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Marist Bulletin - Number 295


A clearer identity for Marist laity - Seán D. Sammon, Superior General

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The phrase “lay partner” is a new one in our Marist vocabulary but the reality of lay partnership is something that has been with us from the time of Father Champagnat. Unfortunately, it has taken us all quite a while to recognize the phenomenon. But then again it has taken our Church an equally long time to give a name to the practice of men and women from religious life, married life, and the single life working and praying together united by a common dream and charism.
But before I go any further, a story. Edward Sorin was a priest and a member of Holy Cross Congregation. He was also the founder of a university in the United States known as Notre Dame. The school, known today especially for its football team, came into existence due only to the persistence, hard work, and physical labor of Sorin and the group of his brothers who emigrated from France with this dream in mind: building a great university in honor of the Blessed Mother. They accomplished their task quickly and the school began to flourish.
On the morning of April 23rd, 1879, however, a devastating fire broke out. Within a short period the university’s main building had burned to the ground. To many that day it seemed as if the flames had consumed not only the physical plant but the dream of Sorin and his confreres as well.
Not so. After surveying the ruins and sensing the devastation felt by the entire school community, the now 65 year old priest asked everyone to enter the Church where he addressed them. “I came here as a young man,” he said, “with the dream of building a great university in honor of Our Lady. But I built it too small, and she had to burn it to the ground to make the point. So, tomorrow, as soon as the bricks cool, we will rebuild it, bigger and better than ever.”
Could anyone but the Holy Spirit be responsible for words such as these, and for the events that followed? Three hundred workers joined Sorin the following morning and working sixteen hours a day had the building reconstructed in time for the opening of the next school term.
If the Holy Spirit was at work on the campus of Notre Dame University in the spring of 1879, surely that very same Spirit of God had a hand in the changes that came about due to Vatican II

Where were laymen and women prior to Vatican II?
From the early Middle Ages until Vatican II, most Catholics accepted unchallenged a three-tiered, or pyramid-like, hierarchical ranking of the clerical, religious, and lay states within the Church. Many of us over age 50, for example, can remember being taught that priesthood was the “highest calling” in terms of a vocation. Consecrated life came second. Conventional wisdom held that only vowed members of religious orders could achieve spiritual perfection. The lay state, unfortunately, ranked a distant third. Many lay men and women, not called to priesthood or religious life, felt like second class citizens in their own Church.
Vatican II turned this three-tiered model right on its head. “Consecrated life,” the Council Fathers declared, “from the point of view of the divine and hierarchical nature of the Church, [was no longer] to be seen as a middle way between clerical and lay states of life. Rather it [was to] be seen as a way of life to which some Christians are called by God, both from the clergy and the laity.”
In retrospect, we realize that those who participated in Vatican II faced forthrightly the necessary and urgent task of redefining the rightful place of lay men and women within our Church community. They were, however, less successful in their attempts to redefine clearly the nature and purpose of our way of life. Perfectae Caritatis – the document dealing with religious life, having come to life in a difficult and complex way, fell far short of advancing for men and women religious the type of theological thinking that the document Lumen Gentium had done for laity.
More recently, in Vita Consecrata John Paul II observed that each of the fundamental states of life within our Church expresses one or another aspect of the mystery of Christ. Lay men and women, for example, take on responsibility for the mission of insuring that the gospel message is proclaimed in the temporal sphere.
Religious life, on the other hand, which is meant to mirror Christ’s own way of life, has, in the Pope’s words, responsibility for showing forth the holiness of the People of God. It is meant to proclaim and, in a way, anticipate a future age when the reign of God will be achieved. It is a more complete expression of the Church’s purpose: the sanctification of humanity. As mentioned just above, the Council Fathers identified but two states of life within the structure of the Church: clerical and lay. Vita Consecrata, even with its flaws, reminded us all that within the Church’s experience, there are three: the lay, clerical, and religious. With those words, consecrated life began to find a place in our Church and the means to begin re-imagining itself for the new millennium.

A defining moment
Vatican II, then, was a defining moment for Roman Catholic laity as well as for those of us in religious life. The proclamation of a universal call to holiness that rang forth from that gathering was addressed to both groups. Here at last was an unambiguous statement that all Christians are baptized into mission: the mission of proclaiming God’s Kingdom and its immanence. As a result of decisions made during the Council, laymen and women moved from the position of helper to that of full partner in mission.

Marist laity
The late Pope John Paul II held the conviction that the Church of this era would eventually become known as that of the laity. Assuming that he was correct, we do well to ask ourselves how we as brothers and laity working together can best help realize the mission of laymen and women in our Church and world today.
Marist partnership is but one answer to this question. Recognized more fully during the years since Vatican II, its foundation lies in the common mission and prophetic call that we all share as a result of the sacrament of baptism. Partnership, however, runs much deeper than participating in a common work; it is about the sharing of faith and a common set of values, being in love with Jesus Christ, and the collective experience of having Marcellin Champagnat capture our heart and seize our imagination.
Furthermore, partnership with those who share our apostolic life is a characteristic of Marist identity, witnessing to the fact that our Church is capable of an ecclesiology of communion. Today that witness is more important than ever.
All too often in the past, Church actions have betrayed an ecclesiology based on power and position—an outcome antithetical to Gospel principles. As men and women who share a common charism, through our life and work together we are called to bear witness to the fact that it can and must be otherwise.
Few should be surprised by the point of view just expressed. As mentioned earlier, among the many gifts of Vatican II was this realization: the founder’s charism belongs to the Church and not just to his Little Brothers. Consequently, today many laymen and women challenge the notion that that charism is a treasure belonging to the brothers alone. Each and every Marist lay partner, they point out, also has his or her own life story to tell, has made his or her own journey of faith, and has his or her own unique experience of the founder and his spirituality.
If we were to listen to those stories, hear these tales of faith, and come to appreciate more fully the many experiences of Marcellin and his spirituality that exist all around us we would be better able to share what we hold in common and respect the differences that exist between the identity of one of Marcellin’s Little Brothers and that of a Marist layman or woman.

Some among us are uncomfortable with any talk about distinctions and express concern that the word “difference” may come to mean more than it implies, that it will beg a comparison. They hold this point of view not only when referring to those or are or are not Marist partners but also when it comes to the difference between the vocation of a layman or woman and that of a brother.
To deny differences where they exist, however, robs us all of the unique and complementary nature of both the brother’s vocation and that of the Marist layman or woman, and undermines our ability to arrive at a clear understanding about the identity of each.
Differences are evident in the Church at large. For example, the Spirit of God provides a variety of vocations, charisms, and apostolates. Differentiation of roles is in keeping with an organic model of the Church. Saint Paul put it this way: “The body consists not of one member but of several.”
Diversity also exists within religious life. Yet no one suggests that institutes whose members are involved in teaching are better than those for whom their apostolate is healthcare. The same holds true when referring to religious institutes that are ancient or modern in origin, mendicant, monastic, apostolic, clerical, lay, or mixed.
In discussing the similarities and differences that exist between those of us who are Marcellin’s brothers and our lay partners, we need to welcome not only all that we share in common but the ways in which we differ as well.

To foster lay partnership today we need to be brothers to one another and to our partners in mission. And that means listening to and learning from one another, sharing our spiritual and apostolic inheritance and fostering an attitude of cooperation.
Consequently, when we use the term “our” apostolates, we are describing a partnership between Marcellin’s brothers and Marist laity. The time has come to move beyond simply inviting lay people to join us in these works to seeing them as co-responsible for them.
Over the past few years and in a number of provinces some laywomen and men have taken on roles of leadership within these works. Those of us who are brothers have been called upon to support them through Marist formation, the witness of our religious lives, and the promotion of Marist apostolic values. As we help the laity live more fully their call in life, we will come to understand ever more clearly the grace of our own vocation as brothers.

Future planning
Increasingly, our colleagues, alumni of our schools and other works, those who were vowed members of the Institute for a time as well as their families, the men and women who make up the Champagnat Movement of the Marist Family, lay volunteers, our students, and others are rediscovering the spirituality of Marcellin Champagnat. The fact that so many continue to find that spirituality a source of inspiration testifies to its continuing vitality and power to animate our apostolates.
Today, however, we might go a step further by beginning to develop networks among those who carry out a Marist apostolate today. Whether they teach in an educational institution, run a literacy program for school drop-outs, work with children living in the street, teach catechism, or take part in one of the many other Marist sponsored apostolates, such a network would provide all involved with personal and spiritual support.
The shape and form of these Marist apostolic networks may vary from place to place. Arriving at the most workable model will require wide consultation, honest discussion, and careful decision making, but I am convinced that the existence of such a model will help us make a unique Marist contribution to the new evangelization of young people now getting underway.
So, let us be up and doing. I can imagine no better time in history to be alive and no more exciting time in our Church. We need to look at our world through the eyes of that simple country priest and Marist Father who is our founder. Where others looked for reasons why new ideas could not come to life; he, instead, dreamed dreams, and took the risks to bring those dreams to life.
May God continue to bless and keep each of you. And may Mary and Marcellin be our companions today and always.

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