We who live today in a notably hierarchical church do not always find it easy to appreciate the important role of lay people in the early church, especially of women, even though we have heard about it repeatedly in the readings at Mass on Sundays. How often do we recall Tabitha, whose life “was marked by constant good deeds and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36)? I suspect that hardly anybody ever thinks of Phoebe, whom Paul describes as a deaconess and whom he praises for having been of such great help to so many, including himself (Rom 16:1-3). Though just about everyone recognizes Mary Magdalen’s name, how often do we note that in John’s Gospel the first evangelizer is not Peter, nor John, nor any of the Apostles, but Mary Magdalen herself, who proclaims to the Apostles: “I have seen the Lord” (Jn 20:18). The New Testament mentions many other lay men and women, most of whom have been largely overlooked in the course of history.
When I notice people wavering about the importance of the laity in the church, I encourage them to read about Priscilla and Aquila. In the letter to the Romans Paul states that all the Gentile communities are indebted to this married couple (Rom 16:4). It is hard to find higher praise than that.
These two great Christians appear on four occasions in the New Testament: in the Letter to the Romans (16:3), the First Letter to the Corinthians (16:19), in the 18th chapter of Acts (vss. 2, 18 and 26) and at the end of the Second Letter to Timothy (4:19). What do we know about them? The texts tell us that they were:
• a married couple
• converts from Judaism
• lay missionaries
• expelled from Rome during the persecution of Claudius
• living in exile in Corinth
• working as tentmakers, Paul’s occupation
• hospitable to Paul, taking him into their home
• his missionary companions in Ephesus, and really the founders of the church there
• risking their lives for his sake
• hosts of the local church in their own home, a house-church
• catechizers of the great preacher Apollos.
Paul and Luke rate this couple as extraordinary missionaries. Priscilla, whom Paul calls Prisca, is twice mentioned ahead of her husband in the New Testament; this seems to be an indication that she had a more important role to play in the missionary activity of the primitive church than did Aquila.
Will the role of lay Catholics be revitalized in the 21st century? Below I offer a brief profile. It expresses my hopes for lay women and men in the church of the future.
They will be profoundly lay. For those who are married, it is especially important to recall the beautiful name used by the Second Vatican Council and repeated by Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) in describing the family. It is called “the domestic church.” The family, like the church, is a place where the Gospel is transmitted, especially to children, and from which it also radiates to others by the witness to unity and love that resides in a deeply Christian family. I hope that in the 21st century Catholic married couples will live as true “domestic churches,” communicating God’s life to their children and to all those whom they contact.
The 21st century will see, I suspect, the flowering of the lay vocation in the church. The laity, by the very fact that they are lay, have a special role to play in evangelizing the world of culture, politics, economics, the sciences, the arts, society, international life and the media. Today, inspired by documents like Evangelii Nuntiandi and Christifideles Laici (1988), lay men and women exercise a very wide variety of ministries, serving as heads of local church communities, both small and large, as catechists, teachers, directors of prayer, leaders of services of the Word of God, ministers to the sick in their homes and in hospitals, and as servants of the poor. In the future, even more than at present, they will bring creative ministerial competence to setting up sites on the Internet, animating local communities through song and art, parish planning and administration, and evangelizing in countless other ways, both directly and indirectly.
They will be well educated, well formed and knowledgeable about the social teaching of the church. My father and mother never reached high school. Both had to work from the time they were very young, so their formal education ended early. But a generation later, all five of us, their children, had the chance to go to college; some of us went to graduate school too. Lay Catholics of the 21st century will be very well educated. I hope their education is integral, that it will have a healthy mix of the humanities, sciences, philosophy and theology.
So I foresee that in the 21st century there will be many doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, sociologists, economists and computer specialists who will actively contribute their expertise to our parishes and pastoral centers. They will be much more competent in their fields of specialization than most priests, brothers and sisters are in those same fields, so it will be very important for priests and religious to work closely with them and to rely on their competence.
One of my deepest hopes is that the lay Catholic of the 21st century will be not just well educated, but well formed too. Our future lay Catholics will receive formation especially in their homes, but also in Catholic schools, parish religious education programs and youth groups. Others will perhaps have experienced a foreign mission through programs sponsored by dioceses or religious communities. Others will have journeyed for years in groups like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Our schools, youth groups and parish associations will all, I hope, have strengthened significantly the formation that they give to young people.
Well-formed laypersons will gradually find the delicate balance between daily labor and daily prayer. They will recognize that prayer and action go hand in hand in a healthy spirituality. They will experience that divorced from action, prayer can turn escapist and create illusions of holiness. But conversely, they will know that service divorced from prayer can be shallow, have a “driven” quality to it and become an addiction.
While the church proclaimed its social teaching eloquently throughout the 20th century, it remained largely unknown to most believers. This social teaching focuses especially on the neediest in society and is the foundation for the church’s “preferential option for the poor.” I hope that all Catholic formation programs in the 21st century will impart a healthy dose of this teaching, packaging it well, so that those in formation can learn it and then transmit it to others.
They will be electronically connected. Unlike most of us today, lay Catholics of the 21st century will be electronically connected almost from birth. They will have learned to read, write and do math with the aid of a computer. E-mail will be a means of communication that they take completely for granted, using it to contact people in other countries and on other continents. They will look for ways to use technological resources to draw others to work in the service of the most needy and in investigating the causes of poverty. They will design Web sites that are really attractive to others, especially to the young.
Recognizing the importance of being “connected” with the larger world, these laypeople will be creative communicators. A recent church document states the challenge eloquently:
Human communication has in it something of God’s creative activity. “With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist”—and, we might say, to the communicator as well—“a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him or her to share in his creative power....”
They will be team players on a multiracial squad. Catholics are called to live and serve not merely as individuals, but as members of a family of believers. In a society characterized by individualism, it is very important that we “sacramentalize” a family spirit, handing on to others a capacity for teamwork rather than merely projecting ourselves as individuals.
The Catholic layperson of the 21st century should be capable of cooperating with other members of the church, standing at their side, promoting their gifts, generating group energy, encouraging young people to join forces in the service of the most abandoned.
In the 20th century, as the great theologian Karl Rahner often pointed out, the church became, for the first time in its history, a truly “world-church.” In the 21st century, our local parishes will involve a growing number of Asians, Pacific Islanders, Africans and Latin Americans, who will stand alongside North Americans and those of European roots as the constituents of a truly global family. Church members will be of all races and colors. Those whose skin is black, brown, yellow, red and white will stand next to one another in projects serving the poor, will sit beside one another doing research into the causes of poverty, will work with one another in lay missions, and will sing and pray with one another in eucharistic celebrations.
I hope that the multiracial character of 21st-century Catholic parishes will be a clear witness to the unity of the human race and that the gifts of various cultures will help us to have a continually expanding vision.
They will be truly missionary and in live contact with the world of the poor. As transportation and communication become ever more rapid, I trust that 21st-century Catholic lay men and women will have a truly global point of view. They will be conscious, as they view the ocean, that its waves break on other shores where the poorest of the poor live and labor.
Most likely the poorest of the poor in the 21st century will be the very same persons listed 2,500 years ago in the Book of Deuteronomy (16:11): women, children and refugees. The 21st-century Catholic layperson will be creative in assisting them: helping them find adequate food and lodging, health care, education; listening to the word of God with them and sharing with them in prayerful celebration and rich religious instruction.
Novo Millennio Ineunte (No. 49), speaks eloquently about this challenge: “The century and the millennium now beginning will need to see...to what length of dedication the Christian community can go in charity toward the poorest. If we have truly started out afresh from the contemplation of Christ, we must learn to see him especially in the face of those with whom he himself wished to be identified: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink...’ (Mt 25:35 ff). This Gospel text is not a simple invitation to charity: it is a page of Christology which sheds a ray of light on the mystery of Christ.”
Having outlined this profile of the future Catholic layperson, let me express a final hope in conclusion. I hope that we see many lay saints in the 21st century. Today, the church reminds us again and again of the universal call to holiness, of the universal call to mission, and of the universal call to build a civilization of love. So I hope that Catholic laypersons in the 21st century, like many genuinely holy lay men and women in the past, will teach much more by witness than by words, much more by their lives than by their lessons, much more by their persons than by their projects. I hope that they connect the soul of the church with the soul of the world, that they blend together deep rootedness in God with deep rootedness in the sufferings of the poor, and that they express a creative, contemporary sense of tradition in complex, changing circumstances. And finally I hope that their lives excite others, so that they too believe deeply and enthusiastically and make their belief real through concrete, effective, practical love.