1983: Derek Worlock: The laity in Vatican II

Piecemeal though this reminiscent analysis may seem in retrospect, nevertheless it was possible for Patrick Keegan, the former YCW International President and the English auditor at the Second Vatican Council, to write of the Decree of the Lay Apostolate as ‘an epoch-making document in the history of the Church. For the first time the apostolic activity of the laity is the object of a conciliar decree. The decree consecrates all the achievements of the by apostolate in the previous forty years; it also ratifies most solemnly the task of the layman in the Church, the people of God.’2

The Decree must be read in conjunction with the great charter of the Council, Lumen Gentium, Keegan asserts, and also with the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae on Religious Liberty and Gaudium et Spes. He quotes Père Congar as saying: ‘These documents are a full and frank recognition of the lay nature of present society. The Church does not cease to teach with authority but she enters into dialogue with mankind and ascribes to by people the specific and proper task of witnessing in the secular order and renewing that order.’

It is moving to read Patrick Keegan when he writes: ‘All of us who have been involved in the by apostolate over the years feel indebted to the priests who have sustained us spiritually in our commitment to our work in the modern world.’ I for one will never forget the morning during the third session of the Council when Patrick was chosen to address the Fathers in St Peter’s in the name of the laity. It was allegedly the first time a lay voice had been heard in a General Council of the Church since the days of the Emperor Constantine in A.D. 325. It was certainly one of the high spots in my recollections of Vatican II. In retrospect I remember working with him on his text the night before almost more than the historic moment when, in shiny new shoes, he made his way across the perilous marble floor of St Peter’s to give witness to the by person’s role in the Church of the renewal.

His ‘Venerabiles Patres’ was an appreciated nod to the official language of the Church; then he moved to his mother-tongue: ‘The Lay Apostolate cannot be an isolated entity in the Church. It reaches its fulness in close collaboration with all the other members of the Church. By its very nature it demands a constant and regular exchange between the Hierarchy and the laity. It is for us as lay people to bring to our pastors our experience of the needs of the world in which we live, and to seek from them guidance in our endeavour to respond to these needs. In simple terms, there must be the “family dialogue” of which our Holy Father, Pope Paul, has spoken so frequently and emphasised in his recent Letter Ecclesiam Suam’ [6 August 1964]. It was an historic and applauded moment; sadly not repeated when his mentor, by then Cardinal Josef Cardijn and almost totally deaf, read an unaccustomed Latin text in a debate and failed to hear the moderator’s bell to warn him that he had over-run his allotted time.

A happier memory comes from the days when Cardijn served with us as a peritus on the Lay Apostobte Commission. He used to sit with us at the experts’ table, smiling contentedly till we gave him the sign to intervene with a speech we had come to know irreverently as ‘the old one-two’. Came the day when it was announced that he had been made a Cardinal; and when he turned up for a Commission meeting that afternoon, clad in his old black cardigan over his cassock, we took him to the Commission President’s table and sat him next to Cardinal Cento. Without his hearing-aids, he beamed down at us through his rimless glasses. Work continued but at last we enlivened things by signalling that the time had come to make his intervention. He took from his pocket his two ear-pieces, set them in place, rose to his feet and, without obvious reference to the matters under discussion, delivered an enthusiastic address on the mission of like to like and the importance of the role of working youth in their own milieu. By that stage in the Council we knew it almost by heart but we cheered him on until exhausted he sat down in his chair. After a short breather, he removed his hearing-aids, replaced them carefully in a little box which he pocketed, and took his departure. There was much rejoicing in Rome that evening. He may have grown old but this chapter would not have been written without him.


Archbishop Derek Worlock, ‘Toil in the Lord’: The laity in Vatican II, in Alberic Stacpoole (ed.), Vatican II, by those who were there, Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1983, 365p. at p. 237-254.

Derek Worlock, The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)