation of the lay faithful in the liturgy prepares them also to engage in dialogue with the world in a “full, conscious, and active” way.


Q: Has the laity attained the level of participation in the Church that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council intended?

Dr. Orsuto: I see many signs of hope — some of which are alluded to in this book — of a deeper embrace of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the laity. At the same time, we have a long way to go. 

When thinking about the “full, conscious, and active” call of the laity to participate in the mission of the Church, I often return to these words of Pope Benedict XVI in his address for the Opening of the Pastoral Convention of the Diocese of Rome, May 26, 2009, on the theme, “Church Membership and Pastoral Co-Responsibility.”

He asked the following question: “To what extent is the pastoral co-responsibility of all, and particularly of the laity, recognized and encouraged? In past centuries, thanks to the generous witness of all the baptized who spent their life educating the new generations in the faith, healing the sick, and going to the aid of the poor, the Christian community proclaimed the Gospel to the inhabitants of Rome. The self-same mission is entrusted to us today, in different situations, in a city in which many of the baptized have strayed from the path of the Church and those who are Christian are unacquainted with the beauty of our faith.”

Benedict XVI himself acknowledged that there is still a long way to go: “In the first place we must renew our efforts for a formation which is more attentive and focused on the vision of the Church...and this should be 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.”

At the same time, it is necessary to improve pastoral structures. In this same address, he said: “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, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity.”

I think we are on the right path, but we still have a long way to go.


Q: Do you believe lay people are ready to take on greater roles in the Church?

Dr. Orsuto: We should also heed the words of Pope Francis, who says that lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the people of God. The minority — ordained ministers — “are at their service.”

In “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis said: “There has been a growing awareness of the identity and mission of the laity in the Church. We can count on many lay persons, although still not nearly enough, who have a deeply rooted sense of community and great fidelity to the tasks of charity, catechesis and the celebration of the faith” (102).

Pope Francis attributes the latter in part to the lack of proper formation needed to take on important responsibilities in the Church. But also to clericalism, as in some places “room has not been made for [lay people] to speak and to act” or to participate in decision-making processes.

“Even if many are now involved in the lay ministries, this involvement is not reflected in a greater penetration of Christian values in the social, political, and economic sectors. It often remains tied to tasks within the Church, without a real commitment to applying the Gospel to the transformation of society. The formation of the laity and the evangelization of professional and intellectual life represent a significant pastoral challenge,” he said.


Q: Were there other people involved in the publication of this book?

Dr. Orsuto: Many people contributed in a variety of ways to the publication of this volume and to each of them I express my deep gratitude: Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, who graciously wrote the preface and all those who participated in the 2016 seminar and who contributed articles. Dr. William Portier, who was then president of the College Theology Society, not only promoted the seminar among CTS members, but participated fully in it. The staff and Leadership Scholars of The Lay Centre and the interns from Lehigh University, who worked tirelessly both before, during, and after the seminar to make it a success. Dr. Robert S. White who graciously co-edited this volume, Dr. David Dawson Vasquez, who was responsible for the copyediting and layout, and Heather Walker and Vittorio Zucchetti for administrative assistance, as well as our publisher, Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

(With gratitude to the Irish Dominicans at the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome for the use of the image of the mosaic on the book cover.)

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