ROME — Pope Francis shared a strong and clear message on the role of the lay faithful in the church and in the world in a recent letter made public by the Vatican April 26.
The letter was first issued to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, March 19, as a follow-up to the audience the pontiff had with the participants of the commission’s plenary assembly earlier in March. The plenary was dedicated to the “indispensable role of the lay faithful in the public life of Latin American countries.”
Though the letter is one of his strongest statements yet on the laity in the church, it seemed to be directed more to clergy than to the people in the pews. In it, the pope addressed some of the dangers of clericalism, which he said devalues the grace of baptism and extinguishes the “prophetic fire” of the church.
He said while he remembers the famous expression that emerged after the Second Vatican Council — “It’s the time of the laity” — “it seems that the clock has stopped.”
“To look at the People of God is to remember that we all entered the church as lay people,” he said. “The first sacrament, the one that seals our identity forever and of which we should always be proud, is baptism.”
“It does us good to remember that the church is not an elite of priests, of the consecrated, of the bishops, but we all form part of the Holy People faithful of God,” he continued.
He called clericalism one of the “strongest deformations that Latin America must address.”
Clericalism “not only annuls the personality of Christians, but it has a tendency to diminish and devalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit put in the heart of our people,” he said.
It also “leads to the functionalization of the laity, treating them as ‘messengers,’ (restricting) different initiatives and efforts and, I even dare to say, the necessary boldness to be able to take the Good News of the Gospel” to all areas in society, he said.
“Far from stimulating the different contributions (and) proposals, little by little clericalism extinguishes the prophetic fire that the church is called to witness in the heart of her peoples,” he said. “Clericalism forgets that the visibility and sacramentality of the church belongs to the whole People of God (cf. LG 9-14), and not just to a few chosen and enlightened.”
He said the popular piety in Latin America is an example of religious expression among the laity that has remained unaffected by “that clericalism that seeks to control” and is an effective means of transforming faith into culture.
The clergy must also listen to the desires and longings of the laity and to perceive there “a genuine presence of the Spirit,” he said.
“Let us trust our people, in their memory and their ‘intuition.’ Let us trust that the Holy Spirit acts in and with them, and that this Spirit is not only the ‘property’ of the ecclesial hierarchy,” he said.
He said pastors “must be committed” to the laity, “opening doors, working with them, dreaming with them, reflecting and especially praying with them.
“It is never the pastor who tells the layman what he must do or say; they know it better than we do,” he continued.
He said clerics have “often fallen into the temptation of thinking that the committed layman is one who works in the tasks of the church and/or in the things of the parish or of the diocese, and we have reflected little on how to accompany a baptized person in his public and daily life.
“Without realizing it, we have generated a lay elite, believing that only they are committed laymen who work in the things ‘of the priests,’ and we have forgotten (and) neglected the believer … in the daily struggle to live the faith,” he continued.
“These are the situations that clericalism cannot see, as it is more concerned to dominate areas than to generate processes,” he said.
He said clergy must recognize that the laity, which is always in the midst of “new cultural forms … is in need of new forms of organization and of the celebration of the faith.”
Citing “Evangelii Gaudium,” he said this “requires imagining areas of prayer and communion with novel, more attractive and significant characteristics, especially for urban inhabitants.”
“It is obvious, and even impossible, to think that we, as pastors, should have the monopoly of the solutions for the multiple challenges that contemporary life presents to us. On the contrary, we must be at the side of our people, accompanying them in their searches and stimulating an imagination capable of responding to present-day problems,” he said. “And we do so by discerning with our people, and never for our people or without our people.”
Pastors are called to stimulate inculturation by “encouraging the people to live their faith where they are and with whom they are,” he said.
He called the laity “the real protagonists of history,” adding that they are part of the “holy people faithful of God and, therefore, the protagonists of the church and of the world, to which we are called to serve and not to make use of.”
The pope’s original letter was in Spanish. It was translated into English by ZENIT. Read the full ZENIT translation here.