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Voices Online Edition -- Vol. XXI No. 3
Michaelmas 2006

The Catholic Laity: Priests, Prophets and Kings

Address to Catholic students and laity at Furman College, Greenville, South Carolina

by Thomas G. Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap.

Professing that Christ is the Light of the nations, the Second Vatican Council on November 21, 1964 promulgated the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. Its primary purpose was to address the mystery of the Church which, as His sacrament of salvation, is the principal prism through which Christ’s salvific light dispels the darkness of our sinful world and enlightens the hearts and minds of men and women throughout all ages.

Being Catholic: Our Benefit and the Benefit of Others
All of us, who are Catholic Christians, are members of the Church because we are convinced, in faith, that only as such are we fully united to Christ, and so share fully in His salvific light. Within the Church we, who are sinners, obtain, in Christ, the forgiveness of our sins and the new life of the Holy Spirit. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we assume the likeness of Jesus the Son and so become the Father’s adopted sons and daughters living in communion with Him. Thus, we reside within the Church for our own benefit, that is, so that we may obtain the eternal salvation made possible only in Christ Jesus our Lord.

However, the Church does not exist solely for our own benefit nor do we belong to it solely for our own benefit. Yes, we are members because we want to bask in the light of Christ’s truth. Yes, we rejoice in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist. Yet, we, who are aglow with the light of Christ as members of His Church, are called to participate in the Church’s ministry of light. This ministry is twofold.

Serving the Church and World
First, the Church must continually nurture the life of its own members, guiding them to further repentance and to further growth in truth and holiness. Second, the Church must continually manifest the light of Christ’s Gospel to the unbelieving world surrounding it. As members of the Church we are all commissioned by our Baptism and Confirmation to participate in this twofold ecclesial ministry. While we may become members of the Church for the sake of our own salvation, yet, in so doing, we, by necessity, assume the ministries of the Church as living and active members of the Body of Christ. Thus, we are empowered, in the Spirit, to nurture the spiritual life of our brothers and sisters in Christ and to proclaim the Gospel of Christ, in word and deed, to those around us who have yet to acknowledge, in faith, Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

Following closely the teaching of Saint Paul, Lumen Gentium states: “[I]n the building up of Christ’s body there is engaged a diversity of members and functions. There is only one Spirit who, according to His own richness and the needs of the ministries, gives different gifts for the welfare of the Church” (7). The Council specifically states that “the laity -- no matter who they are -- have, as living members, the vocation of applying to the building up of the Church and to its continual sanctification all the powers which they have received from the goodness of the Creator and from the grace of the Redeemer” (33). The Council also declares that “Through Baptism and Confirmation all are appointed to this apostolate of the Lord Himself.... Thus, every lay person, through those gifts given to him, is at once the witness and the living instrument of the mission of the Church itself ‘according to the measure of Christ’s bestowal’ (Ephesians 4:7)” (33).

Priests, Prophets and Kings
According to Lumen Gentium, the Church, in its twofold ministry toward its own members and toward those outside, shares in Jesus’ threefold office of Priest, Prophet and King, that is, it participates in Jesus’ ministry to sanctify, to teach and to govern (see 10-13). While bishops, priests and deacons exercise, within the Church, the ministries of sanctifying, teaching and governing through the power and authority bestowed upon them at their sacramental ordination, all Catholic lay men and women also share in this threefold ministry of Christ. Catholic lay men and women, by their baptismal and confirmational character, are empowered, in Christ through the Holy Spirit, to be priests, prophets and kings and so come to share in the Church’s ministry of sanctification, teaching and governing. Lumen Gentium states that, in collaboration with their bishops and clergy, “the faithful who by Baptism are incorporated into Christ, are placed in the People of God, and in their own way share the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ, and to the best of their ability carry on the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world”. (31)

Before proceeding to the various ways that lay men and women may exercise their priestly, prophetic and governing ministries, I want to highlight the honor and the dignity to which Jesus, through His indwelling Spirit, has elevated Catholic lay men and women. By sharing in Christ’s threefold office of priest, prophet and king, no lay person should ever consider themselves as mere passive members of the Church.

All of us, even those who are handicapped, sick, elderly, or even physically dead, are all living members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and so we all have the privilege and even the duty to exercise the ministries that Christ has shared with us and is actually depending upon us to carry out. Moreover, while many more lay men and women are active in the Church today than were prior to the Second Vatican Council, I do not believe that they often fully realize the sacramental foundation of the ecclesial activity, nor do they fully appreciate the sacramental authority and power that they possess by sharing in Jesus’ and the Church’s ministry of sanctification, teaching and governance. All that Catholic lay men and women say and do as members of Christ’s Body, the Church, they do so as sharers in Christ’s threefold ministry, and therefore they are speaking and acting under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

But how do lay men and women exercise, in Christ, their ministries of priest, prophet and king? In what ways do they practically share in Jesus’ and the Church’s ministries of sanctifying, teaching and governing? While I am unable to delineate all of the possible ways and manners in which Catholic lay people sanctify, teach and govern as members of Christ’s Church, I would like to provide some examples. My hope would be that these examples would prod your own imagination so that you may find other creative ways in which you are and can be priests, prophets and kings.

Sharing in Jesus’ Priestly Ministry
Christ, as the Great High Priest, offered Himself in love as an all-holy sacrifice to the Father. In so doing He conquered sin and in rising He vanquished death and sanctifies all those believe with the resurrected life of the Holy Spirit. All of us who now participate in the priesthood of Christ are empowered to share, each in accordance with our own sacramental ability, in His ministry of sanctification.

Lay men and women bring Christ’s and the Church’s sanctifying ministry to areas that are uniquely suitable and proper to them. Lumen Gentium states that, because lay men and women share in Christ’s “priestly office”, they, “dedicated as they are to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and prepared so that even richer fruits of the Spirit may be produced in them. For all their works, prayers, apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit -- indeed even the hardships of life if patiently borne -- all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”. (34)

The council Fathers realized that there are specific areas of life that only lay men and women can truly sanctify because it is precisely their proper vocation to do so. It is their vocation to do so because they are primarily responsible for these lived situations, such as family and married life, or the secular work place. It is in areas such as these where only lay people are the ones who are actually on the scene. Bishops and priests are normally not personally involved in these situations and so they do not possess the primary authority or the immediate responsibility to sanctify these lived experiences. Let us look at some examples.

Many of you here are Catholic lay college students. As such, by virtue of your Baptism and Confirmation and by virtue of your present state of life as college students, you possess the priestly authority and responsibility to help sanctify your fellow students, teachers and others with whom you associate. This sanctification is accomplished through your holy actions -- the loving and good deeds you perform on their behalf.

Through your own holy example, even in situations of sports and fun, you bring holiness into your relationships and so sanctify this campus. Moreover, through your prayer for and with your fellow students, teachers and others, Christian and non-Christian, you contribute to their holiness for you are exercising your priestly authority to intercede for others after the manner of Jesus the Great High Priest. Likewise, when you perceive that some evil exists on this campus, intentionally or unintentionally, you possess the priestly authority and power to banish it from your midst through prayer in the name of Jesus. (Fasting would probably help at times as well.) Do not, as students, underestimate your priestly responsibility nor your priestly power and the authority that accompanies it.

Spouses and parents, by the very nature of the sacrament of marriage, also possess a priestly authority and power. Husbands and wives help sanctify one another, again, through their care and love for one another, even in their forgiveness of and patience with one another. Saint Paul specifically states that husbands must love their wives as Christ loved His church who laid down His life and so sanctified it, so that it might be without blemish (See Eph. 5:25-28). A husband is called -- it is his vocation -- to sacrifice his life that his wife and his children might become holy, so that they may be without blemish.

Moreover, parents together are obviously the ones who are primarily responsible for the sanctification of their children. Their priestly authority empowers them to teach their child to pray and to pray with them and for them. Their priestly authority and power authorizes them, for example, to pray for healing when their children are ill, even accompanied by the laying on of their parental hands. Parents have the priestly authority and power to bless their children in a manner similar to the way the priest blesses people. They can sign their children with holy water and even with blessed oil. Their priestly authority and power authorizes them to bless their homes with holy water and to cast out all evil from their midst.

Obviously, single adults and the elderly also exercise priestly ministry; this is especially true of grandparents, but time does not permit me to address these various groups. I must move on to the prophetic ministry that lay men and women are called to exercise in Christ, the true prophet.

Sharing in Jesus’ Prophetic Ministry
Closely aligned to the office of the priest is the office of the prophet. It is, for example, within the Eucharistic celebration that bishops and priests are anointed to proclaim the prophetic word of God. Similarly, lay men and women often sanctify others through their prophetic words and example. As Lumen Gentium states:

Christ is the great prophet who proclaimed the kingdom of the Father both by testimony of His life and by the power of His word. Until the full manifestation of His glory, He fulfills this prophetic office, not only by the hierarchy who teach in His name and by His power, but also by the laity. He accordingly both establishes them as witnesses and provides them with the appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) and the grace of the word so that the power of the Gospel may shine out in daily family and social life…. Let them not hide this their hope then, in the depths of their hearts, but rather express it through the structure of their secular lives in continual conversion and in the wrestling “against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of iniquity (Ephesians 6:12)”. (35)

While lay men and women, by sharing in Jesus’ prophetic office, are called to speak anointed words to their brothers and sisters in Christ and so nurture the holiness of His body, I want to focus on a few situations where the office of prophet is especially significant and important today.

First, because bishops and priests exercise their prophetic office primarily within a liturgical setting, their audience is primarily composed of those who are already members of the Church. Likewise, it is often the case that bishops and priests do not have many opportunities to evangelize those who are not Christian. This is not the case with lay men and women.

By the very nature of their lives lay men and women are often in continual contact with those who do not believe in Jesus or whose faith is uninformed or devoid of a mature commitment. Again, Lumen Gentium states: “This evangelization, that is, the proclamation of Christ by word and the testimony of life, acquires a specific property and peculiar efficacy because it is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world”. (35)

Pope John Paul II and now Benedict XVI have called for a new evangelization. Such a summons can only be fully realized if lay men and women in large numbers are involved. Confidence in the truth of the Gospel is essential, as well as recognizing that, when one testifies to the faith of the Church as the Church teaches that faith, one is proclaiming what is infallibly true. Thus, fear of what others may think must be cast aside. Worry that one does not want to impose one’s own belief upon another must be seen for what it often is -- simply a cop-out.

Rather, the grace of Baptism, and specifically the anointing of Confirmation, are to be enkindled so that the Gospel, so sorely needed in our world today, can be heard throughout our land and throughout the whole world at large. This can only be done if lay men and women so love their non-Christian brothers and sisters that they are willing to risk rejection in the hope of offering them the greatest gift of all -- the love of God the Father, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and the salvation of Jesus Christ.

Second, the college students here present, and not simply the college chaplain, are on the front line of evangelism within the college or university. You are the ones who share your lives most closely with your fellow students, who are non-believing or half-hearted. Moreover, as Catholics, you are the ones who can testify to the fullness of truth that resides within the Catholic Church through the teaching of the pope and bishops who are the authentic successors of Peter and the Apostles. You possess the prophetic power to testify to the beauty of the Eucharist as the one sacrifice of Christ in which we come into full communion with His resurrected presence.

The third point I want to emphasize with regard to sharing in Jesus’ prophetic office pertains to marriage and family life. Lumen Gentium teaches us that “The state of life that is sanctified by a special sacrament, namely, married and family life, has a special importance in this prophetic office…. In it the married partners have their own proper vocation: they must be witnesses of faith and love of Christ to one another and to their children”. (35)

As the Church has constantly taught and has been emphasized again within Vatican II and in subsequent Church documents, parents have the primary responsibility to educate their children in the faith. Parents should not underestimate their prophetic anointing in this regard. The catechetical education that parents provide their children whether it is at bedtime or at dinner or while riding in the car bears the imprint of the Holy Spirit and will bear the Spirit’s fruit.

Lastly, Christ’s prophetic ministry must be exercised within the workplace. Present in this setting are only Christian lay men and women. For many people in today’s world, it is only in that setting that they may have the opportunity to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and, if they do not hear it from lay people like yourselves from whom will they hear it? While many people may shy away from the Catholic Church, there is no better way to make contact with it than through kind, knowledgeable, vibrant lay men and women.

Sharing in the Jesus’ Governance
The pope and the bishops in union with him have the primary responsibility for governing the Church and in so doing participate in Jesus’ kingship. Yet, all lay Catholic men and women, through their various priestly and prophetic ministries within the Church, also share in the Church’s governance. Those who are involved in various campus and parish ministries or other church-related organizations aid in the governance of the Church so that all that it does promotes the good of all its members and society at large. Here, in this last section I want to highlight two aspects in which the laity shares in Jesus’ kingship.

The first again concerns family life. Fathers and mothers, by participating in Jesus’ priestly and prophetic ministry within their families, often exercise those charisms through their parental authority. It is in the right ordering of their family that they are better able to sanctify it through teaching their children the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This right ordering of family life, by its very nature, involves the living out of Christian principles and the making of rules that embody those principles. This is not an easy task, for Christian parental authority implies then reciprocal obedience on the part of children, and here is the rub. Governance of one’s family in a Christian manner will involve, especially in the non-Christian environment of our day, a great deal of wisdom, patience, courage and fortitude. It short, it involves a great deal of hassle, to say the least. But again, I want to emphasize that parents participate in the Jesus’ own ministry of governance and so they share in His Spirit-filled authority and power, an authority and power that is exercised in love and proper discipline.

This, I believe, is especially important for fathers of families. Too often today fathers abdicate their paternal authority to their wives and this is to the detriment of both their sons and daughters. It is the primary responsibility of fathers to teach their sons to be Christian men of integrity and honesty, and who respect not only their mothers but all women. In order to do this he must exercise fatherly governance over them. Moreover, fathers must care for their daughters such that they are assured of his fatherly love and so are secure under his fatherly protection. To raise up Christian men and women is the noblest task of Christian fathers and mothers, but in order to do so they, like Jesus, must exercise their ministry of family governance with the authority conferred upon them by the Holy Spirit.

Lastly, Lumen Gentium emphasizes that Catholic lay men and women, as part of sharing in Jesus’ kingship, must engage “in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will”. (31) Catholic laity has a responsibility for the right governance and the right ordering of society according to Gospel principles and the Church’s social teaching. Today we, as Christians and Catholics, are engaged in a cultural war. A culture of death is waging a relentless war against a culture of life. That a culture of life can achieve victory frequently does not look promising. How each Catholic lay man and lay woman engages in this battle and in which battles one engages will depend on one’s talents and graces. However, no Catholic lay person can absent him- or herself from the conflict. You were commissioned by Christ to fight this battle when you were confirmed and it was there that you were given the strength and courage of the Holy Spirit. Too much is at stake to stand by idly as the forces of evil vigorously corrupt our culture and the world.

Some issues are very complex, such as the issues of war and peace, and we all have to seek wisdom in addressing these concerns. Other issues are very clear. As Catholic lay men and women we must strive to make our country and the world safe for the unborn, the sick, the elderly and the dying. We must insure that science and technology are governed by principles that honor and respect our human dignity, as men and women created in the image and likeness of God. We must strive to protect the family from those who wish to transform it into something that is not in accord with human nature itself as God intended in creating men and women. We must ensure that those on the margins of our society are protected and helped, especially the poor, the needy, and those millions of people throughout the world and even in our own country who have been displaced from their own homeland because of war, famine, or economic depression.

The issues are endless, but Catholic lay men and women must address them as part of their sharing in Jesus’ kingly ministry. This is especially true of you who are the young college students of today. The future for you is yet to be lived and yet to be won, and it is your task to so live as to win the future for the Lord Jesus. Whatever your vocation, whatever career you may choose you are to strive for the right ordering and just governance of our world for the good and benefit of all. As Lumen Gentium states: “Thus, through the members of the Church, will Christ increasingly illuminate the whole of human society with His saving light”. (36)

The Laity’s Commission
In concluding, I want simply to make two points. The first is that I hope that I have demonstrated in this brief talk what great honor Jesus has bestowed upon lay men and women within our Catholic Church. As members of His Church you share in His priestly, prophetic and kingly ministry and so share in the authority and power that these ministries entail. This is the Gospel foundation and the theological basis of all that you do for the sake of Jesus Christ, for His Church and for all of humankind. Treasure this high calling and take up its challenges with resolve, with courage, with wisdom, with joy and, above all, with love.

Lastly, it is within prayer, especially within the Eucharist, that we find the source of this resolve, courage, wisdom, joy and love, for it is here that Jesus our Priest, Prophet and King nourishes with His own resolve, courage, wisdom, joy and love by uniting us to Himself in Holy Communion. Moreover, it is here that we offer to Him all of our priestly, prophetic and kingly activity so that He might sanctify it in the Holy Spirit, endow it with His truth and order it according to the will of His Father. Lumen Gentium states that within the celebration of the Eucharist the laity bring all of their life’s work and activity, and so “worshipping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to God”. (34)

Father Thomas Weinandy, a Capuchin priest, theologian and author, has taught at Georgetown University, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Mount St. Marys (Emmitsburg), Loyola (Baltimore) and at Greyfriars, Oxford. He has been executive director of the Secretariat of US Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and Pastoral Practices since January 2005.

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