Doing Ministry for the Sake of the Apostolate

In the fifty-plus years since the close of the Second Vatican Council, the Church has witnessed a rapid growth of lay ecclesial ministry, of members of the lay faithful participating in a wide variety of ministerial functions and roles in the life of the Church. Much ink has been spilled and many lives and resources have been devoted by countless men and women who seek to answer the call to serve alongside the many bishops, priests, deacons, and religious men and women for the upbuilding of the Kingdom of God. My own position as the director of lay ministry formation and a professor at a Roman Catholic seminary is itself a fruit of this great post-conciliar movement. But, if one revisits the original documents of the council, the idea of “lay ministry” and the “lay ecclesial minister” hardly appear at all.1 Instead, what one will find is a rich reflection on the ordinary vocation of the laity to what is called the “lay apostolate.”

Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem (AA), defines the apostolate as that activity of the Mystical Body of Christ directed toward the spreading of “the kingdom of Christ throughout the earth for the glory of God the Father, to enable all men to share in His saving redemption.”2 The laity, in particular, because of their unique “secular” difference, are called to fulfill their own vocation to the apostolate “by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel.”3 If one makes the connection with the lay vocation found in Lumen Gentium (LG), the apostolate can be said to be fully actualized only when the whole of the laity’s life and the temporal affairs within which they are “tightly bound up” are repurposed for the glory of God.

The hierarchy, too, have their own calling to the apostolate, such as the Catholic Action movement of the pre-Conciliar era, but the Council Fathers were adamant that the laity, while also capable of participating in the apostolate of the hierarchy, are called by virtue of their baptism and confirmation to bring to bear their own lay apostolate. The laity, in other words, are not merely called to follow the marching orders of the hierarchy but, by virtue of their universal call to holiness and their secularity, are called, rather, to spread the Kingdom of God through the entirety of their lives and in all of their pursuits, especially in that which is considered “secular” and “worldly.”

Whereas the apostolate consists of the Church’s missionary service to the world with the aim of spreading the Kingdom of God, the ad extra work of the Christian faithful, ministry is the ad intra service of ministers to God’s chosen people for the sake of their sanctification and formation. This distinction is important for a number of reasons, the foremost of which is the uniquely catholic nature of the Gospel and salvation. A Church that only ministers to those who are already in the fold is not a missionary Church, and a Church that is not missionary is failing to heed the fundamental command of Christ’s “Great Commissioning” to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20).

There is more than merely a distinction, or even a relational unity, between ministry and the apostolate, though; there is an ordering that exists between the two when considered under the purview of the economy of salvation. As the opening line of AA reads, “The Church was founded for the purpose of spreading the kingdom of Christ throughout the earth” and “All activity of the Mystical Body directed to the attainment of this goal is called the apostolate.” The very founding of the Church — and, as an extension, the sustaining and nourishing of the Church realized in ministry — is for the sake of the apostolate, not the apostolate for ministry, and the apostolate is itself for the sake of enabling “all men to share in His [Christ’s] saving redemption, [so] that through them the whole world might enter into a relationship with Christ.” Taken together, this means that ministry exists for the sake of the apostolate, which itself exists for the realization of the redemption of all things in Christ. Ministry must always follow closely in the wake of the apostolate, nourishing, sustaining, and enabling it by tending to those who are brought into the fold through the witness and activity of the apostolate, but the former is directed to the latter and not vice versa.

Getting this relationship right has some significant consequences. For starters, recognizing that ministry is not an end in itself is the first step along the road to making talk about the apostolate a common practice in Church circles in the first place. Rather than proliferating the number and types of ministries available through parishes and dioceses, the Church should start a substantive conversation about how to best train the faithful for the apostolate, which AA outlines as the living of the Gospel, the proclamation of Christ and his Gospel with words, and the transformation of the temporal order by suffusing it with Christian values and virtues.4

A second important consequence is a better understanding and practice of ministry itself. A theology and practice of ministry that is solely, or even primarily, concerned with creating more ministers and ministries is a self-perpetuating system that fails to recognize that universal mission of the divine economy mentioned above. While there is certainly a crisis of priestly vocations throughout the majority of the local Churches in the United States, in terms of both numbers and integrity, ministry for the sake of ministry perpetuates an understanding of the Church that is insular and handicapped from the start. Even a Church that seeks the holiness of its members but lacks a vision of holiness that is meant to be a light to the world and turned outward in mission is an understanding of sanctification that is too individualistic and narrow.

So, how does one do ministry for the sake of the apostolate rather than ministry for its own sake? This is a question that requires the attention and prayerful contemplation and study of not only the clergy but also of the entire People of God. But, that being said, I think that a path forward is to focus on the reality of each person’s personal vocation.

A vocation in the classic Christian sense refers to a calling from God, usually to a particular state of life, wherein one makes a vow or promise to God to live in a marital union or as a cleric or a religiously professed member of a community. To speak of a personal vocation is not to ignore or discount this stricter use of the term “vocation” but, rather, to broaden the scope of a divine calling to include the unique form of Christian existence stemming from one’s baptism in Christ and the concrete conditions of one’s day to day life. A personal vocation includes one’s calling (or lack thereof) to an official state or way of life, but always within the more extensive calling by God to love, serve, and glorify him in the many particularities of one’s ordinary life.

When ministry is focused on helping the lay faithful to recognize the reality and urgency of their personal vocation, the enclosed circle of forming others so that they may then become ministers, who themselves minister so as to make more ministers, is broken. This is because enlivening the laity to live their personal vocation entails helping them to seek to glorify God in the minutiae of everyday life. It means assisting the lay faithful to find the ever-present call of God, not only to make holy the entirety of their personal, “private” life, but also to allow the Kingdom of God to break through into their many relationships and responsibilities that are inevitably and tightly wound up with the temporal order — family life, work-related responsibilities, leisure activities, community service, educational venues, one’s network of friendships, and the list goes on and on.

All of these things make up the substance of the purview of the things that fall under the lay apostolate, the making holy and proclaiming in both words and deeds the Kingdom of God that is destined to refashion the entire created order. To “do” ministry with a special focus on the personal vocation of each and every person allows for the reconfiguration of ministry for the sake of the apostolate, which then also allows for an authentic discernment of a given person’s extra-ordinary call to ministry.

It is often said that, when one looks at the history of the Church and her ecumenical councils, it often takes at least fifty years for a council’s teachings to really begin to be “received” and actualized. In the past fifty years, not much has been made of the lay apostolate, at least not in the local Churches of the United States. There is hope that moving forward there can begin to be a real conversation about not only lay ministry but also the lay apostolate. There need not be a competition between the two. If anything, a reawakening of the importance of the lay apostolate might actually serve to be a healthy corrective to an oftentimes singular focus on ministry, thereby allowing ministry to be what it is really meant for in the first place, which is the gradual emergence of the Kingdom of God more and more fully until Christ’s Second Coming at the end of this creation’s time.

  1. Cf. Lumen Gentium, §30, speaking of the laity’s pastors: “On the contrary, they understand that it is their noble duty to shepherd the faithful and to recognize their ministries and charisms, so that all according to their proper roles may cooperate in this common undertaking with one mind.”
  2. Apostolicam Actuositatem, §2.
  3. AA, §2.
  4. AA, §5-6.
Jordan Haddad About Jordan Haddad

Jordan Haddad, Ph.D. (cand.), is the Director of Lay Ministry Programs and Lay Formation, as well as an Associate Professor of Dogmatic Theology, at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, LA. He has published essays in New Blackfriars and the Church Life Journal and has an essay in a forthcoming faith-science collected volume through CUA Press.

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