The Catholic Bishops and the “Sleeping Giant”
SHOULD ordinary Catholics be evangelists? Or should preaching be left to the dwindling number of priests? That was an issue facing Catholic bishops in their world synod, or meeting, held in Rome last year. If you are a Catholic, how do you feel about doing evangelizing work?
Until just a few decades ago, there was a negative concept of the laity. In the early part of this century, for example, Pope Pius X declared: “The Church is by its nature an unequal society . . . made up of two categories of persons: the Shepherds and the Flock, those who occupy a position in the hierarchy, and the crowd of the faithful. . . . The multitude has no other duty than to allow themselves to be guided and to follow.”
Such a description would not be acceptable today. A modern theological dictionary states that “the layman is not a passive object, as he was considered for so long in the past,” but “is an active and responsible subject.”
There are some 700 million Catholic laity in the world, and Irish cardinal O’Fiaich described them as a “sleeping giant.” What did he mean? According to the bishops, the laity should live their faith in a more active way. The aim of the synod was to make the laity conscious of their responsibilities. But have changes really come about in the Catholic Church to awaken this “sleeping giant”?
The Role of Women. Many Catholics expected changes in the role of women within the church. A document published by Catholic women recommended to the bishops: “The discriminatory articles of canon law concerning women, or that are based on limitative assumptions concerning the ‘nature’ and the ‘role’ of women, should be revised and corrected, including no. 1024 relative to ordination.” Article 1024 of canon law says: “The sacred ordination is validly received exclusively by the baptized person of the male sex.”
However, the Catholic publication Rocca stated that the Vatican ‘does not presently seem to want to listen to anything that could modify its traditional preclusion of women from the priesthood.’ It was a “door slammed in women’s faces,” said a priest.
Fewer Priests. At the same time, the Catholic Church is experiencing a grave vocational crisis: The number of priests is dwindling worldwide. Pope John Paul II considers this “the fundamental problem of the Church.” For example, there are “ever fewer priests in Italy,” writes La Repubblica. And La Civiltà Cattolica says that the fall in the number of priests in the Netherlands is “dramatic.”
“It is estimated that out of three hundred thousand local Catholic communities all over the world that are bound to meet together every Sunday in liturgical assembly, more than half have no resident priest,” affirms one newspaper.
Matter of Great Concern. The issue that received the most attention at this synod was evangelization. Prior to the synod, the pope himself had emphasized that “every Christian . . . is essentially an apostle.”
Yet, many bishops claim that Catholics themselves need to be “reevangelized.” According to them, this is needed because of what was called “the challenge of the sects and the new religious groups.” If they are not adequately prepared, said a bishop from Ecuador, ‘Catholics are allowing themselves to be won over very easily by sects.’
One of the final proposals approved by the bishops says: “The sects are storming ahead in many regions of the earth. . . . The faithful should be awakened by catechism, in order for them to give a reason for their own faith.” The synod exhorted Catholics to ‘go and make disciples in all the nations.’ But how can the “sleeping giant” of 700 million Catholics make disciples when they do not know how to evangelize?
The Bible clearly shows that the work of true Christians is to seek out deserving ones “from house to house.” (Acts 5:42; 20:20; Matthew 10:11) And who are to take part in it? All Christians. Concerning the way in which the early Christians disseminated their faith, French historian Gustave Bardy says:
“Individual action is found right from the origins of the church, and it is perhaps in this way that, during the first two centuries, . . . Christianity conquered the major part of its faithful. Every believer is of necessity an apostle. . . . All are able to consecrate themselves to this apostolate, even the poorest, the most ignorant, the most despised.”
Indeed, all true Christians are ministers of God’s Word. Among them, there are no distinctions between clergy and laity. Such distinctions came about after the falling away from original Christianity. (Acts 20:29, 30) Some Catholic sources acknowledge that the clergy-laity distinction in the Catholic Church “has no theological foundation.” According to Vatican observer Giancarlo Zizola, the early Christians “had no priests, their ministers were presbyters, that is, elders . . . There were no hierarchies among them.”
True Christians of today are awake and very active in their Christian work, zealously preaching the “good news” of God’s Kingdom. Likely, they left this magazine with you.—Matthew 24:14; 25:13; 1 Corinthians 15:58.