The Future for Lay People in the Catholic Church Part I – Richard Gaillardetz at Clonard

“The future of the church depends on our implementing Vatican II.”

Gaillardetz_color_WebThat’s what Dr Richard Gaillardetz, McCarthy Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College, told those assembled last night at Clonard Monastery in Belfast.

Gaillardetz presented a public lecture on ‘The Future for Lay People in the Church’, the first in a series of three talks to celebrate the Centenary of Clonard Church.

Attendance was very good for a Sunday evening lecture, with so many present that the talk was moved from one of the smaller rooms in the monastery into the main church building.

Regular readers of this blog will know that on occasion, I’ve said the same thing as Gaillardetz about Vatican II.

And I think that the Catholic Church in Ireland is behind other countries in the West when it comes to implementing Vatican II, particularly when it comes to empowering, listening to, and actually hearing what lay people have to say.

Gaillardetz’s presentation, which was followed by a time of discussion, in many ways took me back to my undergraduate university education at Providence College in Rhode Island, USA.

Providence College is run by Dominican Friars, and (at least in my day) students were required to take two courses in theology and four semesters of a course called Development of Western Civilization, which covered history, literature and theology. Through these courses, I learned about and read the documents of Vatican II, as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

I was not then and am not now Catholic, but the image of the contemporary Catholic Church that I got from my studies was much like what I now realise is the somewhat idealised vision that Gaillardetz presented last night.

When I read those documents at Providence, I could still see differences between Catholicism and the evangelical Protestantism in which I had been raised. But the church of Vatican II was clearly not the Catholic Church I’d been warned about by some evangelicals back home in rural Maine, who were concerned that even attending a Catholic university could be dangerous for my soul. (Such anxieties are not unique to Northern Ireland.)

So what was Gaillardetz’s idealised vision of the Vatican II church, and the vision that I caught a glimpse of at Providence?

The Vatican II church is a church in which all the baptised – not just the clergy – are empowered to live full Christian lives through meaningful participation inside the church walls and ethical living outside the church walls.

To support this vision, Gaillardetz drew on church documents, and cited the Apostle Paul’s understanding of baptism. For Gaillardetz, implementing Vatican II is about ‘reclaiming our baptism,’ through the following means:

1. Reclaiming the Biblical Priority of Discipleship. Gaillardetz pointed out that in the gospels, there is little distinction between clergy and laypeople – in fact, these words are not even really used. All should be considered disciples, taking the initiative to develop their own faith through meaningful interaction in community with each other.

2. Recognising that Charisms (or Gifts) are Given to all the Baptised. Gaillardetz noted that clergy are instructed to discern and encourage these gifts among laypeople, lest they extinguish the Spirit.

3. Realising that the Entire Church Hears God’s Word. Gaillardetz emphasised that Vatican II offers a conception of ‘revelation’ as something that is embodied in the life of Christ. Revelation then is not something that is captured in a list of dogmas or rules. Related to this, he noted that Vatican II emphasised that all the baptised are ‘given a supernatural instinct for the faith’ and that all the baptised ‘participate in the development of tradition.’

During the coffee break my husband, who was raised an Irish Catholic and therefore (theoretically) received a much more extensive Catholic education than I did over four years at Providence, said that he had never been encouraged to read the documents of Vatican II and had little notion that they said what Gaillardetz had outlined.

But he also, among others who were present, noted that Gaillardetz’s talk seemed to be ‘building up to something’ – but that ‘something’ was not present yet. As several asked in the discussion afterwards:

Why hasn’t the church implemented this?

Why haven’t more people heard this?

What are we supposed to do about this?

I’ll turn to these questions later in the week, after finishing my on-going series on Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Northern Ireland.

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