Christifideles Laici and the Catholic University
By Dr. John P. Hittinger
December 30, 2008
Today is the twentieth anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici (Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People), in which the Pope likewise looks back twenty years to the close of the Second Vatican Council and looks ahead to the future, to the new millennium. He desires to bring the fruit of the Council to subsequent generations of the members of the Church, for “the Council has written as never before on the nature, dignity, spirituality, mission and responsibility of the lay faithful.”
Christifideles Laici is truly a great document, and could perhaps be singled out as the key document to the renewal of Catholic life and the hope for overcoming the degradation and despair which engulfs the world today. It surely must stand as the great standard or measure for the aspiration and achievement of any institution of Catholic higher education.
Pope John Paul II writes, “This [is a] great moment in history, made especially dramatic by occurring on the threshold of the Third Millennium. A new state of affairs today both in the Church and in social, economic, political and cultural life, calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful.” (CL3) The new thing is on the one hand, a deeper appreciation of the vocation and mission of the laity in the Church and in the world; and this corresponds, on the other hand, to the new situation outlined in Gaudium et spes, the modern trends towards mastery of nature and globalization and the modern aspirations for freedom and participation, leading to possibilities for human redemption or degradation.
The laity must respond to the call of the Lord of the Harvest: “The gospel parable sets before our eyes the Lord’s vast vineyard and the multitude of persons, both women and men, who are called and sent forth by him to labor in it. The vineyard is the whole world (cf. Mt 13:38) which is to be transformed according to the plan of God in view of the final coming of the Kingdom of God.” It is up to laity to respond to the call to the mission. The laity must understand their unique standing in the Church and in the world, and they must be formed and prepared for the task.
Hence, this Exhortation is essential to Catholic life today. It is the laity who must be the great evangelizers of the new millennium. “The entire mission of the Church, then, is concentrated and manifested in evangelization. Through the winding passages of history the Church has made her way under the grace and the command of Jesus Christ: ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.’" (Mk 16:15) (CL33)
Catholic universities need to better “fulfill their indispensable mission in the new advent of grace that is opening up to the new Millennium.” (Ex corde, #11) And this mission entails that “by its very nature each Catholic university makes an important contribution to the Church’s work of evangelization.” (#49) Catholic educators must become familiar with this exhortation of Pope John Paul II, for it provides the theological basis for their mission and the measure for assessing the greatness of their institutions.
Pope John Paul II writes, “with this Exhortation the lay faithful are invited to take up again and reread, meditate on and assimilate with renewed understanding and love, the rich and fruitful teaching of the Council.” (CL3) His Exhortation on the laity is derived from his profound meditation on the Council documents.
He develops this passage in Lumen Gentium: “the laity are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth. Thus, every lay person, through those gifts given to him, is at once the witness and the living instrument of the mission of the Church itself.” (LG 33/36). The Pope emphasizes that the Council provides a positive definition of the laity, in terms of the new of baptism and secularity, and not a negative one (the laity are not priest or religious). The council “displayed a basic intention of asserting the full belonging of the lay faithful to the Church and to its mystery. At the same time it insisted on the unique character of their vocation, which is in a special way to ‘seek the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God.'” (CL 14)
The key idea is the laity’s “secular character”—“in describing the lay faithful’s situation in the secular world, [the council] points to it above all, as the place in which they receive their call from God.” Or further, “the lay faithful’s position in the Church, then, comes to be fundamentally defined by their newness in Christian life and distinguished by their secular character.” (CL15) Drawing upon Vatican II, Pope John Paul II hits the most eloquent and inspiring note of lay dignity, and he elaborates on the notion that laity share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly mission of Christ, according to their measure of “secularity” or “being in the world.” (CL14)
The field for apostolate is vast. Gaudium et spes outlines and elaborates upon key areas such as family, culture, economics, politics and international cooperation. Pope John Paul II discusses these areas (CL36-44), as well as others derived from the council document on Apostolate of the Laity.
The laity, with such a vocation and mission, require formation and education. The spiritual formation is fundamental, for apostolate is an overflow of interior life. Pope John Paul II reiterates the role of the Eucharist in apostolate in Ecclesia de Eucharistia (8, 62). In addition, the laity need sound education, as only a Catholic university can provide. The lay person needs a “vital synthesis” of “humane, domestic, professional, social and technical enterprises” with religious values, under whose “supreme direction all things are harmonized unto God’s glory.” (CL60-61) The Catholic university is challenged to play a unique role in assisting the Church in providing “a total integrated formation for living an integrated life.”
According to John Paul II, the hour has come for “re-evangelization.” (CL34) Consumerism, secularism, atheism all lead to widespread degradation of the human person. A spirit-filled, formed and educated Catholic laity can provide a witness to the love of God and the integrity of life. The laity must learn how to “overcome in themselves the separation of the Gospel from life.” (CL34) We hear the watchwords of his pontificate: “Do not be afraid.”
It is my hope that all Catholics read this exhortation and study the documents of the Council upon which it is based. It is also my special hope that Catholic universities become part of the “great venture” (CL64) of the re-evangelization of their own culture, giving witness to God’s grace in all sectors and professions of society.
Dr. John P. Hittinger, a Catholic academic and university administrator, is currently a professor of philosophy at the Center for Thomistic Studies, University of St. Thomas (Houston). He also is a member of the advisory board of the Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education, the research division of The Cardinal Newman Society.
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