Already over 50 years ago, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council called for greater participation of laity in the Church’s mission. In the decades that followed as well as today we recognize that the call has been and is being heard and lived. The Council’s longstanding theological framework provides us guidance as we look at the current challenging situation and seek some structural and authentically Catholic response. For us, pastors and parishioners, shepherd and flock, are co-relative terms. We all work together. Both our theology and our pastoral practice reflect this spiritual reality. 

In the 1965 Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (Apostolicam Actuositatem) we read, “The laity are made to share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ; they have therefore in the Church and in the world, their own assignment in the mission of the whole People of God” (AA 2). At this point the Council Fathers make reference to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) promulgated in November 1964. Here we are reminded that the People of God, the people of the new covenant are reborn “not from flesh but from water and the Holy Spirit (cf. John 3:5-6), and are finally established as ‘a chosen race a royal priesthood a holy nation…who in times past were not a people, but now are the people of God’ (1 Peter 2:9-10)” (LG 9).

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, in 1985 Saint Pope John Paul II called an extraordinary Synod to celebrate, examine and promote the application of its teachings. In the light of that important discussion, the next Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which convened in Rome in the fall of 1987, was devoted to the theme of the vocation and mission of lay people in the Church and in the world. This was certainly not a coincidence. What followed on this Synod that took up the Second Vatican Council’s highlighting of the role of the laity was the post-synodal apostolic exhortation “The Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World” (Christifidelis Laici) 1988.

This document is a resounding affirmation of the place of lay people in the work of the Church. The vast majority of the membership of the Church is comprised of laywomen and laymen. The teaching office of the Church emphasized that it is to this great throng of Jesus’ disciples that the work of evangelization and sanctification is entrusted. 

Pope Benedict XVI in calling for the Synod for the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, which convened in Rome October 2012, reminded us that the mission of discipleship “applies, in the first instance, to the ordinary pastoral ministry that must be more animated by the fire of the Spirit.” 

In continuity with his predecessors, Pope Francis continually calls the whole Church laity and clergy – laywomen, laymen, religious, deacons, priests and bishops – all to their shared responsibility for the life and mission of the Church. In the encyclical letter “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium) he affirms, “In all the baptized, from first to last, the sanctifying power of the Spirit is at work, impelling us to evangelization. […] The presence of the Spirit gives Christians a certain connaturality with divine realities, and a wisdom which enables them to grasp those realities intuitively, even when they lack the wherewithal to give them precise expression” (EG 119).

All of this teaching has its roots in the letters of Saint Paul, particularly his First Letter to the Corinthians and his Letter to the Ephesians.  In writing to the Corinthians, Saint Paul tells us, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ…Now the body is not a single part, but many... But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended.  If there were all one part, where would the body be?...Some people God has designated in the Church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then, gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

This same theme is developed also in his Letter to the Ephesians where he calls for the realization that we strive “to preserve the unity in the Spirit through the bond of peace,” while recognizing that “he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry for building up the Body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:3, 11-12).

It is in this continuum of recognition that the Body of Christ is made up of members with a variety of gifts and functions, bound together in unity by the Holy Spirit, that I think we find the direction we need today. We must confront the need for collaboration in the face of the crisis of confidence experienced in the Church today.

In 2002, when we faced the terrible crisis of clergy child abuse, the bishops produced the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.  Later that same year, the “Essential Norms,” created to implement the Charter, were also approved, by both the bishops and the Holy See.

It seems fair to say that the Charter worked and continues to work.  Almost all of the cases of clergy abuse that we hear today are from a period of time prior to the Charter.  Following on the Charter, came diocesan review boards, policies for the protection of children and young people, and more stringent norms in removing priests from ministry even in the face of allegations not totally substantiated. 

A key component in the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People is both the National Review Board that oversees diocesan compliance with the Charter, and the local diocesan review boards that review allegations with a view to determining their credibility. 

What would be helpful today is that the same type of mechanism be now made available when dealing with allegations of abuse or misconduct by a bishop.  Perhaps a board, made up of laywomen, laymen and bishops, could be established either at the national level or at the regional or provincial level to which such allegations could be brought and which would have the authorization to examine them for their credibility. 

It seems that at the service of both accountability and transparency, such boards that reflect the makeup of the Church, laity and clergy, would help to highlight this new level of accountability. The results or findings of these review boards would be presented to the Holy See’s representative, the Apostolic Nuncio. Thus there would be clearly the recognition that the final judgment rests with the divinely established head of the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome. 

In sharing these reflections, I want to note and compliment the leadership of our United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for the call to begin to address how we as the Church, laity and clergy, can respond to the serious questions raised today.