How can the laity help priests be holy?
Among the hallmarks of the Second Vatican Council is the articulation of the laity’s role in the life of the Church and mission in the world. Alongside that emerged a clear expression that sanctity is expected and attainable by all the baptized, not just the ordained or vowed religious.
These distinctions were undergirded by various developments in the Church’s self-understanding manifested in the conciliar documents. Previously, it was more common to think of the Church’s structure as a pyramid — with the pope on top, laity on the bottom and the ordained in between. But the council directed retrieval of the more ancient and biblical image that the Church is the Body of Christ. With this in mind, the council reoriented the Church’s structure with a concentration on the bonds of communion that exist among all the baptized.
Helping each other
All Christian vocations are relational, and all Christian relationships exist in a bond of communion. Each Christian, therefore, lives in the context of a variety of different relationships, along with which come various expectations and responsibilities.
Since the Christian’s truest vocation is to become a saint, the bonds of communion and patterns of relationships among the baptized entail that each of us is responsible, in some fashion, to help our brothers and sisters attain that goal. In the end, none of us can become holy in a bubble.
There is a general sense by which individuals help their fellow Christians in the quest for sanctity — chiefly through the witness of discipleship. Additionally, within the context of our individual and specific vocations, we are more intimately responsible with helping others become saints. Take, for instance, the role of Christian spouses: The primary obligation for a husband is to help his wife get to heaven, and the primary obligation of a wife is to do the same for her husband (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1608).
Within the Body of Christ, the baptized are defined within the context of two distinct orientations: lay and ordained. The laity (married, single and vowed religious) are called by God to transform the world for Christ. And the ordained (specifically priests and bishops), who through their call to serve and not be served, build up the laity through preaching, teaching and sanctifying.
Much can be and has been said about how the clergy assist the laity in their call to be holy. Indeed, one of the clergy’s primary tasks is to assist the laity in this way, particularly through the celebration of the sacraments and pastoral care. But when considering the relational dynamics of our faith, how is this reciprocated? How do the laity help the clergy to be holy?
A spousal relationship
As members of the Body of Christ, the clergy are not removed from the baptized. Just as any baptized person can be a source of edification for other baptized persons, laity can be sources of edification for the clergy. Laity are icons of Christ through their prayer, charity and virtuous living. In this way, the laity can help clergy recall their true vocation.
When considering how the laity can help the clergy to be holy, it is worth pursuing along the lines of nuptial imagery — the image of Christian spouses and their mutual obligation to assist each other in their vocation of holiness. Spouses need one another, build up and challenge each other and, by their mutual love, generate community (family).
In the tradition of the Church, nuptial metaphors are fitting and common to understand how priests and bishops are bound to their flocks. A bishop wears a ring to signify the union with his bride — the local Church, called a diocese — entrusted to his care. Priests are the bishop’s chief collaborators in ministry and help him exercise his office in a given locale entrusted to them, called a parish.
Building up and challenging one another
Among the lessons learned from the clergy sex abuse crisis, one that must be considered is that laity are just as essential to the mission of the Church as are the clergy. This means that in assisting the clergy to fulfill their call to be holy, the laity are obliged to speak to a priest as would a bride. Wives tend to keep a husband on track — to stay true to the obligations and responsibilities of their vocation, being brutally honest with their husbands when needed. When a layperson is not pointing out to a clergy member where he’s missing mark, they are not helping him become holy.
Just as with spouses, priests and bishops are obliged to listen to their people. Sometimes spouses can be hard on one another, and some communication can be unproductive, but even then they must be heard and prayerfully considered.
Spouses should hold each other spiritually accountable. This is true for all the aspects of the spiritual life. Is the spouse praying enough? Is the spouse growing appropriately in virtue? Is the spouse a person of love?
Spouses do not want to fly blind, so to speak, in their own spiritual lives or in their spousal relationship. The bonds of communion implicit in our common Christian vocation — and in our more specific vocations — mean we are not meant to live the Faith on our own. And so, when troubles come in a marriage, the ideal is for issues to be communicated effectively and always in charity.
All of this is true for priests and bishops. The clergy should not be abandoned to operate in a vacuum. Laity must communicate clearly and effectively to our clergy — telling them what is good and what is bad — with charity and love. Like anyone in leadership, priests and bishops often receive more criticism than praise.
That being said, laity also should remember to communicate where clergy have done well. Moreover, if the priest or bishop want to be true to their vocation, he should want to know these things and respond to them — always in love.
There is the mistaken mentality among some clergy that they have nothing to learn from their people, that the priest or bishop is one who completely gives — for example, dispenses the sacraments — and receives nothing. This is antithetical to the relationship of husband and wife and in the relationship of clergy with their flock. If we look at the state of the clergy in the wake of the sex abuse crisis, it should be clear that clergy cannot be left solely to look to their own for inspiration in Christian living. More often than not, the best witnesses of the Gospel for a priest or bishop will be among his flock.
Just as the laity always have needed the clergy, the clergy need us; perhaps they sense this more now than in previous generations. It is incumbent upon the laity to show their clergy what a healthy community of Christians can look like.
Living as family
Some of the clergy are extroverted; some are introverted. Some are overworked and rarely have time to themselves, while others are lonely. Clergy must be available to their people. Priests and bishops are not lofty executives; rather, they are truly fathers to their people.
It is important that clergy and laypeople relate with one another as members of a family. As we are all members of the same family, why not invite clergy out to a family celebration, an activity or out to a meal? It is understandable if he cannot make it, since he might have many invitations on any given day, but perhaps another time can be arranged.
And, of course, one of the common characteristics of Christian love and relationship is the promise to pray for one another. Families pray with and for each other. Just as clergy must remember to pray for laity given their role as the primary intercessor in the community, the laity must remember to pray for their clergy as well. In our prayer, it is good to be both general and specific. It is not uncommon to ask our clergy to pray for specific situations in our lives and in the lives of those we love. Let the clergy know we are praying for them, and ask them what they need us to pray about for them.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic and a graduate of The Catholic University of America. He writes from Indiana.
|How Christ Loves and Cares For the Church|
Just as Christ, the head, loves the Church as his own body, so the clergy — who stands in persona christi capitis — are called to do the same. Paragraph 796 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
The unity of Christ and the Church, head and members of one Body, also implies the distinction of the two within a personal relationship. This aspect is often expressed by the image of bridegroom and bride. The theme of Christ as Bridegroom of the Church was prepared for by the prophets and announced by John the Baptist. The Lord referred to himself as the “bridegroom.” The Apostle speaks of the whole Church and of each of the faithful, members of his Body, as a bride “betrothed” to Christ the Lord so as to become but one spirit with him. The Church is the spotless bride of the spotless Lamb. “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her.” He has joined her with himself in an everlasting covenant and never stops caring for her as for his own body:
“This is the whole Christ, head and body, one formed from many … whether the head or members speak, it is Christ who speaks. He speaks in his role as the head (ex persona capitis) and in his role as body (ex persona corporis). What does this mean? ‘The two will become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the Church.’ And the Lord himself says in the Gospel: ‘So they are no longer two, but one flesh.’ They are, in fact, two different persons, yet they are one in the conjugal union … as head, he calls himself the bridegroom, as body, he calls himself ‘bride.'”