“Lay people are the vast majority of the people of God. The minority-ordained ministers- are at their service”. Pope Francis continues his instruction: “There has been a growing awareness of the identity and mission of the laity in the Church. We can count on many lay persons who have a deeply-rooted sense of community and a great fidelity to the tasks of charity, catechesis and the celebration of the faith”. So we can be proud of the laity.
The laity played a great part in my missionary life in the Philippines. We Passionists lived and worked on the island of Mindanao in the south. Each parish had a lovely community and Church. Attached to each parish were several small mountain villages with their own chapel. Periodically, we would travel to one or other of these mountain villages to offer the people the Sacraments. The name of one village was Seven Hills. That is exactly what it entailed, climbing seven hills.
The plan was to arrive the day before, and stay at the home of a family who lived near the chapel, ready for Mass the next day. That evening as I sat outside the house, lights appeared through the mountains. The people were carrying their lamps on the way to the chapel. They were not coming to see me, but coming to do what they did each evening. The faithful were gathering as a family and community in the chapel to offer their prayers and devotions. After about an hour, they would disappear back into the quiet and stillness of the night. This was their creative initiative whereby the people strengthened and shared their faith. They could not count on a priest being there, but they could count on one another. I was proud of the laity in Seven Hills.
Another remarkable and inspiring story is how the first Christian Community in Korea was born. It was founded entirely by lay people.
Pope John Paul 11 called the Church in Korea unique, because it was founded by lay people. In the 17th century, while the country was isolated from the rest of the world, some laymen traveling to Peking in 1784, learned about Christianity from some books they found there and were converted. They returned to Korea where they practiced and spread the faith without priests.
The local government felt threatened by the spread of the faith. A ban was imposed. In the words of Pope John Paul, during the latter part of the 18th and into the 19th centuries, some 10,000 Korean men, women and children were martyred. That is a staggering number of witnesses for the faith. Also martyred were the first priests and bishops. The government felt that by eliminating the leadership, the Church would die. But that was not the case. The lay people had already shown their strength and fidelity. The ban was not lifted till 1895.
This story of the Church in Korea is a wonderful endorsement of the role of the laity in the Church. It reminds us that lay people can bring the faith to others, and make it grow and endure even through persecution. And they will give their lives for it. We can be proud of the laity; the saints in Korea.
The lay people can also show us and teach us different forms of prayer. We have an eleven o’clock Mass at the monastery. After Mass the people continue their prayer and it is often through the prayer of touch. Some may go to the statue of Our Lady and touch her garment, and hold it for a period of time. There is a prominent crucifix behind the altar. Some may hold the foot of the crucified, others may put their head by the nail of the cross. And still others may kneel in front of the crucified. People may stand on line for an opportunity to express their devotion to the Lord on the cross. No one is embarrassed. All respect each other’s prayer; the prayer of touch. We can be proud of their prayer.
Pope Francis gives us a beautiful summation of the laity. He said: “Lay people are on the ‘front lines’ of the life of the Church. We are to be thankful for the laity who take risks, who are not afraid, and who offer hope to the poorest, to the excluded and to the marginalized. Let us pray that the lay faithful may fulfill their specific mission, the mission that they received at Baptism, putting their creativity at the service of the challenges of today’s world”. For this we can be proud of the laity.
Fr. Theodore Walsh, C.P.