In a 2009 address to the clergy of the Diocese of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the mission of the laity in our times by introducing a new term into the Church’s parlance: co-responsibility. The term has both ecclesiological and pastoral significance, reflecting Benedict’s understanding of the Church’s identity and mission as expressed by the Second Vatican Council. While the concept of co-responsibility has been implicit in magisterial teaching as far back as Pope Pius XII, Benedict did a great service to the Church by giving this concept a name. In his address, he said:
[I]t is necessary to improve pastoral structures in such a way that the co-responsibility of all the members of the People of God in their entirety is gradually promoted, with respect for vocations and for the respective roles of the consecrated and of lay people. This demands a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as “collaborators” of the clergy but truly recognized as “co-responsible” for the Church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity.1
This short statement has been a rich source of theological reflection over the last few years, especially in the United States. When co-responsibility is a reality, the laity are not merely passive recipients of the ministry of the ordained. Neither are they only collaborators in ecclesial affairs. Instead, lay people have an identity and role that is unique in the Church’s very being and acting in the world. The ordained, empowered as they are through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, represent Christ by teaching, sanctifying, and governing. The laity are empowered through the Sacrament of Baptism to represent Christ in the world and spread the Gospel to every corner of society.
These missions are not at odds with one another; rather, they complement and complete each other. The Church tells us, “The ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians.”2 While the primary responsibility for doing so belongs to each person, the vocation of the priest is to assist in the “unfolding” of these graces. When a lay person bears fruit in the world,3 it is proof that the ministerial priesthood is accomplishing its goal.
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