The Spirit sent by the risen Christ continues to act, now as always, in and through the Church. To better understand today, it is good to remember the past. We recognize the action of the Spirit in the life and diversity of civilizations and their ever-changing view of life. In order to strengthen our faith, it is good for us to obtain a correct view of our history and challenge our false assumptions, especially to awaken us to our present responsibilities! (from “La Croix – L’événement (The Cross – The Event)" April 2, 1987).
Christians – A Simple Identity
Christian laity are curious to know a little of their own history. Of course, articles and books abound. Quite apart from the numerous studies that appear today, it is enough to simply begin reading passages from the Acts of the Apostles or the Pauline letters. Following the example of Christ, who was placed above any institution and any categorization, the early Christians were unaware of the present-day distinction between clergy and laity. It is found nowhere in the new Testament.
Early Christians were described in the familiar passage: "All who believed were together and had everything in common" (Acts 2:14). Whenever they spoke, it was always as a witness to the Lord Jesus. In their homes where they met to break bread in memory of the Risen Lord, all brought their memories: women and men were sharing what they had seen and heard, and which was then shaped by the Evangelists. Believers brought others to Christ. It is often reported that women converted their husbands and household; while the artisans and merchants preached the Good News wherever they went, often in foreign lands.
A Different World, a Different View of the Church
In Jerusalem, the Christians of Jewish origin, in order to increase their number, adopted a synagogue structure, so familiar to them, where the "elders" (in this case, presbyters), that is to say, the notables, formed a Board, including James, brother of the Lord, who was not of the twelve, actually became President, Untitled. But there were no "clergy", much less a “priestly” clergy. They saw the entire people of God as “priestly”, treasuring their unity with Christ, the sole High Priest.
There was no more separation between the different Christians in Paul's communities. He "recommended" to the Thessalonians to “…respect those who are laboring among you and who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you, and to show esteem for them with special love on account of their work. Be at peace among yourselves (1 Thes 5:12-13). To his Corinthian community he asks them to obey Stephanas and his family (probably his wife, his children, his servants) "who devoted themselves to the service of the holy one (the faithful)" (1 Cor 16:16).
The early believers or the most fervent, devoted themselves "from themselves" to the growing community. But each receiving a different gift, was also put to the service of all. Apostles, prophets (including women), doctors (teachers) had, according to Paul, the most important functions. But these "charismatics" were not a "clergy" distinct from other community members. Even when, little by little, presidents, "elders" (presbyters) or épiscopes (supervisors), took precedence over the charismatics and replaced them, gradually absorbing all their functions, they did not yet divide into "clergy" and "laity".
A Church of Very Active Laity
The word “laity” appears for the first time at the end of the first century (about 95-97 AD) and in the Old Testament context (from the First Letter of Clement of Rome). It is also still an adjective, not a noun. "The" laity does exist at the turn of the second to third centuries when the needs of a structure have given rise, first to a corner of Syria – then extended by a slow osmosis all Christendom – where there arose a Tripartite hierarchical (“clergy” meaning: bishop, priest, and deacon). Note also the passage that clergy in the East at least, was not entirely male deaconesses received since the imposition of hands, the Jewish rite gradually taken over by the various churches to signify the gift of the Spirit for liturgical functions.
Yet we must not assume that the laity were thus excluded from participation in the operation of churches. Not only are they occupied with administrative and financial issues, but they were also still involved in ecclesial functions.
All Christians, in principle, have the right to baptize: since they have been baptized, they thereupon receive all the power to baptize others as well. However in the third century (200s), Tertullian did not accept baptism by women but the ban even indicates that women did baptize at that time.
Establishing Sacraments in the Church
After receiving the Sacrament of Baptism which wipes out all effacing all sins, the Christian was not supposed to sin. However if it happened, it was the full community that tried that person since she had injured the entire community. If necessary, the exclusion of the person from the community was publicly pronounced. A second public pardon was then admitted, but only once in life. As Christians they waited as long as possible to confess their possible serious sins.
Individual confession was introduced by Anglo-Saxon monks (and Colomban) in the sixth century, first for the monks and nuns before being established for all Christians by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. It became a Sacrament at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), demanding the presence of an ordained "priest". This privilege of hearing confessions was also taken way from abbesses (simply disregarded by the Fourth Lateran Council).
Similarly marriage was originally and solely a family or community celebration. Christians, by prayer, calling on God's blessing husband, according to the "sermons" of third-fourth centuries. It is only in the twelfth century that the Church intervened and eventually at the Council of Trent made it a sacrament.
The Place of Laity in the Church of Old
Lay people elected their bishops and their priests. Hilaire was a simple layman itself when the community elected him bishop of Poitiers in 350. Ambrose was carried by the crowd to the episcopate in 374 when, simple a Catechumen, he was not even baptized! And Augustine was also elected by the people, Bishop of Hippo in 395.
Some lay people participated in the Councils. In the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the theologians agreed on the person of Christ having two natures. The laity taught and preached. Even the decree of Gratian (11th century) allowed lay men and women to preach but at this time, only with the permission of a priest.
Laity in the Church of Today
So long centuries passed before Pope Innocent III could say, in the Lateran Council of 1215, that "it remains for the laity to obey and not to command authority." We know that is has been rewritten tot say: "The lay person is one who has the right to pray, pay and obey."
Certainly, since the nineteenth century and especially in our time, lay people have largely returned to work in many areas. In Catechesis in France today, some 200,000 catechists serve the Church, of which 90% are women, as well as laity in chaplaincies, communities, and missions, presently excluding “sacramental” powers.
Can we expect more laity to take their place as baptized Christians, perhaps becoming even more involved in the ministries of the Church?
Above from: Les Annales, no, 81, Mai-Juin, 1987, pgs. 2-3