The Gardener’s Tale of the Struggle Against Oligarchy in the Catholic Church

An ambitious Lay Society wants to arrest all muddled thinking as to where really is the Sacred Power in the Church

 A Grand Reunion of the biggest missionary congregation in the Philippines is set for Saturday September 22. 

“Societas Verbi Divini”(Society of the Divine Word) or SVD is the name of the religious order whose Filipino missionaries have boosted the thousands of Divine Word Missionaries spanning the continents of the globe.

The significance of the forthcoming reunion is that it will be one of both SVDs and ex-SVDs or XVDs. It is recognized that for every one who decided to become a full-fledged SVD there are probably twenty others who did not. 


More than a hundred years ago, St. Arnold Janssen started three missionary organizations – Divine Word priests and brothers, Holy Spirit sisters, and Perpetual Adoration nuns. According to his ninth successor, Father Superior General Antonio Pernia, St. Arnold wanted to form an organization of the laity but died before he could realize his plan.

In any case, the existence, adventures, sufferings and accomplishments of those who followed St. Arnold are quite a story – for they are quite an inspired and a very inspiring group. Many of us joined them for a while but learned in time that we were meant for something else. 

What is that “something else”?

It turns out this “something else” is very important, indeed. It is the call to ride the crest of a historic wave of faith development, – a call to be a significant part of the modern rise of the laity in the Church.

We say “modern rise” because early history and tradition in the Christian church:

never excluded the laity from any major decision-making processes;

always upheld the right of the laity to proclaim the Good News and to witness for Christ on the strength of their baptism, without any need to be mandated by the hierarchy;

always took for granted as fine the participation of the laity in the power of governance. In the first millennium, ecumenical councils called by the Byzantine emperors and empresses were surely acts of jurisdiction by laymen and laywomen.

There were councils where the majority of participants were “not in orders” and therefore were truly “lay votes.”

There were times – centuries – where not only abbots but also abbesses (yes, women) exercised “quasi-Episcopal jurisdiction” in governing “quasi-dioceses” – except in dispensing the sacraments for which ordination was necessary. Such lay “prelates ” had the “power of jurisdiction” with the full and direct support of the Holy See (that is, the Vatican) well into the nineteenth century. [Vide Ladislas Orsy, America174, 1996]

But, of course, down the arches of the years, what went on in the larger human society also got reflected in the ecclesial human arrangement.

Oligarchy: the few and the many

The many (99.96%) who humanly composed the majority of a divine institution were increasingly dis-empowered, and the few (0.04%) who were publicly committed to serve could lord it over the many, for the most pious of reasons.

Reflecting centuries-old bias, the first Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1917 stated in Canon 118: “Only clerics can [possunt, are able] obtain [obtinere, to receive and to possess] the power of orders and of jurisdiction.” 

And Canon 274,1 added: “Only clerics can obtain offices for whose exercise the power of orders or the power of ecclesiastical governance is required.” 

In the decades leading to and following Vatican II the Holy Spirit got rather busy, moving many lay movements to enable many lay people to take it upon themselves to evangelize culture and transform society – or in any case to struggle for social justice, peace, prosperity and the integrity of creation. 

As a result, “breathing where the Spirit willed,” lay societies began replacing the religious congregations in the role of “special forces” of the modern Church. Is this true, then – that “the religious belong to the past, while the future belongs to the lay movements”?

With Vatican II, a Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) could say categorically:

The Sacred Power in the church is vested in the entire people of God through the all-pervading presence of the Spirit. It is present and operative in the ordained and non-ordained [who] unfailingly adhere to the faith, penetrate it more deeply through right judgment, and apply it in daily life” (cf. LG12).

But who is the laity?

And what is one body?

The English word “laity” or “lay” comes from the Greek “laos”, meaning “people”. Thus, “lay” or “laos” is everyone in the Church. 

Canon 203 Par.1 CIC [1983] states: “The Christian faithful [the Christ’s faithful] are those who, since they are incorporated into Christ through baptism, are constituted the People of God. For this reason, they participate in their own way in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ. They are called, each according to his or her particular condition, to exercise the mission which Christ entrusted to the Church to fulfill in the world.” 

In this doctrine each one has a specific contribution to make to the community, a particular function to perform, and different gifts given by the Spirit for the purpose of building up the community – the people of the Triune God.

Incorporation into Christ is more than registering a corporation with the SEC where persons contribute money or material goods for the functioning of a fictitious juridical personality.

No, here as referred to by the Code, it is people themselves who become constituent and integrating parts of a real mystical body (Christ). It is a singular and profound incorporation: persons themselves are intimately bound and made one.

The Greeks called this koinonia while the Latins called it communio. 

Unlike the SEC incorporation, here material wealth or poverty is essentially irrelevant as are languages, races and cultures.

This koinonia or communio is an ontological reality, not a hypothesis, not an opinion: the descent of the Spirit proclaimed it, the parable of the vine and the branches illustrates it, the doctrine of divinization (in the East) asserts it, the literature of the indwelling Spirit (in the West) supports it – it is the same ontological pattern: mysteriously (mystically) one Person (Christ) in the billions of persons baptized into and following Him. 

Consequently there is need of each one to build a people society, a lay society, a living society that can gather together in many strong vibrant groups the many charisms or gifts of so many who must be recognized in their different functions and endeavours, while always maintaining true unity in the one Spirit that enlivens and strengthens all. 

Pope John XXIII saw this need for a new order and for a far-reaching reform that he called aggiornamento – “updating” – which was really a return to older traditions and to origins.

Back to start

Around the year AD52 St. Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians and addressed it not to any leader but “to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” (1Cor.1: 2) – not to one or a few but to all.  He went on to enumerate the various gifts of the Spirit manifested in the communio. He told them to put order to their meetings but equally emphasized that they should not extinguish the Spirit.

Hardly a century after Paul, a scholar from Alexandria in Egypt, Clemens Alexandrinus, said: “It is God Himself who has brought our race to a koinonia by sharing Himself, first of all, and by sending His Word (Logos) to all alike, and by making all things for all.”

So, the early philosopher Clement talked of – Creation: “sharing Himself”; New Creation – “sending His Logos”; and Continuing Creation – “making all things for all”.

Thus, the Council called together b y John XXIII moved away from identifying the essence of the Church with its hierarchical element. It chose to underline, instead, the original unity that exists among the members of the one Body ( of Christ).

The chosen people of God is one: ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’”(LG 32). Members of the Church “share a common dignity from their rebirth in Christ” (LG 32) so that the laity can no longer think of themselves as a separate and subordinate rank in the Church. Rather, the laity should be more and more aware that to be laity is to be Church.

Secondly, diversity of service:  they should now also be quite conscious that the categories of “lay” and “cleric” no longer refer to different classeswithin the Church but to different functions where there is unity of purpose in diversity of service (cf Vatican II Decree “Apostolicam Actuositatem” 2).

There is one and the same call to holiness, one and the same vocation to discipleship or the following of Jesus, as we all ought also to be one in sharing the three-fold functions of Christ as priest, prophet and king.[cf. Yves Congar, Mon Journal du Conseile, Paris, Cerf,2002]

Today’s lay society: faith transforming life

The past few years, ex-SVDs who met together in fellowship rather frequently decided to formally organize the Lay Society of St. Arnold Janssen (LSSAJ). Their focused trajectory is to nourish and spread a faith-vision that seeks to transform life.

Centuries ago, Christians talked of faith seeking understanding. Now LSSAJ would affirm a faith seeking action, mindful of the parable of the Good Samaritan and the cinemascopic presentation of Judgment Day.

LSSAJ proclaims that its faith must be one that seeks to transform life or it is no faith at all; it is one that seeks good works, or it is dead at start. LSSAJ would be a communio, a koinonia or a society alive.

Living in a world where faith in God and the daily conduct of secular life have unfortunately become de-linked, LSSAJ proclaims its mission now to promote the full integration of faith with secular behavior and build a living people and a society where responsible citizenship is the norm, good governance prevails, poverty is eradicated, and the environment is protected  — where not mere words but actions proclaim the faith.

From all over they will come on September 22 – to Christ the King Mission Seminary. It is a gathering well worth savoring for many blue moons yet. FINIS.

Charles Avila – The Gardener

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