The Catholic laity, or us laypeople, are most often and most easily defined in negative terms, by what we are not. We are not ordained priests or bishops; neither are we sisters or brothers or nuns or monks. We are just the regular people, the folks in the pews, the ordinary churchgoers expected to “pray, pay and obey,” as one little rhyme goes, or the ones who are “hatched, matched and dispatched” by the clergy members, to quote another. In positive terms, however, we are the people of God. We are the essential majority of the church.
Laypeople perform many non-sacramental duties for the church. We are teachers and theologians, lay ministers and group leaders, janitors and groundskeepers, cantors and lectors. Sometimes we are paid; more often we are volunteers. We are called to live our faith and evangelize the world just as much as the ordained are. We laypeople may actually have a better understanding of the world because we live in it. In addition to following Jesus, we have families and marriages and jobs and obligations that occupy the bulk of our time. We mostly can’t leave the world behind and go off somewhere special to be holy. We have to be holy in the midst of the world.
I have heard it opined that maybe the current shortage of Catholic priests is the Holy Spirit’s way of empowering the laity. That’s heavy. And heady. We are not used to having any power. We rarely think of ourselves as sacred vessels: Precious few married people have ever been canonized as saints. We are used to being referred to as sheep. This initial designation comes straight from Jesus — “I am the good shepherd … My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:14,27) — and we understand the spiritual implications of being members of the flock. But the metaphor only goes so far: We are not actually sheep. While each of us is a child of God, we are adult humans. Each of us possesses an intellect and a conscience, a heart and a soul, gifts we are supposed to use to bring about the kingdom of God on earth.
Being a Catholic layperson is not so easy these days. In the midst of the crisis of the sexual abuse of children by clergy and subsequent cover-ups — although the immediacy of the word "crisis" may not aptly describe a situation that has prolonged itself for decades — we laypeople are still called by God to be the face of Jesus to a broken world, and to see the face of Jesus in everyone, even in the abusers among us. We stay Catholic even when there are sound reasons to pack up our faith and leave, because that’s who we are. We are challenged and sometimes stretched to the breaking point to remain in the church, to be church for each other, and to carry out the mission of the church. That’s our calling: to love and keep loving this world of ours.
There is a disconnect between us laypeople and the clergy, and I wish I knew how to bridge it. During a workshop I attended recently, a couple of priests were speculating on the reason for the current decline in reports of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. They put forward various sociological reasons, and I suddenly realized that they really didn’t get the obvious reason. I wanted to stand up and shout, “Hello? It’s because of us: the parents!” We no longer trust that the time our children might spend with the parish priest is innocent. We keep a sharp eye on our kids during every educational or extracurricular activity they are involved in, even — or especially — church activities. We don’t necessarily suspect all adult authorities over our children of having bad intentions, but we are always on alert. We hear the stories. We read the papers. We especially scrutinize anyone wearing a priestly collar. I submit that the decline in sexual abuse cases is likely due to a lack of opportunity. Perhaps those priests at the workshop missed this clear explanation because they are not parents.
I should have shouted all this, but I didn’t. I’m no theologian. I’m no expert. I can’t even be ordained. I’m just a laywoman.