Mission and service: Pope Francis' vision for lay ministry in the Church

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Those two words sum up the essence of the presence of the lay faithful in the Church. It is about preparing them to participate intensely in ecclesial life and to bear witness to Christian values in the world.

Photo courtesy: Vatican Media
Photo courtesy: Vatican Media

By Filipe Domingues

Two words sum up the essence of the presence of the lay faithful in the life of the Church: mission and service. This is Pope Francis' vision for the full and active participation of the lay faithful in Church life, which he presented in a speech on “Lay people and the ministeriality of the synodal Church” during the plenary meeting of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life on April 22. (Full speech here)

This vision is not just about enabling lay people to do more – which would be merely a functional approach to their ministry – but about preparing them to participate intensely in ecclesial life and to bear witness to Christian values in the world, the pontiff said.

“All ministries, indeed, are an expression of the sole mission of the Church, and they are all forms of service to others,” Francis said.

All forms of ecclesial tasks have in common “the willingness to serve the brethren, and in them, to serve Christ.” 

Referring to the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii gaudium” he added: “Only in this way may all the baptized be able to discover the meaning of their own life, joyfully experiencing being a mission on this earth, that is, being called, in different ways and forms, to bringing light, blessing, enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing, and letting themselves be accompanied.”

The origin of ministries

In his speech, Pope Francis sought to differentiate “instituted” ministries from the ministries carried out in activities of an ordinary, everyday nature, in the life of the Church and in the world. To live and carry out a ministry, he said, is to participate in the “prophetic and regal function of Christ, not only within the Church, but also in the environments where they are engaged.”

Among the instituted ministries, the laity can be lectors, acolytes and catechists. “These ministries are characterized by a public intervention of the Church – a specific act of institution – and a certain visibility [of the laity]. They are connected with ordained ministry [bishops, priests and deacons], because they involve various forms of participation in the task that is proper to them, even if it does not demand the sacrament of ordination,” he said. 

However, instituted ministries and those that require ordination, “do not represent the full extent of the ministeriality of the Church, which is broader and, ever since the first Christian communities, regards all the faithful,” he said.

The origin of the full ministeriality of the Church, Francis said, lies in two pillars: baptism and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Baptism makes all the faithful fully the disciples of Jesus, called to “take part in the mission He entrusted to the Church,” and opens each person to the gifts of the Spirit, he explained.

“The ministeriality of the faithful, and of lay people in particular, stems from the charism that the Holy Spirit distributes within the people of God for its edification: first a charism appears, inspired by the Spirit; then, the Church acknowledges this charism as a useful service to the community; finally, in a third moment, it is introduced and a specific ministry spreads,” said the pope.

Areas to privilege

He encouraged the laity to meet the demands of today's world, attending to those who need "welcome and solidarity," such as migrants and the poor, in addition to those who experience “new forms” of suffering and isolation.

“The ministry thus becomes not only a simple social commitment, but also something beautiful and personal, a true Christian witness,” he said.

The pope asked that special attention be given to families, mainly to “situations of matrimonial crisis, problems of separated and divorced people and of those who live in a new union or have remarried.” He recalled the “educational mission of the family” as a “ministry of evangelization” and initiation into the Christian faith. There are ministries, Francis said, that depend on the sacrament of matrimony and family life as a foundational basis.

Pope Francis said ministries must never become “self-referential,” that is, they should not be seen as titles or positions to be occupied, nor should they lead to “social, political and economic” benefits. It is necessary to avoid the clericalization of the laity, he often says. Instead of a mere “intra-ecclesial” role, lay ministries must be of service to the community, that is, an “application of the Gospel in the transformation of society."

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