Called Out of the Pews: An Experiential Reflection on the Role of the Laity

The summer before I graduated from prep school, we left Palm Beach.  My mother had had back surgery and we needed to live in a single level house.  We didn’t move far, just to Boynton Beach, about 50 km down the road.

A New Church…A New Parish

I had started attending the Catholic church in Palm Beach just a few months before that, the same church that Jack Kennedy attended when he visited the family compound there.  My parents weren’t too thrilled with this decision, but I did it anyway.  Moving however required me start attending another parish.  That lasted for a few weeks; they then announced that a new parish was starting less than a kilometre from where we lived, and that we should go there.

South Florida is well known for fast growth. The major seminary for the Archdiocese of Miami was located in Boynton Beach, so they impressed the use of the seminary’s chapel for the new parish.  (Photo below.)  The church certainly had its own pastor but they also impressed seminary professors to say Mass (some acted like they had forgotten how it was done!)

I took a low profile going there, because I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do in Roman Catholicism.  That wasn’t difficult at first because this parish, like most, didn’t have a lot of social interaction amongst the parishioners.  But that changed abruptly one Sunday morning at Mass.

I came in as usual and sat down towards the back, minding my own business, when someone came from behind the altar and asked me to be the lector for the Mass.  The lector is the person who is reads with the first two appointed selections of the Bible for the Mass (plus the Responsorial Psalm when it isn’t sung.) I was surprised at this but I went on back and met the parish priest.  He asked me, “Have you ever been a lector before?”

“I’m not even Catholic,” I replied.

“We’ll take care of that later,” he answered.  So he gave me a crash course in lectoring, we ascended to the altar of God and I lectored my first Mass.  I was instantly a regular lector at the church, which not only involved me in the life of the parish but also did wonders for my public speaking.  Before the year was out I formally converted to Roman Catholicism and began the greatest spiritual adventure of my life.

The Role of the Laity

A Protestant minister and a Catholic cardinal were having a discussion and the minister asked the cardinal, “What is the role the laity in the Catholic Church?”

The cardinal decided he would have a little fun with this, so he replied, “The role of the laity in the Catholic Church is threefold: to know when to kneel, to know when to stand, and to know when to reach for their wallet.”  In Evangelical terminology, this is “pray, pay and obey,” although more elegantly put.  The reality is, however, that Roman Catholicism historically has had a large gap between the laity and the clergy, to the point that a lot of Catholic thought basically says that only the clergy — and by this those in religious life are included — are the only real Christians.  It was only with Vatican II that the Roman Catholic Church really began to tackle the whole problem of the role of the laity in the church.  Now of course we see lay people very prominent in all kinds of activity, lectors included.

Protestant churches were supposed to have “solved” this problem with Martin Luther proclaiming the “priesthood of all believers.”  But the record is decidedly mixed.  The history of non-Catholic churches shows that, where there is an organizational structure, the tendency is to concentrate both the power and the activity of the church in the hands of its leadership.

The New Testament, however, does not encourage this trend.  The believer is not only saved and redeemed from their sins; they are made new creatures in Christ (1 Cor 5:17).  Moreover they are given the Spirit and commanded to do greater works than Jesus did (Jn 14:12).  Moreover the New Testament does not create an elite group of people; this authority and the gifts of the Spirit are distributed throughout the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12).  Churches that plan to be faithful to the New Testament — and successful — need to activate the laity in the life of the Church.  In other words, they need to call their people out of the pews to do what God intended them to do, perhaps as my parish in Florida did so long ago.

As for myself, I lectored in most every Catholic parish I was a part of until the last one, which required that all lectors go through training before they became a lector.  My travel schedule did not permit me to attend any of these classes; moreover, I thought it strange that they would require such of an experienced lector such as myself.  The disconnect from parish life created by that void made it a lot easier to leave Roman Catholicism for the last time.

5 thoughts on “Called Out of the Pews: An Experiential Reflection on the Role of the Laity”

  1. What a great story I read until the end. How sad that such a little thing as a lector class could keep the writer from the peace and love of the Faith. There are so many other facets of parish life!

    I have certainly not been the servant in love with the Faith in my past but I can’t imagine being away from the Eucharist now.

    Let not the man made issues distract you from what the real Church is all about – Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

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