When I was growing up in the pre-Vatican II era, the local Catholic priest in our parish was known as a “secular priest” or “diocesan priest” as opposed to a “religious order priest”. This distinction between different classes of priests basically meant, at the time, that religious order priests took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and usually lived among other members of his religious community while secular priests did not take these vows but did commit to a live of celibacy. The secular priest was usually ordained by the local bishop and served in his committed diocese. The religious order priest was usually ordained by a bishop of his religious order and served at the pleasure of his religious community.
Laity, at the time, infrequently participated in ministerial service to the Catholic community as we know in today’s church. Laity, except altar boys, were allowed in the sacristy during liturgy. There were no Eucharistic ministers, lecturers and the choir usually sang from the choir loft near the entrance of the church. Religious sisters usually cleaned and prepared the sacristy area outside of Mass times.
Laity were encouraged to participate in church sponsored organizations like the Knights of Columbus, Holy Name Society, Daughters of Mary and various parish and diocesan Catholic Action programs that assisted the larger church in its ministerial works of mercy. Some laity, men and women, worked as teachers in the Catholic elementary and high school system.
The Second Vatican Council and its aftermath changed much of this. The post Vatican II church was anxious to include the laity in more active ministry and liturgical service. During the fifty years since the close of the Council, it is common to have laity of both genders participate during liturgies in the sacristy area of the church as Eucharistic ministers and lecturers. Both boys and girls serve as altar servers which was a major change. Pastoral Ministers, both men and women laity and religious sisters, lead parish services and conduct religious formation programs all of which were solely the function of the ordained secular or religious order priests.
The institution of a permanent deaconate that allowed married men to be ordained as deacons has contributed ten-thousand fold in the administration of the sacraments of baptism and anointing of the sick primarily although they do serve at the altar during Eucharist in the traditional role of deacon. Marriage preparation is a major ministry for deacons although some laity do participate in programs in the ministry of marriage preparation.
One significant post Vatican II change is a strong emphasis on the baptismal character of the laity (the faithful). The Council constitution on the nature of the Church, Lumen Gentium, brought to life the consecrated character of the baptized faithful and the effects of the sacrament of Baptism on their spiritual and ontological vocations as priests, prophets and kings (leaders in church and civic community). The Synod of the Laity in 1987 specifically emphasized the urgency and importance of the faithful’s responsibility to bring Christ into every area of their lives, including family life, work and civil life.
As a result of these enormous advances in the Christian life, I am of the mindset that the laity are the “new” secular priests of Christ in the church and in the world. The laity do not negate the priesthood of the ordained or ministerial priesthood, but do supersede the old distinctions of being “second class citizens” of the church which was their fate prior to Vatican II. This new distinction, in my belief, needs a new identity. An identity that defines the “sacred work of the faithful” in todays church. Nothing less than a more fuller recognition of the faithful’s reinvigorated character and responsibilities is expected. A character defined by Baptismal anointing is truly a holy vocation, a vocation at one level to be “priests” for Christ and the church in the secular world, secular priests.
In closing, I hope and pray that the awareness of the faithful’s elevated character will motivate all to boldly assume and put into practice this awesome vocation graciously endowed upon us by our Creator, our Savior and the Spirit of God in the world. I invite you to comment on this article as part of an ongoing conversation. Looking forward to hearing from you. Sincerely in Christ, Dr. Nick