Author: Jean Danielou


Jean Danielou

The problem of participation is one of the most fundamental of the present developing world situation. It is a response to the wish of a growing number of men and women who desire to play an active part in the institutions to which they belong rather than have their destiny decided by outside circumstances. In this respect, the pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes recognises 'a sign of the times': "Labourers and farmers seek not only to provide for the necessities of life but to develop the gifts of their personality by their labours, and indeed to take part in regulating economic, social, political, and cultural life." (n. 9, 2).

The character of this movement derives from the fact that it is not simply a case of all men wanting a more equitable share of material and cultural resources—although such a re-distribution is essential; it is rather a desire to take part in the reorganization of society and to share in its responsibilities. In documents of the Magisterium, the Church has often spoken strongly in favour of such participation, declaring it to be fully in conformity with human nature. In every order of being, the Christian vision sees things as an active cooperation in the creative and redemptive designs of God, not as a passive submission to an order forcibly imposed by external pressures. Only this kind of free co-operation befits the dignity of human persons and turns them into responsible subjects. This general law finds further application in various fields of social life. In expounding the above teaching, Gaudium et spes applies the principle also to industry: "The active participation of everyone in the running of an enterprise should be promoted in whatever way may be deemed most suitable." (n. 68, 2). The same is also true of the body politic: "Citizens should take an active part in public life; this is for them a right inherent in their dignity as human persons." (Pacem in terris, n. 73). The problem is particularly acute to-day in the University.

In any case it is clear that the kind of participation should take cognisance of the complex elements which go to make up a society. We could have a view of participation which would end up by denying the value of all organized structures and which would place society at the mercy of all kinds of dictatorial pressure groups. Participation, according to Gaudium et spes, has regard for hierarchy of function: "owners, directors, managers and workers" and should provide for "the necessary unity of operation." (n. 68, 1). We are dealing here with "organized participation." But this consists in the fact that all feel they have a share "in the attainment of the universal common good." (n. 68, 2). These principles also apply with equal force both to the body politic and to the University.

Co-responsibility with the clergy

The Church is also faced with this problem. It is the essence of the Church to be one body in which all the members play an active part. Such is the teaching of the Epistle to the Ephesians: "The whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love." (4, 16). In the body of Christ there are not active elements and passive elements. Christ, as head of the body and its vital, life-giving principle, is not content simply to impart life to members of His body; He associates them also with the communication of His own life. There is a hierarchy of functions, but each one acts according to his own measure of activity.

However, if this is the divine structure of the Church, it does not alter the fact that, whether on account of a certain dependence upon the society in which it exists or else on account of the burden it bears from the passivity of its members, the Church does not always show forth that active participation of all her members in the common task of building up the Body of Christ. In particular, the functions of authority, of teaching, and of sanctifying, which belong in a particular manner to the clergy, have tended to become exclusively concentrated in their hands. The Christian people was too often accustomed to entrust its ecclesial responsibilities to the clergy and to be satisfied with adopting a passive attitude.

It may be said that the great contemporary movement of participation has had profound repercussions throughout the Church. It has compelled the Christian multitude to realize that it shares co-responsibility with the clergy in promoting the common good of the ecclesial society. For its part, Vatican II, in extending the teachings of the Supreme Pontiffs from Pius XI and Pius XII down to John XXIII and Paul VI, has thrown into bold relief the active participation of all Christians in the growth of the People of God.

The clear fact is that we have here a noteworthy change in the customary practice of clergy and laity. It cannot be said that this kind of participation has already found everywhere concrete forms of expression. Many of the faithful have not yet escaped from their passivity. Others adopt a negative or neutral attitude which really does not amount to a sharing of responsibility. For their part, priests often find difficulties in getting rid of the paternalism they were used to and in accepting a genuine participation of the faithful in the organizing of communitarian life.

Participating rather than assisting

It is of interest to note the different sectors in which participation is taking place. First comes liturgy. It may be said that the progress effected in this sector since the Council is noteworthy. The faithful no longer simply assist at Mass; they participate in it. The use of' the vernacular, the simplification of the rites, the dialogue between the celebrant and the people—all these have changed the climate of the Eucharistic Liturgy. Furthermore, the laity have been promoted to take an active part in worship, assuming functions which were naturally reserved to the priest, or as a rule centralized around him, such as the reading of the Epistle, or in certain cases, the distribution of the Eucharist.

Likewise the question of participation by the laity in the doctrinal function of the Church is extremely important. In addition, it is to a very great extent traditional. The abandonment of theological studies by lay people has been marked down as one of the causes of the weakening of faith; to-day it is most encouraging to see so many of the laity taking an interest in this type of study. It is quite clear that catechetical instruction at all levels must in future be entrusted for the most part to the laity. It should further be added that questions arising from their secular education and from their life in the world provide the laity with an essential stimulus to pursue their studies in dogmatic and moral theology. Any progress in an understanding of the faith is something which affects the whole Church. The importance of this springs from the fact that dialogue between the Magisterium and theology highlights the specific values of each function.

Implies degree of maturity, competence

On the level of ecclesial organization, active participation of all members of the community shows its utility in the highest degree. Those who have to deal with financial administration, with territorial adjustments, with the liturgical calendar, with nominations to particular offices, see as self-evident the indispensable necessity of informing the general body of Christians about these dispositions because they have a direct interest in such matters. It is also essential that they should be consulted beforehand, at least by means of their qualified representatives. It would therefore seem to be the normal course of events that, in certain cases, they should participate in the councils where these decisions are taken; they would thus feel a greater sense of obligation with regard to them.

Because participation makes a greater appeal to the responsibility of all, it is thus in every way conformable to the dignity of man and to the nature of the Church. It is clear that its development implies a certain degree of maturity, a competence and a sense of responsibility; this means that it cannot be applied with equal force in all circumstances. It is also clear that it is dependent upon an organic concept of society, one which implies recognition of diversity of function. This should not be confused with another concept, that of "appropriation", to use the terminology of Henry Lefebvre. This latter rejects all authority as a deviation both in the realm of knowledge as in the sphere of organization. This concept, already debatable in regard to human society, is completely unacceptable with regard to the Church. In fact, Christ, who alone possesses an authority to teach and to govern which is of divine ordinance, has not granted to all Christians an indiscriminate participation in this authority but only a participation according to the hierarchy which he himself has freely established.

Every ministry a sharing

This is the authentic theology of participation which is expounded in Chapter III of Lumen Gentium: "The Lord Jesus sent the Apostles to all nations so that, sharing in his power, they might sanctify and govern them." (n. 19). Then "Christ has, through his Apostles, made their successors, the bishops, partakers of his consecration and his mission." (n. 28). In their turn "priests are partakers of the function of Christ, the sole Mediator, on the level of their ministry." (n. 28). Finally, "the lay apostolate is a participation in the saving mission of the Church itself." (n. 33).

Thus, at one and the same time, every ministry in the Church is nothing else but a sharing in the mission of the sole mediator. All without exception participate in this mission, and this participation is exercised according to the different grades which Christ himself has freely instituted.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
14 November 1968, page 10

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