Word Magazine May 1961 Page 6/22
THE LAYMAN IN THE CHURCH
By Rev. Father Theodore E. Ziton
St. Nicholas Church, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
The theme with which this article deals presents two difficulties which must be resolved before we can penetrate to its inner mystery. The two words, “layman” and “Church” are often understood in very different senses.
First of all, “layman” because of its linguistic parentage with such words as ‘laicism’ and ‘laicisation’ has taken on a more or less false meaning in the Orthodox Church’s mentality. Since the 14th century, “layman” has come to be more and more identified with the man who wishes to escape the influence of the Church, who opposes it, and finally becomes totally hostile to it. Thus the evolution of the word “layman” has been almost purely a secular one and does not touch at all upon the meaning it was originally intended to convey. The word was first used by the Church itself. It means simply the Christian who had not received the Sacrament of Orders but who, for all of that, was no less a child of God and of the Church.
Because of this unfortunate sense that has been attached to the word “layman” there has resulted an understanding of the word “Church” that is just as regrettably and falsely questionable. For some centuries “Church” meant almost exclusively the ecclesiastical hierarchy — the bishops and the priests. Thus the expression “the layman in the Church” came to signify the relations which existed or should have existed between the Christian people and the hierarchy. That is to say, it was conceived more as a social reality, a class division, and the greater mystery of the sonship of all men under God in the person of the God-Man (Jesus the Christ) was by-passed.
We are not laymen or in the Church merely by a social convention, which would be the work of men. But we are laymen because we are children of God; and we are in the Church because the Church is above all the supernatural community constituted by those who have the same faith, the same hope and the same divine love for God and for one another. The Church is the total Christ: Christ and all those who have become children of God by Incarnation and Redemption.
“But to those who received the Word, He gave the power of becoming sons of God. Those who believe in His name are born neither of blood, nor of the desire of the flesh, nor of the desire of man, but of God.” (John 1:12)
The layman then is at home in the Church; he belongs; he is in his father’s house quite as much as the cleric or the religious. He is a citizen of the kingdom that is the Church, a kingdom Christ came to build among men.
Having set forth a definition of the layman, we must now turn our attention to the deeper meaning that definition implies. In other words, we must set about tracing our supernatural genealogy which is added to our human genealogy and permits us to live out our lives on a level beyond the grasp of human reason. This mystery of our divine genealogy takes its immediate roots in baptism through which we are born again. It is a birth in which we are stamped with the reality of a character and the grace of Christ. And the vocation of the layman — the deep mystery of every son of the Church — is nothing other than developing this germ of divine life.
Let us put the matter this way. Each of us has the mission in life of justifying the image of God that is within us; of patterning our lives after the high ideals and ends for which they were given us. Through baptism the image of God, which was obscured, and to some extent lost through Adam’s sin, is restored. Through baptism the veritable scope of our sonship is clearly marked out and the trite dimension of the human person delineated. In baptism we have found what Adam and Eve sought in their sin: likeness to God. To say that man is made in the image of God is to say that he is like God. He is not God, but he is like God. Like God, he must have intelligence and will, that he might know and love. Like God he must be creative; man, too, must build a kingdom. Nor is man like God in his soul only. He is like God in body as well, and in everything that he is and does. Man is most like God when he is most like man. He has perfectly justified that image within him when he has remained true to what God intended him to be when first He breathed the spark of divine life into nothingness.
Indeed we might say that just as Christ is the new Adam so is baptism the new image. Neither would have been necessary had there been no sin. Both destroy sin. The whole purpose of the Church is to furnish the means necessary for making God’s original plan prevail in the world. The whole purpose of the layman in the Church is to work out the destiny of his likeness to God. And in this he does not differ from the priest or the hierarchy. The whole onward movement of the Church and her members is grafted on to the baptismal character shared by all. The final commission Christ gave His Apostles was “Go baptize all nations. . .” (MATT. 28: 19) Everything would follow from that. This work of living out our baptism is the challenge of all Christians. It is slow, laborious, never-ending work; but it is the glory of our status as human beings.
We still need the Church. But the Church is not now something exterior to us, but within us. The Church becomes subordinated, in a sense, to the great personal mission of sanctity each of us has. The Church’s role is a functional one. We do not belong to the Church; the Church belongs to us. We do not exist for the Church; she exists for us. And when the final harvest has been gathered in, when the gates close behind the last human soul, the Church will cease to be.
There is one episode in the Gospels which illustrates what I am trying to say very well: The Transfiguration. When Christ went up to Tabor, nothing distinguished Him from any other man. Once there on the Mountain, however, He was transfigured so that His face shone as the sun and His garments became as white as light. From the cloud that enveloped Him in that moment, came a voice: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The Church is our Tabor. When we have become sufficiently conscious of the tremendous implications of our role as laymen in the Church, we will understand that our lives must be one continued Transfiguration. Grace makes us children of God; grace makes us shine with the clear light of purity; grace transfigures us. The Church has at her disposal all the redemptive graces of Christ. It is through her that our transfiguration will be effected; through her we will become children of God; through her we will become spiritually mature Christians. Indeed through her we shall all be saved.