no longer lay

One of the most unhelpful terms in the life of the church is the word “lay” as applied to Christians who are not clergy. The implication is that the one who is called a “lay person” is more a helper than an initiator, a follower who is not able to be a leader.

Today’s scriptures give reason to stop using the word “lay,” a word that literally means non-professional and is therefore inappropriate for anyone who is baptised.

We have been slow to understand this, even five decades after Vatican II emphasised all the baptised together as the People of God, each using their own gifts, responding to unique callings from God within roles that may be lived as people who are single, married, with families, in careers, as religious sisters and brothers or as priests, but all equal as the People of God. All the baptised are therefore professional Christians. While we may slip into using the word (lay) for convenience and clarity, it is time to drop the term completely and speak more of ministries and callings instead of referring to more than 99% of Christians as amateurs.

Pope Francis makes the point well explaining the understanding of the Second Vatican Council:

“Hence, the Council did not see the laity as if they were members of a “second order”, at the service of the hierarchy and simple executors of higher orders, but as disciples of Christ who, by virtue of their Baptism and of their natural insertion “in the world”, are called to enliven every environment, every activity, every human relationship according to the spirit of the Gospel (cf. Lumen Gentium, 31), bringing light, hope, and the charity received from Christ to those places that otherwise would remain foreign to God’s action and abandoned to the misery of the human condition (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 37). 

… the proclamation of the Gospel is not reserved to certain “mission professionals”, but must be the profound yearning of all the lay faithful, who are called, by virtue of their Baptism, not only to reform the temporal reality in the Christian spirit, but also to works of explicit evangelisation, proclamation and the sanctification of people.  (full 2015 text at this link)

Excuse the long introduction, but it grounds today’s scripture readings in the reality of present challenges.

“The rulers, elders and scribes were astonished at the assurance shown by Peter and John, considering they were uneducated laymen…”  

However their personal encounter with the risen Jesus had transformed them into fearless and professional preachers of faith and witness to the living presence of Jesus in the challenging circumstances of the decades after the resurrection.

Remember that the rulers, elders and scribes were good and well-educated people. According to secular measure of religious leadership they were professionals, but compared to Peter and John and the other disciples they were amateurs.

These first disciples were weak and imperfect, aware of the gravity of their sin, and considered by Jesus to be incredulous and obstinate, stubbornly refusing to accept the evidence before them, but they were the ones appointed by Jesus to be the first professional Christians. 

Because they had no personal knowledge and ability of their own to rely on they were dependant on Jesus which is why he could confidently appoint them to witness to him, commissioning them, ‘Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation.’

An Invitation:

  • Which part of this reflection most encourages you to stand tall as a professional Christian?


I offer two options for Lectio today, the first is with one reading of the gospel for today, and the second with the passage read twice. As a result they are of different lengths, the second also with some longer pauses for reflection.

Saturday Lectio Divina  (15 minutes)

Saturday Lectio Divina  (25 minutes)

11 Responses to "no longer lay"
  1. Āta mārie. Good morning on Mary’s day. Mary first disciple (and ‘lay’ person)
    I wonder what term is best to use? Perhaps ‘sisters and brothers’ or ‘people of God’?
    I love your picture where everyone has a halo. I’m reminded of the New Testament where reference is to “the saints at Corinth” etc. (meaning the whole church family…)

  2. Thank you, John. I felt Jesus’ smiling approval if your comments about the word “lay.” Other Christian churches don’t use this term, so, as a new Catholic, I found it interesting that fellow parishioners used it as a label. In this prayer time, the other unhelpful definitions came up – shepherd and sheep. Actually, Jesus didn’t tell Peter that he was a shepherd. Jesus was the shepherd, and he instructed Peter to feed his sheep. So he givs us the same instruction to feed each other, This morning’s spiritual food was very nourishing, John. Much gratitude,

  3. Thanks again Fr John. I often thought when the term “lay” was applied to the baptised it meant “fallow” rather than “fellow”. You may as well have put a “z” between the “a” and the “y”. That was how I saw it in my own mind as an adult convert to the faith, witnessing the disunity it caused everywhere.
    The real issue when applying labels is the unintended consequences, in this case status. It was never intended in this way, it’s hard for me to fathom the impact on people if they accepted it as such, what does that mean for their own baptism? Has this been the biggest misunderstanding of our times?

  4. You’ve touched on a profound thought – that a lay person in the Church is Acceptable to carry Christ’s message into our ordinary lives. To be a professional or an amateur is missing the point. Lay people reading your reflection today will feel uplifted and empowered by both the words of Francis and your insights. Bless you.

  5. John, this is great. I have always much disliked the use of “lay” implying the ordained are professional Christians whereas other people are volunteers, part-timers, less than. In some ways I see the call of the baptised/not ordained in the community as being more challenging to live well than it is for those who are easily identified (because if title or clothes or job) as people of faith.
    An interesting dimension of this discussion is that I am one of 43 Cistercian Associates in this country, who elsewhere in the world are called “Lay Cistercians” but as some of our group who are ordained Anglicans object to being called “lay”, we do not use the name. I am a priest but not a monastic so am happy to be called lay. It also means that our Associates are without distinctions – we are all baptised and committed to the charism.

  6. Dear John you’re beautiful thoughts and the way you expressed them are so warming and I hope and pray to be able to share these with my family and friends God Bless.

  7. Dear Father John, How we need this message in our church today! Interesting that several of the persons commenting are not ‘Cradle Catholics’ but have come to the Catholic dimension of the faith later in life. I am also among those elect! And I found that the RC (as opposed to Anglo-Catholic, which was my previous persuasion) idea of the relative positions of Clergy and Laity was far more pronounced. I spoke to (lay) people about their ‘gifts’ and most mumbled. I spoke about their ministries and they looked even mumblier! In the AC, my wife and I had led seminars helping (lay) people discover their Spiritual Gifting. We have thought how these would fare in the RC but decided the risk is too great at the moment that (lay) people would be discouraged, even forbidden from using the gifts they had discerned. I am hopeful change is on the way!

  8. We are told that we all belong to one body and we all have different gifts to use for the good of that body….. so how can the professional Christian work without the “unprofessional “ and vice Versa! Let’s go for equality in our Church with only God with a ranking above all else!

  9. Hello Fr John,
    I have followed your posts for a few years now and have never commented, but believe I am drawn to do so now. Like many others who have commented above, I too did not start out my faith journey as a Catholic, and I have often found your reflections and comments both insightful and encouraging.
    Today is different; in what seems to be an increasingly modernist world, I have found that many people appear to have lost a sense of humility. As St Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians (2; 3-8), regarding Jesus: ‘Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.’
    My experiences have taught me that it is through humility that great strength is found. It is also through lack of humility that people stop seeing Priests, such as yourself, who are our spiritual Fathers, as being any different from themselves; this then often leads to a lack of respect and division within the Church as ‘lay’ people begin seeing you as no different to them. I agree that we are all equal under God, and that we all have contributions to make through the grace of God; however, as Priests study within the Seminary for 7 years (or more in some countries), as with any other profession then, I would assume that would make them more qualified and therefore more professional. ‘Lay’ person does not indicate ‘less’ person, it just indicates a different role within our fortunate positions as chosen sons and daughters of God.
    I pray that you will continue to lead us, in your honoured position as one of our spiritual Fathers, and that we who are not ordained will continue to follow the 5th commandment: to honour our Fathers and Mothers.
    May God continue to bless and guide you all, Kelly

  10. I agree with Kelly. As a lay person, I’m perfectly fine with that term and that distinction. I am not ordained. I have not spent seven years (or more) in a seminary. I do not have the same authority as a priest, and I do not want to pretend that I do. My vocation is different, and I strongly object to breaking down that distinction. Being a lay person does not make me feel less, and it shouldn’t. I’m obviously still called to evangelisation, and ultimately sainthood—but our paths are different and that’s as God’s Church has always intended it.

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