September 2013 Print

Guiding Principles of the Lay Apostolate

Pope Pius XII, Address to the Second World Congress of the Lay Apostolate, October 5, 1957

All Should Be Active

It would be a misunderstanding of the Church’s real nature and her social character to distinguish in her a purely active element, Church authorities, and a purely passive element, the laity. All the members of the Church, as We Ourselves said in the Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi (The Mystical Body of Christ), are called upon to co-operate in building up and perfecting the Mystical Body of Christ. (Cf. AAS 36, 1943, p. 241.) They are all free persons and should; therefore, be active.

The term “emancipation of the layman” is abused at times when it is used in a sense that distorts the true character of the relations existing between the “teaching Church” and the “Church that is being taught,” between priests and laymen. Concerning these relations, let Us simply note that the tasks before the Church today are too vast to leave room for petty disputes. In order to preserve the proper sphere of action of both priest and layman, it is enough that all should have a sufficient spirit of faith, disinterestedness, mutual esteem, and mutual confidence. Respect for the priestly dignity has always been one of the most characteristic traits of the Christian community; on the other hand, laymen also have rights, and the priest must recognize them.

The layman is entitled to receive from the priest all those spiritual benefits which are necessary if he is to achieve the salvation of his soul and attain Christian perfection. (Canons 87 and 682.) In what concerns the Christian’s fundamental rights, he may assert his demands. (Canons 467, 1; 892, 1.) The meaning and aim of the Church’s whole life is involved here, as well as the responsibility before God of the priest and the lay man.

Exclusive consideration of the Church’s social activity inevitably creates uneasiness. This activity is not an end in itself—either in general or in the Church—for the community is ultimately at the service of the individual, and not vice versa. History shows that from the Church’s earliest days laymen have taken part in the activity which the priest carries out in the service of the Church, and today more than ever they must co-operate with greater and greater fervor “for building up the Body of Christ” (Eph. 4 :12) in all forms of the apostolate, especially by making the Christian spirit penetrate all family, social, economic, and political life.

One of the reasons for this appeal to the laity is certainly the shortage of priests, but even in the past a priest expected the co-operation of laymen. Let Us mention only the considerable contribution which lay Catholic men and women instructors, as well as Religious, have made to the teaching of religion and, in general, to Christian education and the formation of youth. Think, for instance, of the Catholic schools of the United States. The Church is grateful to them for this contribution, for it was a necessary complement to priestly work. There still remains the fact that the lack of priests is especially noticeable today and threatens to become even more so. We are thinking especially of parts of Latin America, whose people and countries are undergoing rapid development at the present time. The work of laymen there is all the more necessary.

Laymen’s Job

Furthermore, aside from the small number of priests the relations between the Church and the world require the intervention of lay apostles. The consecratio mundi (consecration of the world) is essentially the work of the laymen themselves, of men who are intimately a part of economic and social life and who participate in the government and in legislative assemblies. In the same way, only the workers themselves can establish the Catholic cells which must be created among workers in every factory and bring back to the Church those who have strayed from her. 

Principle of Subsidiarity

In this matter ecclesiastical authorities should apply the general principle of subsidiarity and complementarity. They should entrust the layman with tasks that he can perform as well as or even better than the priest and allow him to act freely and exercise personal responsibility within the limits set for his work or demanded by the common welfare of the Church.

It will furthermore be remembered that the Lord’s words: “Dignus est...operarius mercede sua” (“The laborer deserves his wages”) (Luke 10:7) also apply to him. We have often been struck by the fact that the obligation to give these coworkers the salary which is due them is recalled in missionary congresses for the lay apostolate. The catechist is often totally occupied with his missionary work and, therefore, he and his family depend for a living on what the Church gives them. On the other hand, the lay apostle must not take offense if he is asked not to make excessive demands upon the mission that supports him.

On a previous occasion We described those laymen who assumed all their responsibilities. They are, We said, “men constituted in their inviolable integrity as the living images of God; men who are proud of their personal dignity and their healthy freedom; men justly jealous of being the equals of their fellowmen in all things pertaining to the most intimate matters of human dignity; men attached in a stable manner to their land and their tradition” (Speech to the New Cardinals, February 20, 1946, in Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, vol. VII, p. 393). Such a wealth of qualities supposes that one has learned self-control and self-sacrifice, and has learned to draw constant light and strength from the sources of salvation which the Church offers.

The materialism and atheism of a world in which millions of believers must live in isolation requires that all should be formed into strong personalities. If not, how will they resist being led astray by the masses which surround them? What is true of all is true above all of the lay apostle, who is committed not only to defend himself, but also to win others over.

This does not in any way diminish the value of precautionary measures, such as laws for the protection of youth, the censorship of films, and all the measures which the Church and state adopt to preserve the moral climate of society from corruption. In order that the young may be educated in their responsibilities as Christians, it is important that their spirit and heart be kept in a healthy atmosphere. One could say that institutions must be so perfect as to be able to insure by themselves the protection of the individual, while the individual must be formed with a view to the autonomy of his adult Catholic life, as though he were to be left on his own to surmount all difficulties.

Formation of Apostolic Spirit

We wish to draw your attention particularly to one aspect of the education of young Catholics: the formation of their apostolic spirit. Instead of giving way to a slightly selfish tendency by thinking only of the salvation of their own souls, they should be made aware of their responsibilities toward others and of the ways to help others.

No one doubts that prayer, sacrifice, and courageous action to win others to God constitute very definite guarantees for personal salvation. We do not in any way condemn what has been done in the past because there have been many remarkable achievements in this respect. We refer, among other things, to the many Catholic weeklies which have sustained popular enthusiasm for the charitable activities of the apostolate. Movements such as that of the Holy Childhood have given proof in this respect of fruitful initiatives.

But an apostolic spirit takes root in the child’s heart not only at school, but long before the school age, and it is engendered by the care of the mother herself. The child should learn how to pray at Mass and offer the Sacrifice with an intention which embraces the whole world and, above all, the important interests of the Church. Examining his conscience concerning his duties toward his neighbor, he will not only ask him self, “Have I harmed my neighbor?” but will also ask, “Have I shown him the way which leads to God, to Christ, to the Church, and to salvation?”

As for the exercise of the lay apostolate, since the observations We made earlier on matters of principle dealt with this at several points, We shall only refer to certain fields of the apostolate from which an urgent appeal rises at present.

The Parish

Is it not a comforting sign that even today adults consider it an honor to serve at the altar? And those who contribute through music and singing to the praise of God and the edification of the faithful certainly exercise a praiseworthy lay apostolate.

The lay apostle who works in a specific neighborhood and is entrusted with a group of houses belonging to the parish must try to acquire accurate information about the religious status of the inhabitants. Are the housing conditions bad or inadequate? Who needs the assistance of charitable organizations? Are there marriages to be regularized? Are there children to be baptized? What is the condition of the news stands, bookshops, and lending libraries in the neighborhood? What do the young folk and adults read? The complexity and often delicate character of the problems to be solved in this type of apostolate make it necessary to call upon the services of only a chosen elite who are gifted with tact and true charity.

The Press, Radio, Movies, and Television

Publishing houses and bookshops provide an excellent field for the apostolate. We are glad to hear that the majority of Catholic publishers and book sellers regard their profession as a service to the Church.

A parish library can be correctly run by lay people, who normally should be experienced readers. Good Catholics also have an opportunity of doing good in lending libraries.

The Catholic newspaperman who exercises his profession in a spirit of faith is quite naturally a lay apostle. At the Manila Congress a request was made for Catholic journalists and a Catholic press for Asia. It is, furthermore, only normal that Catholics should co-operate with the press, even if only in matters of local interest.

In respect to the radio, movies, and television, We refer to what We said in the encyclical Miranda Prorsus (Remarkable Inventions) issued on September 8 of this year. There is a dual task to be accomplished here: avoid all elements of corruption and promote Christian values. There is by actual count an annual attendance of 12 billion in places of entertainment. Yet too many of the shows offered do not reach the cultural and moral level which one has the right to expect.

The most regrettable fact is that films very often portray a world in which men live and die as if God did not exist. The problem, then, is to prevent mortal dangers to the faith and the Christian way of life. One should never have to go before God with the responsibility of having tolerated such a situation, and one must make every effort to change it. We are grateful, then, to all those who, in the fields of radio, movies, and television, carry on a courageous, intelligent, and systematic work, which has already been rewarded with results which give grounds for serious hope. We commend in particular the associations and movements whose objective it is to make Christian principles prevail in the use of moving pictures.

In the parishes, or at least in the deaneries, working groups will train their members and coworkers as well as the public in their duty with regard to radio, movies, and television, and will help them discharge these duties. In so far as television is concerned, it is indispensable for the Church to be represented on the committees entrusted with organizing programs and for Catholic experts to be among the producers. Both priests and the laity are encouraged to take part in this task. In this field the priest may be as competent as the layman. But whatever the case may be, the participation of the laity is required.

The Working World

Every year 20 million young people throughout the world enter the ranks of labor. Among them there are Catholics, but there are also millions of others who are ready for religious formation. You must feel responsible for them all. How many does the Church keep? How many does she win back? Since the climate of industrial work is dangerous to young men, the Catholic “cell” must intervene in workshops and also on trains, buses, in families, and neighborhoods. It will act everywhere to give tone, exercise beneficial influence, and spread a new life. Thus a Catholic foreman will be the first to take care of the new arrivals. For instance, he will help them to find decent lodgings and make desirable friendships, and he will put them in touch with local church life. He will assist them in adapting themselves easily to their new position in life.

The appeal which We made last year to German Catholics also applies to lay apostles the whole world over, wherever there is technical and industrial activity. We told them: “You have been given one important task, that of giving the world of industry a Christian form and structure....Christ, by whom all things were created, the Lord of the world, is also the Lord of the present-day world, because this also is called upon to be a Christian world. It is up to you to stamp it with the imprint of Christ.” (Broadcast message to Cologne Catholic Day on Sept. 2, 1956, in Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, vol. XVIII, p. 397.) This is certainly the most onerous but also the greatest task of the apostolate of the Catholic laity.


There has always been a lay apostolate in Christ’s Church. Saints such as Emperor Henry III, Stephen, founder of Catholic Hungary, and Louis IX of France were lay apostles, though this was not consciously realized at first, and the phrase “lay apostle” did not exist. There were also women, like St. Pulcheria, sister of Emperor Theodore II, and Mary Ward, who were lay apostles.

There is a lively awareness of the lay apostolate today, and “lay apostle” is one of the terms most widely used in discussing the activities of the Church. This is because the co-operation of the laity with the Hierarchy has never been so necessary or practiced so systematically as today.

This co-operation assumes a thousand different forms, from the silent sacrifice offered for the salvation of souls, to the kind word and good example which compel the admiration even of the Church’s foes. It also embraces those activities of the Hierarchy which can be shared with the ordinary layman, and feats of bravery which are paid for with one’s life, which appear among no statistics, and are known only to God. This hidden apostolate is perhaps the most precious and fruitful of all.

Objectives: To Preserve and to Win Over

Like every other apostolate, the lay apostolate has two objectives: to preserve and to win over. The present-day Church must give the closest attention to both of these. Putting it succinctly, Christ’s Church has no intention of yielding ground to her avowed enemy, atheistic communism, without a struggle. This battle will be fought to the end, but with the weapons of Christ!

Set to work with a faith even stronger than that shown by St. Peter when, at the call of Christ, he left his boat and walked on the waters to meet his Lord (cf. Matt. 14:30-31).

During these troubled years, Mary, the glorious and powerful Queen of Heaven, has made her help felt in far separate corners of the earth in a manner so evident and so marvelous that We have ultimated confidence in commending to her care all forms of the lay apostolate.