We learn quickest when we must soon take up a role that requires specific knowledge. Then (and sometimes only then) do we become highly motivated.
The fundamental problem of Irish Catholic education is that the ‘job description’ of the lay Catholic has for too long been defined by bishops who too often preferred us to be passive child-like clients rather than responsible Christians in our own right. We were expected to ‘pay, pray and obey’ but not to be articulate on the meaning of our faith and proactive Christians in our own secular environment – as every Christian in the early church was expected to be, and as Vatican II calls us to be.
As clergy have tended to monopolise most of the thinking and speaking roles in the church, and lay people have generally been denied a truly creative role, there was in the past too little incentive for most lay Catholics to learn anything. ‘Paying, praying and obeying’ is not an intellectually demanding or motivating role. This is one major reason why, as the secular climate changed, so many lay people have drifted from faith and practice. They were often simply bored rigid, as well as alienated by the tendency of clericalist clergy to treat grown adults as children.
Now, however, our church is in deep crisis, demanding an end to everyone passively waiting for ‘orders from above’. There are very simple things that all of us lay people need to know to give us a sense of our own dignity and role.
First, Tom Doyle’s summary of the rights of lay people under Church law is a must. Called VOTF and Canon Law it emphasises our right to exercise initiative, to speak our minds, and to organise ourselves. If we are all equal in dignity, then passivity and automatic deference to clergy must be abandoned. This applies even if we do not have degrees in theology (as many lay people now also do). The experiences of life can often teach something priceless that third-level education may not – wisdom.
Second, the principle of equality of dignity in the church, and the essential role of us lay people in the church and in the world, were best outlined in the documents of Vatican II, the great council of Catholic bishops in the early 1960s. Altogether these documents make a sizeable book, but the VOTF summary VOTF and Vatican II will give you an essential overview.
Third, Pope John Paul II – Ad Limina Address to Irish Bishops 1999 on the occasion of their last regular ad limina visit to Rome included a call for ‘structures of belonging’ to be created in the Irish church. Sadly that call went unanswered by most Irish bishops, but it strengthens the argument for our third goal – structural change in the Irish church to allow for lay input into the thinking of the church and to achieve the accountability of leadership that would prevent the series of media disasters we have suffered since 1992. The whole of this document is well worth reading, but every Irish VOTF member should at least be familiar with item 3.
This document alone is a conclusive answer to those who argue that the church’s governing structures and style are cast in stone and cannot be changed. In fact, the monarchical and aristocratic governing structures that the church still retains were acquired from wordly models in the late Roman Empire, the middle ages and the early modern period – as Tom Doyle explains in Communicating with Bishops (subtitled ‘Does Dialogue begin with Capitulation‘). This too is truly essential reading.
We cannot overstress the importance of every member getting to know these documents. Nothing will impress a bishop more than an ability to quote one or more Vatican II passages, especially from Lumen Gentium – ‘Light of Nations’. Here is an example:
Let sacred pastors recognize and promote the dignity as well as the responsibility of the lay-person in the Church. Let them willingly make use of his/her prudent advice. Let them confidently assign duties to him/her in the service of the Church, allowing him/her freedom and room for action. Further, let them encourage the lay-person so that he/she may undertake tasks on his/her own initiative. Attentively, in Christ, let them consider with fatherly love the projects, suggestions and desires proposed by the laity.. (Lumen Gentium § 37)
More recently Pope Francis has added great emphasis to the same point:
Lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the people of God. The minority – ordained ministers – are at their service. There has been a growing awareness of the identity and mission of the laity in the Church. We can count on many lay persons, although still not nearly enough, who have a deeply-rooted sense of community and great fidelity to the tasks of charity, catechesis and the celebration of the faith. At the same time, a clear awareness of this responsibility of the laity, grounded in their baptism and confirmation, does not appear in the same way in all places. In some cases, it is because lay persons have not been given the formation needed to take on important responsibilities. In others, it is because in their particular Churches room has not been made for them to speak and to act, due to an excessive clericalism which keeps them away from decision-making. (Evangelii Gaudium) § 102
Finally, we always learn more quickly as members of a learning community. So, think about forming a small local discussion group – beginning with the questions in your own heads and the four documents mentioned above.
And, if you have internet access, please consider joining our email discussion forum (for VOTF members only). If you have already joined, and would like to try out this forum, send us an email message using the CONTACT button to the right of this page.
The main US-based VOTF website is another outstanding resource. There is also the journal In the Vineyard on the main VOTF site, which also records Irish events.
Some Irish secular media are highly informative of Catholic Church matters – especially the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, RTE , the Irish News and (occasionally) BBC NI.
We also need your questions and suggestions for developing this site.
But every interested reader of this site is also a priceless educational resource in our church. Your experience, questions and insights are God-given and must be put to use.
To realise the importance of educating yourself you need to remember that you also have a solemn obligation to be a teacher in your own space. If you do not follow up the questions in your own head you are not as fully alive, or as influential, as you could be. Nothing is quite as exciting as learning at a time of great challenge to undertake a new role, and everyone now has a contribution to make to revitalising the church we love.