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The role of lay religious in the Church

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on the Church
General Audience, Wednesday 22 February 1995 - in Italian & Spanish  

"1. In religious institutes which consist mainly of priests, there are many "brothers" who are full-fledged members although they have not received Holy Orders. They sometimes have the title of "cooperators," or an equivalent term. In the ancient mendicant orders they were generally known as "lay brothers." In this expression, the term "brothers" means "religious," and the qualification "lay" means "those not ordained priests." If it is then considered that in several of the ancient orders such religious were called conversi, in most cases it is easy to perceive the historical reference to their vocation--in other words, to the conversion which originally impelled them to give themselves to God in service to the "priest brothers," after years of life spent in various secular careers: administrative, civil, military, commercial, etc.

However, the words of the Second Vatican Council remain decisive. They state: "The religious life, undertaken by lay people, either men or women, is a state for the profession of the evangelical counsels which is complete in itself" (PC 10). Commitment to the priestly ministry is not required by the consecration which is proper to the religious state, and therefore even without priestly ordination a religious may live his consecration to the full.

2. In looking at the historical development of consecrated life in the Church, a significant fact is clear: the members of the first religious communities were called "brothers" without distinction, and the great majority of them did not receive priestly ordination because they did not have a vocation to the ministry. A priest could join these communities but could not claim privileges because of Holy Orders. When priests were needed, one of the "brothers" was ordained in order to meet the community's sacramental needs. Over the centuries, the proportion of monks who were priests or deacons in comparison to the number of those who were not priests continued to grow. Gradually a division was established between clerical members and lay brothers or conversi. The ideal of a consecrated life without the priesthood lives on in St. Francis of Assisi. He did not feel personally called to the priestly ministry, although he later agreed to be ordained a deacon. Francis can be considered as an example of the holiness of a "lay" religious life. His witness demonstrates the perfection that can be reached by this way of life.

3. Lay religious life has continued to flourish down the centuries. In our age too it has endured and has developed in two directions. On the one hand, we have a certain number of lay brothers who have joined various clerical institutes. With regard to them, the Second Vatican Council makes one recommendation: "That all the members be more closely knit by the bond of brotherly love, those who are called lay brothers, assistants, or some similar name should be drawn closely into the life and work of the community" (PC 15).

Then there are lay institutes which, recognized as such by the authority of the Church, have their own proper role by virtue of their nature, character and aim. This is defined by their founder or by a legitimate tradition, and does not include the exercise of Holy Orders (cf. CIC, can. 588, §3). These "institutes of brothers," as they are called, do indeed carry out a precise function which is valuable in itself and especially useful in the Church's life.

4. The Second Vatican Council was thinking in particular of these secular institutes when it showed its appreciation for the state of lay religious life: "While holding in high esteem therefore this way of life so useful to the pastoral mission of the Church in educating youth, caring for the sick and carrying out its other ministries, the sacred synod confirms these religious in their vocation and urges them to adjust their way of life to modern needs" (PC 10). The Church's recent history confirms the important role played by the religious who belong to these institutes, especially in educational or charitable works. It can be said that in many places they have given the young a Christian education, founding schools of every kind and for all levels. They have created and administered institutions offering social assistance to the sick and the physically and mentally handicapped, for whom they have also provided the necessary buildings and equipment. Thus their witness to the Christian faith, their dedication and their sacrifice should be admired and praised. It is to be hoped that the aid of benefactors--in the best Christian tradition--and subsidies provided by modern social legislation may increasingly enable them to care for the poor.

The "great esteem" the Council expressed shows that the Church's authority highly appreciates the gift offered by "brothers" to Christian society through the ages, and their collaboration in evangelization and in the pastoral and social care of peoples. Today more than ever, we can and must recognize their historical role and their ecclesial function as witnesses and ministers of Christ's kingdom.

5. The Council made provision for brothers' institutes to benefit from the pastoral ministry necessary for the development of their religious life. This is the meaning of the statement which resolved a problem frequently discussed inside and outside these worthy institutes: "There is nothing to prevent some members of religious communities of brothers being admitted to Holy Orders by provision of their general chapter in order to meet the need for priestly ministrations in their own houses, provided that the lay character of the community remains unchanged" (PC 10). This is a possibility to be evaluated in accordance with the needs of time and place, but in harmony with the most ancient tradition of monastic institutes, which are thus able to flourish again. The Council recognized this possibility and stated that there was no impediment to its implementation. But it lets the highest governing assembly of these institutes--the general chapter--decide, without offering explicit encouragement in this regard. This is precisely because it is concerned that these institutes of brothers continue in line with their vocation and mission.

6. I cannot bring this discussion to a close without stressing the rich spirituality suggested by the term "brothers." These religious are called to be brothers of Christ, deeply united with him, "the firstborn among many brothers" (Rom 8:29); brothers to one another, in mutual love and working together in the Church in the same service to what is good; brothers to every man, in their witness to Christ's love for all, especially the lowliest, the neediest; brothers for a greater brotherhood in the Church.

Unfortunately in recent times a decreased number of vocations to the lay religious life is becoming apparent in both clerical and secular institutes. A new effort must be made to foster these important and noble vocations so they may thrive anew--a fresh effort to promote vocations, with a new commitment to prayer. The possibility of a lay consecrated life must also be presented as a way of true religious perfection in both the old and new male institutes.

At the same time, it is most important that in clerical institutes whose members also include lay brothers, the latter should play a suitable role so as to cooperate actively in the institute's life and apostolate. Then there is a need to encourage lay institutes to persevere on the path of their vocation, adapting to a changing society but constantly retaining and deepening the spirit of total self-giving to Christ and to the Church as expressed in their individual charism. I ask the Lord that an ever growing number of brothers may enrich the Church's holiness and mission."

After the Catechesis, Papa Giovanni Paolo II greeted the pilgrims in various languages

Ai pellegrini di lingua francese

Chers frères et sœurs,

Je vous souhaite la bienvenue, chers pèlerins de langue française.

J’adresse en particulier un cordial salut au groupe de la paroisse de Saint–Denys du Saint–Sacrement, à Paris, ainsi qu’à toutes les autres paroisses et aux nombreux jeunes. Continuez à avancer chaque jour vers le Christ Sauveur! Je demande à Dieu de vous bénir et de vous garder sur son chemin.

Ai fedeli di lingua inglese

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I am pleased to greet the group of Christian Brothers meeting in Rome. May your efforts to ensure a sound religious formation for the members of your Congregation bear abundant fruit. My greeting also goes to the Daughters of Wisdom celebrating the jubilee of their Religious Profession. Upon all the English–speaking pilgrims, especially those from England and the United States, I cordially invoke God’s blessings of grace and peace.

Ai pellegrini giapponesi

Rendiamo grazie a Dio!

Cari pellegrini del Giappone, oggi, anche i vostri Vescovi del Giappone sono qui con noi.

Prego per voi che possiate diventare le persone care a Cristo assieme con i vostri Vescovi. Dio vi benedica con abbondanti grazie divine.

Rendiamo grazie a Dio.

Ai pellegrini tedeschi

Mit dem Wunsch, da auch Ihr, liebe Schwestern und Brüder, Euch dieses Anliegen der geistlichen Berufungen im Gebet zueigen macht, heie ich Euch alle sehr herzlich willkommen. Mein besonderer Gru gilt der Studiengruppe vom Philosophisch–Theologischen Studium in Erfurt und den heute zahlreich anwesenden Pilgern aus Österreich.

Euch allen, Euren lieben Angehörigen in der Heimat sowie all jenen, die uns in diesem Augenblick geistlich verbunden sind, erteile ich von Herzen meinen Apostolischen Segen.

Ai numerosi fedeli di lingua spagnola

Queridos hermanos y hermanas,

Saludo ahora a todos los peregrinos de lengua española, presentes en esta Audiencia. En particular, al grupo Iberoamericano de señoras de las Naciones Unidas, a quienes aliento en su acción en favor de las mujeres y los niños de América Latina. También saludo a los peregrinos de Granada (España) y a los de Argentina. A todos imparto de corazón mi Bendición Apostólica.

Ai fedeli polacchi

Witam pielgrzymów z Polski, a w szczególności ks. bpa Albina Małysiaka z Krakowa, który ze mną jeszcze łaskaw był współpracować i w dalszym ciągu mnie odwiedza. Bóg zapłać! Witam również różne grupy, a więc: gminy podhalańskie zrzeszone w związku – oni tu przyszli od Matki Boskiej Ludźmierskiej, żeby Papieża zaprosić na Podhale. Módlcie się, żeby co z tego wyszło. Są także: Ślązacy z Chorzowa – parafia św. Józefa, i z Sosnowca – grupa z nowej diecezji; z Opola – grupa turystyczna “Itaka”; prócz tego grupaekonomów ze Zgromadzenia Księży Marianów z przełożonym generalnym i wreszcie wszyscy inni pielgrzymi indywidualni zarówno z kraju, jak i z emigracji.

Ai pellegrini croati

Saluto cordialmente tutti i cari pellegrini croati. In modo particolare rivolgo il mio saluto al gruppo di imprenditori croati che sono venuti a ringraziarmi per la mia visita pastorale, nel settembre scorso, a Zagabria, che ha messo in moto l’intera Croazia.

Nel mio cuore conservo i bellissimi ricordi di quelle indimenticabili ore trascorse con le care popolazioni croate. Prego Dio onnipotente che tale evento di grazia porti abbondanti frutti di progresso spirituale e materiale e di tanto agognata pace nella giustizia, non solo nella Croazia e nella Bosnia Erzegovina colpite dall’orribile flagello della guerra, ma pure nell’intera area del Sud Est d’Europa.

Ben volentieri imparto la Benedizione Apostolica a ciascuno di voi e alle vostre famiglie.

Siano lodati Gesù e Maria!

Ai pellegrini italiani

Porgo un cordiale benvenuto a tutti i pellegrini di lingua italiana.

In particolare, agli studenti del Seminario diocesano di Bologna, guidati dal Rettore, ed auguro che la visita a Roma rinnovi in loro l’entusiasmo di una generosa risposta alla chiamata del Signore. Saluto anche i numerosi alunni delle Scuole elementari delle Maestre Pie Filippini, venuti con i familiari da Spoleto e L’Aquila: il centenario di Santa Lucia Filippini infonda nuovo slancio in ciascuna comunità scolastica.

Sono lieto di accogliere gli Ufficiali dell’Accademia Aeronautica di Pozzuoli accompagnati dal Comandante e dal Cappellano, ed il folto gruppo del Sindacato Pensionati Coltivatori Diretti della Confederazione Generale dell’Agricoltura Italiana. Saluto poi i soci del Centro Sportivo Italiano provenienti da Molfetta, e approfitto dell’occasione per ricordare che lo sport, pure quando è agonistico, deve sempre mantenere il carattere di sano divertimento.

Ai giovani, agli ammalati e agli sposi novelli

Ed ora un pensiero ai giovani, ai malati e agli sposi novelli. Oggi celebriamo la festa della Cattedra di San Pietro. Essa ricorda che l’unità della Chiesa poggia, per volontà di Cristo, sopra la roccia costituita dal principe degli Apostoli. E a Pietro che Gesù ha detto: “Tu sei Pietro e su questa pietra edificherò la mia Chiesa” (Mt 16, 18).

Invito voi, cari giovani, ad essere ovunque apostoli di unità fondando la vostra vita sulla Parola di Dio. Voi, cari ammalati, offrite ai Signore le vostre sofferenze, tanto preziose per la causa del Vangelo e per l’unità dei cristiani. E voi, cari sposi novelli, costruite la vostra famiglia su una solida fede, perché, resistendo a tutte le prove dell’esistenza, perseveriate nella fedeltà a Cristo e cresciate nel suo amore.

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