The bishops have meant well—for their aim has been to encourage Catholic lay people to participate more fully in the life of the Church—but they have made a damaging mistake. Promoting lay ministry has come at the expense of an earlier tradition of promoting Catholic lay apostolate—and the two are very different things. I argue that the bishops ought to switch their priorities, for lay apostolate not only fills important needs but is specifically designed to help lay people do what they can do best: putting Gospel values to work in their jobs, schools, neighborhoods, and homes. As the new bishops' document itself recognizes: "Lay men and women hear and recognize the universal call to holiness primarily and uniquely in the secular realm."
First, some definitions: Lay ministry is the name for certain good things lay people do in their churches and other ecclesiastical settings: distributing Communion, reading at Mass, things like that. Most lay ministers are volunteers, but a small group, called lay ecclesial ministers, are salaried employees of the Church, with titles such as pastoral associate or director of religious education and more extensive duties than the volunteers. They, too, work mainly in parishes, and it is their training in theology and pastoral work with which the bishops' new document is concerned. The volunteers, whose duties are simpler than those of the paid ministers, typically rely on a few hours of informal training.
Nobody has any idea how many volunteer lay ministers there are, but a reasonable guess would be a few hundred thousand. Lay ecclesial ministers—the people on salary—number about 30,000 nationwide.
That leaves 67 million Catholic lay women and men who aren't involved in lay ministry and in most cases never will be. Some are Catholics in name only. They attend Mass infrequently, and religion does not occupy a high place among their values. But many are faithful Catholics who attend Mass and receive the sacraments regularly and want to do more: to live their faith in the world. They are the people for whom lay apostolate is ideal.
So what is lay apostolate? For one thing, it isn't something that takes place inside a church. A woman who regularly drives her elderly neighbor to the doctor, a lawyer who quietly does more than his share of pro bono work, a college student who cheerfully tutors her fellow students for free—these people and others like them are doing apostolate when they do these things for love of God. Some lay apostles operate in formal organizations—groups such as Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, Catholic Worker, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and the Knights of Columbus. Mother Angelica's Eternal Word Television Network conceives of itself as a lay apostolate. But tens of thousands of Catholics are probably doing lay apostolate entirely on their own, without much help from the Church and without the spiritual, psychological, and practical support that a group or even a loose network of similarly dedicated people could give them. Bishops and pastors currently spend a lot of energy encouraging Catholics to become lay ministers but give lay apostolate little thought.
This was not always the case. Back before the Second Vatican Council, there was a healthy network of Catholic groups in America such as the National Council of Catholic Men and the National Council of Catholic Women and their diocesan councils and affiliates—groups that were committed to giving lay people spiritual and doctrinal formation for apostolate. Lay apostolate also got significant attention in the Church's schools and educational programs. Some of the support was superficial and ineffective, and it didn't help that most pre-Vatican II apostolic groups operated on the old "Catholic Action" model in which lay activity was under clerical control. Nonetheless, throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the ideal of lay apostolate inspired several generations of Catholic lay people to work, together and individually, on behalf of causes as diverse as interracial justice, world peace, and workers' rights." The Church and society were better for it.
Furthermore, two Vatican II documents--the Constitution on the Church and the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity--explicitly stated that the sacrament of baptism gives lay people a right and a duty to live the Gospel message in everyday life—to do apostolate, that is. The council said almost nothing about lay ministry.
The ministry boom didn't start until seven years after the Council wound up in 1965. Pope Paul VI issued a document in 1972 abolishing the 'minor orders'—stages such as lector and acolyte through which candidates for the priesthood formerly had to pass on their way to ordination. Functions previously linked to those minor orders—such as serving Mass and reading the Scriptures--could now be assigned to lay people. Paul also left the door open to other forms of lay ministry. Theologians and lay employees of the Church grabbed the idea and ran with it. There was an explosion of books, articles, conferences, and academic programs on lay ministry. A new Catholic cottage industry had been born, especially in the United States.
Pope John Paul II tried to apply the brakes in 1989, in a document titled "Christifideles Laici" ("Christ's Faithful Lay People"). Ministries performed by lay people are fine in their place, John Paul said. But too much stress on making ministers out of the laity can result in "clericalizing" them--encouraging them to act like mini-priests. The first priority for lay people, John Paul declared, remains what it has always been: bringing Christ to the everyday world via lay apostolate.
John Paul's words have not been much heeded. The bishops' November document was typical of the indifferent response by Church leadership: a lengthy job description for the 30,000 lay ecclesial ministers in America but scarcely a word about the valuable work of lay apostolate in which millions of other lay Catholics can potentially participate.
There are signs that change may be in the offing. Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, who presented "Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord" to the bishops for approval in November, acknowledged that the Church had ignored the apostolate of the laity for a long time. Maybe it was time for the bishops to say something about that as well, he suggested. Kicanas was right. Placing a renewed emphasis on lay apostolate would help get the priorities straight without in any way weakening involvement in lay ministry by those who feel called to it.
Helping out in church on Sunday as a lay minister is a dandy thing to do—and a necessary thing to do in these days of severe priest shortages. But it's not for everyone. Lay apostolate, on the other hand, is something that every Catholic can do and should do in the great wide world outside the church on the other six days of the week.