Summary: Lay people in the Church, especially women, serve a vital role in spreading the Gospel and building community.
Thursday of the 5th Week of Easter 2015
Joy of the Gospel
Both of our readings today are concerned with what the Catechism calls “The Christian Life,” or the moral and virtuous way of life. Paul and Barnabas were traveling through the lands of what is now Turkey and Greece, going to the local synagogue, telling them about Jesus the Messiah. They set up house churches where the locals, both Jew and Gentile, could come and hear, be baptized, celebrate the Eucharist and learn to evangelize. But a group of Jewish Christians would then follow them and try to turn all the Gentiles into Jews. Their logic was simple: “you want to follow the way of Jesus Christ? Well, Jesus was a Jew, and all of us “real” followers of Jesus, like Him, are circumcised, observe Sabbath, abstain from pork and shellfish and all the rest of the Law. So you must as well.” And they were thus spreading confusion throughout many of Paul’s churches, especially in Galatia, a province of Asia Minor.
Paul and Barnabas defended their mission, and the purity of their preaching the true Christian life, in Jerusalem, before the remaining apostles and elders. And, with little exception, they were victorious. The council wrote to the new churches telling them that–in essence–they should obey the ten commandments, the practical law of love, and avoid certain pagan practices like eating meat that came from pagan temples, meat that often had been strangled with the blood inside. In time, of course, that association with paganism was broken and, if you want, you may have your Porterhouse served rare.
The critical words are summed up in John’s Gospel: keep the commandments of Jesus, which tend toward doing good, self-sacrificing acts of love. The Holy Father’s encyclical picks up on this theme as he addresses the laity: ‘Lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the people of God. The minority – ordained ministers – are at their service. There has been a growing awareness of the identity and mission of the laity in the Church. We can count on many lay persons, although still not nearly enough, who have a deeply-rooted sense of community and great fidelity to the tasks of charity, catechesis and the celebration of the faith. At the same time, a clear awareness of this responsibility of the laity, grounded in their baptism and confirmation, does not appear in the same way in all places. In some cases, it is because lay persons have not been given the formation needed to take on important responsibilities. In others, it is because in their particular Churches room has not been made for them to speak and to act, due to an excessive clericalism which keeps them away from decision-making. Even if many are now involved in the lay ministries, this involvement is not reflected in a greater penetration of Christian values in the social, political and economic sectors. It often remains tied to tasks within the Church, without a real commitment to applying the Gospel to the transformation of society. The formation of the laity and the evangelization of professional and intellectual life represent a significant pastoral challenge.’
The Holy Father then takes up the special role of women in the Church. Far from being a second-class member, the woman in the Church really is the second essential element. We may have an all-male clergy, but women do most of the heavy lifting, and, frankly, make most of the day-to-day decisions.
‘The Church acknowledges the indispensable contribution which women make to society through the sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess. I think, for example, of the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood. I readily acknowledge that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church. Because “the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, the presence of women must also be guaranteed in the workplace” and in the various other settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures.’
I’ll continue this theme next week, because the pope gives some important and helpful insights into the reservation of Holy Orders to male members of the Church.