The role of the laity today

I’ve built up a thesis that I call “accidental theology” – God works through planned accidents. It was very much of a planned accident that I got involved in the lay apostolate back in 1948.

I was coming out of the house one night, minding my own business, just going down to the corner store – which was my Church, my family, my gang, my friends – when all of a sudden a friend of mine came down with a car, squealed on the brakes and said, “Hey, Rom, where are you going?”

I said, “I’m going down to the corner store.” He said: “How about coming down town. There’s a meeting and we’re going to be discussing work and the trade unions.” I said: “OK.”

I got into the car. He drove me there. I went in and I saw a priest. I said: “Now, what did you bring me to this thing for? What’s this got to do with trade unions and work?”

I just sat there, listened – and my whole life started to be completely and totally changed. Not right that night, because I was as suspicious as blazes of the priest. I was sure his job was to get me back to the Church. I hadn’t been there for about eight to nine years. I sat like a guy looking at a salesman: “When’s he going to come out with the hidden agenda?”

I waited and waited – and the hidden agenda never appeared. He was really interested in what was happening to working life. He was interested in me. It was purely by accident, I’ve always thought that if I’d come out of that house three seconds earlier or three seconds later the fellow wouldn’t have squealed the brakes, I wouldn’t have been in the Young Christian Workers movement. I wouldn’t have been talking to bishops today. God knows where I would have been.

We used to call this providential. I say God works through planned accidents. He’ll have his world completed, whether we like it or not, by accident or by plan or whatever it is. He’s going to push us into the job that has to be done in the world.

I’m going to speak on my experience of the laity in the First World, not in the Third World. I don’t know too much about the Church in the Third World. I have to admit that we are all prisoners of our own experience. This is like collegiality. It’s so important because it takes us out of our own personal experience and puts us into the experience of the fullness of an institution to which one belongs.

I’m not going to speak on doctrine, because I know nothing at all about doctrine. Having left school at 15 and having no theology at all, it would take a very, very courageous layman to get involved in the whole doctrinal aspect that’s in this paper on the role of lay people in the Church and the world.

What I’m going to do is try to speak about the role of the laity looking at the laity and the Church through the world and not from looking at them through the Church to the world. You know, 99.5% of baptized Christians are lay people.

We don’t have much choice. Most of us have to work for a living. We have to be out there in the world. We have to be rubbing shoulders with people of all different kinds of religion, all different kinds of attitudes, materialists, semi-materialists, half philosophers, half-baked theologians.

We have to rub shoulders with them every single day. We have to save our souls – and I want to use this very traditional word that we’ve often forgotten in the Church. We have to save souls not from the world but save souls for the world. Presently, there are 6 billion people in the world.

If there’s no nuclear explosion between now and the turn of the century, there will be 8.0 billion in the world. And the world’s population can’t stabilize at less than about 9 to 10 billion people. And that’s all in practically 150 years. If one doesn’t see the miracle, one’s really blind.

Behind all this there’s an incredible process pushing the world to change. A world of 9 billion people will be different from a world of one billion people. It’s got to be. It’s got to produce more food. It’s got to be able to produce more drinking water. It’s got to have more religious education.

Why is the population growing? Very simply, it’s because we’re vaccinating children in Third World countries. We vaccinated them in Europe. We brought in pasteurization of milk. The reason why there are white Australians, Canadians, the reason that the whites have spread all over the world, was that our children didn’t die in Italy, Ireland, England, Germany or in Holland.

Why? Because of the pasteurization of milk, the vaccination of children, building outside lavatories, discovering germs. Today a mother brings eight children into the world in a Third World country – which they’ve always done. But now their children don’t die.

How can we be pessimistic? Put ourselves in the place of billions of mothers across the world who bring children into the world as their mother did before them, and watch the children not die but live.

How in God’s name can that woman be pessimistic? She can’t be. It’s impossible. She’s surrounded by life. There’s an incredible swirl of optimism all over the world.

Where the pessimism exists is generally, in the first world, the world that’s been developed, the world that’s full of technology, the world that’s full of science, that has gone in two generations beyond that miracle and which now says: “What’s going on? We’re going to blow ourselves up.”

I want to put the emphasis not on the fear of science and technology but on the fear that human beings are not developing to the point that God wants them to develop so as to manage this kind of society. The problem always comes back.

And in some ways the problem comes back to the Church more that any other institution. Why? Because the Church is the mistress of the inner spaces of people – those spaces of people that a lot of our societies don’t believe exist.

In behavioural science, for example, they call the human mind the “black box.” We in the Church know that the riches of a personality are deep within the inner spaces. We’re called to plough, to seed, to make the inner spaces grow so people can grow to manage a new kind of world. The new world’s going to be a very young world.

For the first time in the history of human kind, young people are the majority. And young people are by their very nature not pessimistic. They’re future orientated. When you become 60 years old like me, you become a little past–orientated.

When I went to Italy for the first time I sat down with my old grandfather. He was 84 years old. He was the first to be served. I was the guest, so I was second. The boys were next. The girls came next. And the poor mother was the last. She ate the best because she ate in the kitchen. This was the ritual, the liturgy of eating. The old man at 84 years of age still ran the roost.

You know what happens to parents now? I don’t drink often but once in a while I like a beer. I buy some, I put it in the refrigerator, I come home later – and the boys have dispatched it. I say to them: “Well, at least leave one bottle for the old man. Then I might buy more beer.” Even so, when I go to get one it’s all gone. So what do I do? I’ve got to be as wise as a serpent. I don’t buy beer anymore . They buy it and I drink theirs.

Does this mean I’ve lost authority over my children? No. It’s a whole new kind of authority. It’s a loving authority. I hope they respect me for what I think I am, or what they think I am, for no one really knows what I am.

This is happening to all parents. My kids are better educated than me – and I educated them. I paid for their education. I sacrificed – and they know more than I do. Whey they come in talking about computers I just keep my mouth shut, trying to understand what’s going on.

One of the great things about becoming older is that you can try to understand this new generation that’s developing. One of the great things I have to thank the Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement for is being able to make my peace with my father.

My father was an ordinary peasant. He never went to school. He had two days of religious education. The bishop was coming to confirm him. So an old woman in the village gave him at least the answers to what the bishop was going to ask him. I’d gone to school. I’d left when I was 15 but, of course, I was much smarter than he was. I mean, he came from a little village, I lived in the city. All that old Italian culture – Raphael, Michelangelo, all the rest – I flushed down the toilet bowl and I was left with a Coca–Cola bottle in my hand. I thought that I was great.

Accepting my dad was a great day in my life. It was like a tree finding its roots again. How did this happen? We had a YCW meeting to discuss family life. We used the see, judge, act method. In the see part of the method, we sought to measure the time that we spent at home with the family. I remember saying: “I’m never home. I just go down to the corner store.”

That is my family, my gang, my peer group, call it whatever you want. That is where I spent most of my life. That is where I learnt most of my morality, if it was morality. I learnt more about life there than anywhere else. My parents were passe. We didn’t say this at the meeting. “Don’t you find that rather strange?” says the leader.

“No, everybody does it and if everybody does it, it must be right.” The leader persists: “Don’t you think it’s a little abnormal? Shouldn’t you know your father just a little bit better?” “Well,” I said: “I suppose so. Then we discussed if we could do something to strengthen our links with the other members of the family.”

One member said: “I will stay home a few evenings just to see what will happen.” My action was: to ask my dad to go to a movie with me. Now this action sounds rather infantile, but at that time it took every single nerve of my spirituality and courage to go up and ask my dad to go with me to a movie.

I finally did it the day before the next YCW meeting. We went and saw “Red River” with John Wayne. The craziest thing happened. He wanted to see it a second time, and I wanted to see it also a second time. We both liked the same thing. The great gap that separates generations was bridged by the smallest of action.

I was reading the other day, that our brain holds information that 50 encyclopaedia can’t hold. The whole circuitry of the brain is more than the whole of the telephone system in the world. Information like this in just incredible. We see the creator at work in a much more beautiful way than my poor father did. My father could see the creator in a tree. The very mystery of the tree led to poetry. When are we going to translate into poetry the great mystery of the human body, or even more the mystery of the inner spaces which are enclosed in the body. The more that we see creation through the eyes of modern science, the greater is our sense of the beauty of the cosmos and the greatness of creation.

At the same time, the truth of redemption is much greater than individual redemption. You know, Jesus didn’t die just to save puny little Romeo Maione from his sins. Rather I was redeemed so as to be able to participate in God’s plan to redeem and accomplish creation.

The other evening I was listening to an astronomer describing the beginnings of creation. He said that we can with our radio telescopes go out millions and millions of light years to the edge of creation, right back to the very beginning of the cosmos. The poor fellow sounded rather frustrated.

He said: “It’s the first second that still eludes us.” The interviewer asked him: “Do you think you’ll ever be able to get inside the first second.” “We may be able to get it down to a half a second or even less but we will never be able to get beyond. It’s the great mystery.” What do you call it, the split second mystery.” “Well,” he said: “Some of us call it God.”

The more that science brings the hidden into view, the more we get an incredible and awesome feeling of mystery. After all, is not God the ultimate mystery. If creation is mystery par excellence, how much more mysterious is the creator of the mystery of creation.

God was and will continue to be the unknown one. No matter how many scientists or theologians try to understand the awesome mystery, we can only approach the creator and redeemer with the awe of a child. The mystery will be solved when we come face to face with our loving and merciful creator.

It’s from this background that I read the document on the laity prepared for the coming Synod on the Laity. It’s an historic document. Nearly thirty times, the document says that the role of the laity is in the world. The laity is in the secular order. The laity is in the temporal order. The laity must be active in the political, economic, social and cultural aspects of the world.

Why should I sound excited about the role of the laity in the world? I’ll tell you why. At the end of the recent Vatican Council, the traditional lay movements all bit the dust of history. Youth did not join them. When young people don’t join something, the demise of the organisation is not far away. You can tell the health of an institution by looking at what the youth are doing. Are they participating or are they walking away? Young people in a society are a very important part in the strategy of any institution in a time of such rapid change.

The laity belongs in the world. What should they be doing in the world? The rather immediate response follows the defence strategy of the Church. The essential role of the laity is to make sure that the dreadful Marxists do not take over the trade unions and governments. Another reason is that we should get into the world to protect the rightful interest of the institutional Church. This should be part of the strategy but even more primary still is the redemption of creation. It is lay spirituality that should move us into creation.

This agenda will push the Marxists into the shadows of history. The Marxists who are full of the reality of social injustice will do battle with injustice by harnessing the energy of hatred. Christians on the other hands are called to fight the very same battle with the lance of love. Those who suffer injustice would rather follow those that love rather than those that hate.

A very beautiful aspect of the document develops is that all Christians are called to be witnesses, not just people like Maione who blows up a storm, but witnesses. Witnesses live the good news and it is this living that attracts the other.

People listen today more willingly to witnesses than to teachers. If they listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses. Some time witnesses are called to openly testify to their faith that makes them so attractive.

More and more our modern world needs witnesses. Why is my friend leading a different life? I wonder what makes him tick. This wonder often leads to a testing. They check you out to see if you are the real goods. Actions speak more than a million words. Words have been de-coinized.

To be witnesses, the laity must be cloned to the world. They are called to live lives that will be different and at the same time attractive. What I’m asking is not easy. Ask the laymen that have been able to rise to high levels in our world.

In every single profession, it’s hellishly difficult to be a witness. The culture of most professions is the drive to power and service comes in a poor second. There are many professionals who have been able to marry the power of the world with charity to the poor. Justice never enters their vocabulary.

The last of our moral forces in today’s world may be found among workers and the poor. They have little or no power. Their sins may be in the sexual area of life. If one is to establish a hierarchy of sin, then the misuse of power gets first rank and sex will find its rung down the ladder of evil.

The strategy of Jesus is to tap the moral power of the ordinary people. What will be the strategy of the Church today? One of the basic truths of the gospels is the temptation of Jesus in the desert. The devil tempts Jesus, there are easier ways to spread your message. Why do you insist on taking the hard road. I will give you all the power of this world. You can take over the TV establishment, the power of communications, the telex, the fax, the movie industry etc. Why do you want to go into the nonsense of loving and serving people? Your strategy will only lead you to grief. Get on the fast track.

And Jesus says: “Behind me Satan, I’m in the world to love and serve.” How easy we forget, how difficult it is for us to understand, that beyond all the super powers of this world, the power of love is away and beyond all the powers of this world. All power diminishes the person, the only power that does not diminish the person is love, in fact, it is the only power that accomplishes the uniqueness of the person.

This is the revolutionary message that God gave to Moses but his followers decided to encapsulate this power into the power of the intricacies of the law. We know how to bring doctrine to people, we know how to put the intellect on the right track but we find it very difficult to get people to learn how to love in very concrete situations. In the present spiritual crisis, where the great disease is alienation.

How does one bring the message of love to a person who thinks that he or she is nothing? Formation starts with faith in oneself. I am more than nothing, I am very important. The entree before the main course of the Paschal mystery is this bolt of faith in one’s importance. Love can only start within a person. How can love be brought into the world, if we hate ourselves. We have to love ourselves.

I hear the traditionalist but “that is egoism.” It becomes egoism if this gift of loving oneself remains bottled up in the individual. If we realize that it is the energy of God and that we are called to love everyone, then and only then are we possessed with the eternal energy. If there is any progression in spiritual growth, then the doctrine of the filial relationship with God precedes the eternal energy of God who is love.

With love, there are no frontiers. It is infinite, eternal and real power which will bring out the real person and also the power to accomplish creation. This is the real objective of God for the human race to be co–creators with the creator.

Only God knows where a person will end up when the person becomes conscious of the power of love within. Where will he or she end up? Love does not show you the whole way but rather accompanies one wherever one goes.

I ended up in the trade union movement. One of the first big decisions I had to make in 1950, was whether I would go full time with the trade unions or full time for the YCW. I loved my union. Through the unions I was able to serve 3000 workers. I was a chief shop steward and was responsible to bring up grievances to management.

Unfortunately, even the more liberal theologians have just discovered social sin. We always seem to discover the back door before entering the front door. If there is social sin and there is, then there must be social virtue. Virtue and sin are as close together as the sun is to its shadow.

If one really wants to love in the modern world, one has to become active in the institutions of our world to make them instruments of peace rather than power. In structures, you can love or destroy many more people. I think that one of the things that has gone wrong in the last decade is to think that we can change the world by changing systems. In the Soviet Union, they have changed the system but have destroyed the people.

The first step in changing the world is the changing of people who in turn will change the institution and which in turn will try to humanize and civilize the barbaric power of science and technology. The changing of systems without changing people is again accepting the gift of satanic power.

You change the world as silently and as powerful as the leaven raises the dough. Even in our Church, there are still those who believe that we should spend our scarce budgets on training elites at the power level. This again is the fast track.

The slow track but surely the most divine is to reach out to the weak and marginalized. We have to convert people from the “religion” of nothingness and power. A converted person will come to realize that he or she is equal to Jesus for Jesus lives within. People can not live with nothingness as their guide. The pain is just too powerful for even the drug culture to ease.

What kind of hell is it, to be cut off from one’s parents, all by oneself? Nothing. You’re nothing. You’re just a work hand. You’re just what you produce. It’s a terrible disease. It is the terminal disease of our industrial world. The present anguish and suffering of our industrial cities is deeper and more painful than all that of the third world.

In the Third World the pain may be localized in the body but the spirit remains untouched. In our modern cities, it is the very spirit that is impaled on the cross of nothingness. This suffering can only but increase in the next decade as the society continues its road to decomposition.

It is one thing to be poor yet be a member of a community. We were poor in the 1930s in Canada. Yet the community developed its own social safety net. Nobody starved, my mother would put another pound of spaghetti in the boiling water and cousins and second cousins were provided for.

The suffering really started when the war started and everyone worked and each set us his own bank account. This opening of a saving account is a step forward but it was also a step away from the community. As the bank account grew, the community dissolved. When a community dissolves, individualism becomes the ideal. As important as individualism is, if he does not strive towards a new community, he is bound to give birth to materialism.

The preparatory document for the lay synod insists that the role of the laity is to be the Church in the world. I may tend to stress this too strongly. At the end of the council, the bishops of Canada were totally dedicated to the decisions of the council.

Within six months, we were receiving communion in the hand. The Church organisations of the past melted away like snow in the spring time. Even the newer movements of Specialized Catholic Action died a sudden death.

I was invited to a meeting on bishops who had been elected to attend the 1970 synod on social justice. There was a little phrase in the preparatory document which read: “If you want social justice in the world, you will have to train people with a sense of social justice.”

At the same time, the YCW, YCW, CFM and other catholic action movements were biting the dust of the post council period. I remember saying: “If we are to be honest, if you leave that paragraph in the final document of the synodal statement, we are going to have to reactivate the formation movements.”

A quite one sided debate developed. I was made to feel that I was a relic of the pre–council era.

“Stop talking about the past. That period is over and done with. You’ve done your bit for the Church. God bless you. You did a wonderful job.”

Some went even further in their congratulations: “Romeo, it was the ideas of the Catholic Action movements that were at the heart of the council.” They claimed we had done all of this. Now these movements are no longer needed.

I intervened finally: “I worked for nearly 15 years from the local to the international levels of the Church and all this time I though that I was renewing the world. Now tell me that the world is renewed and I can go to sleep.”

The Church can only be renewed in the measure that it is renewing the face of the earth. Renewal of the institution is locked in the hard task for renewing the individual, winning one from the religion of the day, materialism to an incarnated Christianity. One does not renew oneself by looking at a mirror.

The beginning of renewal is an act of faith in the importance and irreplaceable mission of the human person. The Church will be renewed in Australia and the Pacific when the people say: “The Church is really interested in us.”

It was my entry into the YCW that I made my peace with the Church and the clergy. Why? Because a priest was interested in me as a person. I didn’t discover that I was important because I sat back and talked to myself: “I’m important. I’m important. I really believe I’m important.” I discover my importance because a priest spent time with me. One doesn’t spend time with people you don’t think are important.

Unfortunately, the preparatory document does not sufficiently develop, the role of the clergy and their formative role that they must play if the laity are to play their role in the Church and in the world.

It does say that the priest must listen to the laity. Listening is not enough. We must learn how to learn from each other. How does a priest ever get to know what’s happening in a factory, in a trade union, political party, in science, in families unless the laity allows the priest to enter this world?

It is all important that the clergy knows the soil in which the seed of Christianity most grow. This soil is forever changing.

My father lived in a Christian community. He lived in the same area for over 60 years. Everybody knew Fred and Fred knew everyone. I grew up in a gang of 20 to 25 friends. A much smaller community with a deeper friendship for we knew each one just a little more than in my dad’s community.

My children are growing up in a still smaller community. They live in small groups of four or five friends. Their friendship is much more intense than in my day. Are they holding on to the friendship because of the stormy times? Maybe so. Or it could be a building stone upon which the Church is called to build the friendship of the Blessed Trinity.

This friendship will flower when modern youth come to discover that the energy of God is friendship. In some ways, they are already living the faith without being conscious of it. Too often, Churches believe that we are the mistresses of the power of love and that we are called to bring love into the world.

Wrong! Love has been there long before we have come on the scene. Love is etched into the very sinews of creation. A God of love cannot but imprint his own nature into creation and the person. The role of the Church is not to bring love to the world rather its role is to aid people to discover this incredible energy of God already working in their lives.

The fact is that about 80% of young Christian are not going to Church. Hidden in this fact is that the Church waits for the young to return, it could also be that the young are waiting for the Church to come and meet them on their turf.

How many good Christian parents feel that they have failed in their task of raising their children to be good Christians. Many of these young people are living good lives. They are not on drugs. They’re happy. They have good friends yet they do not go to Church.

The easy answer is: “I wouldn’t worry too much. They will be coming back to Church.” It sounds so much like the echo of what I used to hear in France during the 50s. What happened there, the Church has become a “three sacrament” Church, baptism, marriage, and death. How long will this type of Church last.?

There is a general anguish among parents. They know that the values of the faith cannot develop outside of the celebration of these values. Yet the truth is that faith is a gift. This gift is not for parents to will to their children. The parents can prepare their children for the faith but we cannot give them the faith. It is only the whole of the Church that can confirm the gift of faith.

The one topic that is totally missing from the preparatory document is the role of the laity in the governing of the Church. The document shows a kind of fear that the laity in the Church are tending to become minor “priests” or ministers.

The model of this Church seems to be a dual hermetically sealed society. In this model, the role of the laity is in the world and the role of the clergy is within the Church. It is necessary that the various functions are clearly outlined but it is also necessary that every function be represented where the decisions are made as to the future of the Church.

I would hope that the synod statement begins with the reality and possibilities of our modern world. This should develop the optimism of the faith, for God is with us forever and ever. This optimism is not just based on hear say but on hard evidence.

A few years back I was in Latin America. I watched a funeral of a little child go by. In this country, there are three hundred young infants die out of 1000 births. The women, like my mother and like all mothers of her age would be saying: “It’s the will of God, what can you do?”

I could not accept this. “No, it’s not the will of God rather it is the will of man.”

It is men who make the decisions to spend $800 billion of arms and the crumbs off the military table for the poor of the world. That child died because she didn’t get 10 cents of vaccine to avoid early death. The infant mortality rate is high because we haven’t lived up to the gospel directives to share with those who are the weakest and poorest of our world.

In that split second I inherited the world with all its sins and possibilities. Just another example of the freedom that technology breathes into us. If you were a good and saintly pastor, in say, Brisbane, in the year 1870, you could receive a letter from a class mate in Ethiopia or the Sudan. The letter was written four months ago, news travelled very slowly in those days, and it described the ravages of starvation that was taking place.

The priest who was a saint could well pray with his congregation for the people who have died in the famine in far away Africa. It is a good deed to pray for the dead.

But if you are a pastor today and received a fax from your classmate that the famine is just starting, would it be a holy act to pray for those who will die. No, it would be an unholy act. Why was it holy in 1870 while in 1986 it becomes unholy.

Because in 1870, we lived our lives in geographical straitjackets while today distance cannot be an excuse. Modern technology has freed our love from geographical limits. We, indeed, are called to love the whole world. Science is a great gift that gives us the freedom to serve all of humankind.

Finally, the Church of today must go out into this world and be present like the yeast in the dough. Every member of the Church from Pope to the worker have an equal dignity. It is because of this dignity that the laity are called to be witnesses in the world and at the same time participating in the governing of the Church.

This demands an incredible effort to develop new structures in the Church, a collegiality that comprises all those that are baptized. There must develop in the Church that sense of freedom that is the freedom of all sons and daughters of God. Without freedom there can be no creativity, and the Church needs creativity for without it, we will not ever leave our mark on creation, in fact, not even a dent.

Romeo Maione

(This talk was give to a meeting of over 100 bishops from Australia, New Zealand and Oceania. It was given from notes and it was written up from tapes by the Catholic press of Australia. The meeting took place in Sydney, May 1985. It was further edited December 1993).


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