1951: Priests and laity in the Church’s mission

In returning to one of the most important points of the lay apostolate, I am not merely repeating myself, I want to develop more fully this vital question of the Church’s mission, and this includes the mission of laypeople. Considered in the light of the Church’s mission, the laity’s mission can be seen from another angle, from which we can infer new facts and conclusions.

The whole of the conversion and the sanctification of the world come about through Christ, according to his doctrine and under his leadership and guidance. In order that the mission which began would be continued, Christ sends other persons who carry it out in mystical union with him, as the body is united to the head: ‘Abide in me, I in you’ (John 15:4). ‘And lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matt 28:20). This mystic union with Christ, this body of Christ, is his Church, and it is in loving unity with her that Christ wishes to complete his mission. She is the ‘Sponsa Christi’, the bride to whom he has entrusted the realization of his ideal. She is the ‘Corpus Christi’, his body in which he continues his task and remains present on earth, teaching, sanctifying and generating his life.

Mission of the Church

We receive this person, the grace and the mission of Christ in the Church, and for this reason she is also our mother. Everything we have comes from her and through her (‘Mater Nostra’). And so the mission of the Church, like the mission of Christ, is to restore the whole of humanity to God and to put the whole of creation back into the plan of divine love. ‘Instaurare omina in Christo – to unite all things in Chist; things in heaven, and things on earth’ (Eph. 1:10).

The Church too must be the leaven of the world, the light of the world, the salt of the world. She must transform humanity, reveal the true way to all persons and make her grace available to them, so that the whole world may participate in the work of redemption through the complete collaboration to which it is called. ‘Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations’ (Matt. 28:19).

But we must never forget that this is the mission of the entire Church, and because the whole of the Church must be holy, it is the whole of the Church too which must be oriented towards the realization and the extension of the work of redemption: the whole Church must therefore be apostolic.

Priests and laypeople together make up the Church. It is together that they must carry out the Church’s mission. The Church is not a democratic institution. Her mission is not decided by the faithful, who empower authority or give her a mandate, nor is it the faithful who lead her, but Christ; the Church receives her mission from him and through him alone. It is he who determines the task, who gives the orders, the power and the authority. And so the Church is hierarchical, vested with sacred power and entrusted with a divine mission.

It is here that we see what the real mission of the hierarchy is. The Pope and the bishops are called by Christ, mandated, ordained and vested with power in order to represent Christ and direct the faithful towards God’s loving design. They are mandated for the Church, for the faithful and for all men: ‘for every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God…’ (He. 5:1).

The hierarchy, then, must ensure the presence of the person of Christ and establish the community of person with God, so that humanity may thus be restored to him; ‘to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins’ (Heb. 5:1).

Consequently, there is nothing in the Church which can exist or come into being without the hierarchy. If the Church only exists through Christ, she cannot exist without his representatives, the bishops, and their delegates, the priests. The hierarchy makes the Church into the Church of Christ. It was only through Christ that the ultimate union of humanity with God was realized; the Church has become the Mystical Body of Christ and takes part in the Saviour’s mission. And so it is through the hierarchy that the Church receives from Christ the mission of saving the world.

The whole Church is incorporated in this mission. And by the whole Church, I mean priests and laypeople together.

Role of the laity

To think that the priest alone plays an active role in the Church and that the Catholic laity is only a passive listener and recipient is a mistaken notion of the hierarchical order. The layperson, too, in the common mission of the Church has an active task to accomplish, his/her own responsibility to assume, and the priest, called by God, but mandated for men and women, must develop an awareness of this responsibility in Catholic laypeople. We shall see later how the priest does this, and what the nature of the responsibility is.

On the other hand, laypeople must receive the person, the life and the doctrine of Christ, so that, growing in grace and making Christ truly incarnate in their own life, they may carry this divine life not only within their own soul, but to all their brothers and sisters: at work, in their social capacity, in their environment, and in any institutions where they can exercise their influence or give witness to their Christianity.

Pope Pius XI said to me once with a smile: “I write encyclicals, and I’m very glad to do it, but it’s impossible for me to transmit all that they contain to the workshops and factories, because I’m just not there! The onus to do this is on the laypeople who work there… Neither bishops nor priests can do it because they are not in these environments”

The people who are actually living and working in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life are the laypeople, and it is up to them to carry out Christ’s mission in all the different temporal sectors of life and to make the whole Church present there. I can never repeat this often enough: the lay apostolate is irreplaceable.

In relation to the lay apostolate, the hierarchy must assume its own task, which has various aspects and is out into action through priests who are delegated to work on all the levels and in all the activities of the life of the Church.

Role of the priest

First of all, the priest must reveal God’s plan to the faithful and make them aware of the place they occupy in it. In other words, it is the priest’s duty to bring each Christian to a discovery of his/her true mission, and, through teaching the Good News, to throw light on all those errors which beset laypeople on every side: false missions, false doctrines, false messiahs.

The priest must reveal this message not only to those baptized, but to all people. He must be concerned particularly with those who are not baptized, and who are not yet part of the flock: ‘And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also’ (John 10:16). The Church is for all humanity, belongs to everyone. And because of this, she must have apostles and preachers. ‘But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear, without a preacher?’ (Rom. 10:14).

Above all, the priest must communicate the person of Christ to the faithful, for without Christ and his grace, without union with Christ, laypeople cannot achieve his mission. The sacraments were instituted to this end; they exist for people. The priest is the ‘pontifex’, establishing the bridge between God and humanity.

Promote lay apostolate

But it isn’t enough merely to demonstrate their mission to laypeople. The priest must go further; he must awaken in them a desire for the apostolate, he must help, encourage and guide them in their understanding. Every priest does his utmost to increase the number of priestly or religious vocations; but shouldn’t he also obtain lay apostles for the Church, and a great number at that? Shouldn’t he also be the founder and promoter of the lay apostolate in his parish? He should want to make more apostles of all his parishioners, looking continually for men, women and young people who are noble and generous enough to dedicate them wholeheartedly to the cause of Christ and the Church.

For this, the priest must know his sheep, and the community must know their shepherd.

And finally, these lay apostles must be formed. This is a task of utmost importance. It is, to a high degree, a priestly task, of which Christ himself set us an excellent example, even down to the practical details, in his patient training of the twelve disciples.

This task is to communicate faith to the world, to purify and Christianize the life of the world in all its dimensions. Laypeople must truly be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, for it is only when they become the real witnesses of Jesus Christ that the Church can orient the whole of human society with the spirit of Christianity.

And so they must open themselves to the purifying action of God and develop personal spirituality which will give them strength to carry out their mission in its fullest and deepest sense. It is only then that they will be capable of truly fulfilling the apostolic command.

If their apostolic mission is centred essentially in their environment, with its worldly institutions, they have to bear their personal responsibilities on two levels – human and Christian. They must develop a profound sense of this responsibility, as well as the qualities which are needed to put it into action: human capabilities, fraternal love, a vision of the world and of the Church, boldness, courage, perseverance. A great many Socialists, Communists, and other militants who set up human messianic movements are to be admired for their consciousness of responsibility, their strong will and their steadfastness and toughness in action. Every Christian inspired by the spirit of love should be inspired by this radiant, dynamic force. In actual fact, how many of our parishioners and Christians are still a true light to the world?

We must acknowledge that the layperson’s own role in the purification of everyday life is still unknown to many people, and it is exactly for this reason that the priest’s awakening, educating action is absolutely vital. Priests must tell laypeople again and again, they must convince them that their own human life is the field of their real and specific apostolic vocation.

It is true that a certain number of laypeople have already responded to the Church’s appeal, which has been addressed to them more specifically during the last decades. We can even ask ourselves from time to time whether the roles haven’t been reversed: isn’t it sometimes a case of laypeople, already aware, trained and committed, trying to pass on their conviction to priests, so that they too will discover the place of the lay apostolate in the apostolic mission of the Church?

Formation for an authentic lay apostolate

The following points are only a reminder, to help stress priestly action in the formation of an authentic lay apostolate.

Each layperson, whatever his/her function in life and however modest his/her capacities, has in their life and environment an apostolic vocation which he/she alone can fulfil; in this his/her mission is absolutely personal.

It is also irreplaceable, in the sense that if he/she does not fulfil it in the circumstances in which God has placed him/her, the Church will be unable to realize her mission to the full.

The priests’ and the laity’s mission differ from each other not only because of the kind of apostolate they exercise, but because of their fields of action. The laity’s apostolic field is civic, cultural, economic and social life, the family, and work – the whole of secular life.

Because of this the mission of the laity and the mission of the priest in the Church are complementary. The priestly apostolate is not complete because the priest is not living in the very centre of temporal life, and he cannot transform and sanctify it from the outside.

Because the laity alone can influence the environments of secular life from within, their apostolic mission is indispensable. This isn’t an amateur’s job. Where would the Church be, for instance, without work and without the sanctification that comes from work and through it? Where would the Church be without completely Christianized families?

The laity’s apostolic mission belongs to the very essence of the Church, whose task it is to further the work of Christ.

Each individual layperson must be a witness and an apostle of Christ and the Church. This is why he bears the name of Christian: ‘The Christian is another Christ!’ This name carries dynamic meaning.

However, they must not be witnesses separated from other Christians. Only together with the other Christians of the community, together in the movements of an organized lay apostolate, can they contribute most effectively to the Kingdom of God.

To conclude, the apostolate of Catholic Action is an official mission, mandated and organized by the hierarchy. In practice, the movement is adapted to the big sectors and essential functions of life, and especially to social environments, to age and sex, using appropriate methods and other means of expression as the case may be.

Information revolution and its impact

Today (1951) there are about three billion people on earth, some five hundred million of whom are Catholics. This means, if we dare admit it, that we live in a world where the greater part of mankind does not know or will not recognise Christ, that we live in a non-Christian world, or, as some people may say, in a ‘post-Christian’ world, whose conceptions, judgements and way of life are not guided by Christian principles.

(As of 19th March 2010, the world population is estimated to be 6.8 billion. Of this the Christian population accounts for 2.2 billion)

In the past, the problem was not the same. From the quantitative point of view Christians were only a minority, but it was possible to maintain clearly defined Christian centres and to preserve a Christian mentality there. Through sheer lack of contact the anti-Christian spirit didn’t influence Christians in the same way as it does today. But now we live at a time when all sections of mankind can inter-communicate with incredible ease. Formerly, when distance was a barrier to communication, people did not know what was going on in other places; but today, the entire world seems within our reach.

Each individual, and therefore each Christian, is like a fortress that is constantly being besieged and battered from all sides. Through a thousand different visions of life, through all kinds of events, incidents and atmospheres, regimes, systems and ideologies, he/she is in continual contact with error.

In view of all these systems and currents of thought, whatever they may be, there is only one complete, positive answer: Christianity. But it can only mean something if all the members of the Church fully and worthily accomplish their mission.

At the outset, let us consider the influence of this modern phenomenon on the inner life of the Church itself.

As Christians, if the faithful are not fully aware, if they do not have strong personal convictions, they will never withstand the onslaught. How could we be content with a Church most of whose members were prompted by a purely passive docility?

This ‘follow the crowd’ mentality, this lack of personally based conviction, is almost certainly the reason why so many lose interest in the Church and then fall away. They will fulfil their religious obligations as long as they are living in a carefully protected environment, but as soon as they leave this conditioned environment, a great number of them will abandon the practice of their religion and finally the faith itself.

Living and Sustainable Church

However, it is not possible to protect them from every danger, or to equip them against every evil influence. The Church is not a ghetto, set apart from the outside world, which preserves her members from its influence. We live among other people, and all people are free! But there is also the other aspect: the needs of this outside world. The Church must reach out to all men and women and transform the whole of life. She must be present in all environments and in all institutions, even the most secular; she must transform international institutions.

If laypeople do not have an apostolic spirit, the Church will be driven out of secular life, both public and private. She will no longer reach all those who are either ignorant of her or oppose her; she will lose all influence on the development of world events; she will no longer be able to pour out the spirit of Christ on every creature. If she no longer has the means of fulfilling her mission in its entirety through the presence and intervention of laypeople, which nothing can replace, we are moving towards a total dechristianization of life, towards a world which increasingly turns away from God.

Therefore, only a living, active Christianity can face this twofold threat and build a Church that is truly according to Christ’s will. In the achievement of this active Christianity, priests and laypeople have a common mission but different functions. They form one in the realization of the Kingdom of God by working together.

– Joseph Cardijn

First given as a talk to priests at a Priest’s Study Session in Breda, Netherlands in January 1951. Reprinted in updated form in Cardijn’s 1963 book, Laymen into Action. Language updated in 2010 by Stefan Gigacz to reflect current usage.


Joseph Cardijn, Priests and laity in the Church’s mission (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)