Mr. Henry Paul Nelson






I am most grateful to the Holy Father for appointing me Auditor in this Special Assembly for Africa and for being asked to address this body.




I have been asked to speak on “The Laity and its Formation”. I begin with a statement from the Second Vatican Council:

“The laity in fact cannot assume their vocation and mission unless they receive a training at once many‑sided and complete”(AA,, 28).

The Seventh General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops held in October 1987 on “The Vocation and Mission of the Laity” clearly affirmed “the formation of the lay faithful must be placed among the priorities of a diocese. It ought to be so placed within the plan of pastoral action that efforts of the whole community, clergy, lay faithful and religious converge on this goal”.

Furthermore, the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has many a time strongly emphasised that “the question of the laity is of vital importance for the future of the human race, for it is clear that the spread and the taking root of God’s Kingdom on earth and hence actual progress of evangelisation in the world will depend on a laity that is authentically and deeply formed in accordance with the Gospel Message.


3.         THE LAITY


The Church was founded by Christ to spread his Kingdom over the whole world for the glory of God the Father, so that all may be saved. Through baptism all the People of God are made one body with Christ, all are equal in dignity and all are obliged to work to spread the Kingdom.

With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation, all the baptised share in the same mission of Jesus Christ. Although some are ordained to the priestly ministry and share in a special way in the power of Christ’s priesthood, the lay faithful are not called to a lesser degree of mission than the clergy and religious. Together with the ordained ministers and religious, the lay faithful share the responsibility of Christ’s mission.

In proclaiming the lay state to be equally vocation and mission, both in the Church and in the world, the Second Vatican Council recognised the laity’s special and indispensable role in the mission of the Church as follows:

“Indeed, the Church can never be without the lay apostolate; it is something that derives from the lay man’s very vocation as a Christian” (AA, 1)

The mission of the Church is not only to bring the Good News to all humanity, but also to permeate and improve the whole range of the temporal order. As lay faithful we live in the world where we are engaged in every work and business of the earth in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life. It is here that we are called by God, that being led by the Spirit to the gospel, we may contribute to the sanctification of the world, by first fulfilling our own peculiar duties and by the witness of our life in faith, hope and love, thus manifesting Christ to others.

Christifideles laici, the most important papal document on the laity since the Second Vatican Council, portrays the lay faithful as those who form part of the People of God, who are labourers in the Lord’s vineyard (Mt. 20:1‑2). It is the Lord himself who calls each of us personally and by name and sends all the lay faithful into his vineyard: “you go into my vineyard too”, to come closer to him every day and associate with him in his saving mission.

The call is urgent and mandatory. This means no one is to remain idle, for in the Lord’s vineyard there is no unemployment since the task is great. The lay faithful, guided by the Holy Spirit, are to respond positively and generously to the call of Christ the Lord to take an active, conscientious and responsible part in the mission of the Church.

To be able to discover the actual will of God who calls and to respond positively and generously to his call, the lay faithful need to be formed in:

-        listening to the Word of God and the Church

-        fervent and constant prayer

-        recourse to wise and loving spiritual life

-        faithful discernment of the gifts and talents given by God

-        diverse social and historic situations in which we live.




In the Christian context, formation is the process by which someone is made a disciple of Christ, that is, a continual process, in the individual, of maturation in faith and likeness to Christ, according to the will of the Father, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It entails a gradual and continual process of conversion that happens day by day throughout one’s life.

The fundamental objective of formation is to enable each of the lay faithful to discover his or her vocation and the willingness to live it, so as to fulfil one’s mission. Formation must also enable the lay faithful to develop a sincere and concrete love for the Church both at local and universal levels. It must also lead the lay faithful to appreciate the union which exists between our being members of the Church and citizens of the human society while striving to perform our earthly duties faithfully in response to the spirit of the gospel. In the words of the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II,

“a faith that does not affect a person’s culture is a faith not fully embraced, not entirely thought out, not fully lived”.




Although much has been achieved since the Second Vatican Council in the training and formation of the laity, as the Church in Africa embarks upon the important and urgent task of intensifying its evangelising efforts on the continent, it is absolutely necessary to review present formation programmes with a view to introducing new approaches and strategies for the formation of the laity.

We need a more thorough and integrated programme, fully human, profoundly Christian, authentically Catholic and resolutely Apostolic, to form lay men and women imbued with Catholic faith and spirituality, the teachings of Christ and the social teachings of the Church, men and women who will bring the gospel message to others by word and by deed. The intention is not just to form knowledgeable men and women, but to form lay people with big Christian vision, who can think, talk and stand for things Catholic and simultaneously involve in their life, growth in Christ, communion with the Church and their involvement in the world.

The major objective of any formation programme for the laity of Africa should also aim at promoting the commitment of the laity not only for the growth of the Church, but also for the integral development of the continent and of the whole African person, taking into account the material needs as well as the requirements of intellectual, moral, spiritual and religious life. To form lay men and women who can play an active role in meeting the critical problems and challenges which face the continent, to help shape the future of their respective countries and to contribute to their development; to seek build a society where the dignity of each person is respected and where equality, justice, freedom and peace are protected and promoted.

The basic concern here is to bring our faith back into our surroundings of real life and the problems they raise, through education and formation so that we can become the first and immediate apostles of Christ in denouncing violations of human dignity and fundamental human rights, the killing of unborn children, the use of artificial methods of birth control, degradation of the family, the environment, culture and other social evils.




It is absolutely essential to establish appropriate and effective machinery and institutions for planning, implementing and coordinating training and formation programmes within each country. As a matter of urgency, it is necessary that each country should have a National Laity Formation Centre with well defined goals and integrated programmes for ongoing training and formation of lay leaders and formators. Such Centres may offer courses including Scripture, Doctrine, Social Teachings of the Church, Lay Spirituality, Family Apostolate, Social Science and Culture.

The parish is a very important place for formation. It is here that the parish Laity Councils can be more effective in drawing up ongoing formation programmes and coordinate the formation activities of the various lay movements, offering help where there is need for assistance.

It is also at the parish level that Small Christian Communities, still not well known in some countries in Africa, can be instruments of formation of the laity.

Catholic newspapers, magazines, radio and other means of mass media can play effective and useful role in the formation of the laity and every effort should be made to develop these where they do not already exist.




While formation must be made accessible to all sectors of the lay faithful, there are certain groups which deserve priority attention.

(a)       Individuals

Any programme of formation should first aim at the individual, who must be exposed to an ongoing programme throughout his whole life.

(b)       Women and the Family

“Educate a man and you educate an individual, but educate a woman and you educate a nation”. So says Aggrey of Africa. Women play a very important role in the family and society. There is therefore the need for a thorough Christian formation of African women in general and of the family which is the basic cell of society. The family is the first place of education and the training ground for every child, and mothers are their first teachers. Formation of both parents is the basis for Christian education for children who are the future leaders of the Church and the State.

The year 1994 is the International Year of the Family to emphasise the importance of the role of the family as the foundation for society. There is an urgent need to give considerable attention to the family in crisis in the world today, where there are many broken homes and families, strained relationships in marriages, lack of parental care and proper upbringing. All these situations in our families have resulted in many of the social problems we face to‑day such as child abuse and neglect, malnutrition; truancy among children, street children, teenage pregnancy, rape, drug abuse, abortion, neglect of the sick, disabled and the aged. There is therefore a priority need to ensure that would‑be married couples are well prepared for marriage and receive ongoing formation in their married life. Thank God there are very many families which have remained stable, though not without storms, for the family which has Christ at its centre will stay together.

(c)       Youth

The youth constitute the hope and future, of the Church and the State. The youth are a dynamic force in the Church and in society and this force and dynamism in them must be harnessed, through appropriate and effective ongoing formation for the evangelisation of Africa. The parish community should budget and provide for the formation of the youth, who should be well integrated into the parish community to develop a sense of belonging necessary for exercising their apostolate.

(d)       People in positions of responsibility in society

Much of the aspirations of the Church in Africa can be realised when people in positions of responsibility witness Christ faithfully and sincerely. Many of the ills in African society can be tackled and minimised with hope, if people in responsible positions follow Christ and live according to his teaching. It is in this spirit that we look forward with very keen interest and enthusiasm in receiving the Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church, which will serve as an important document for the formation of the laity.


8.         CONCLUSION


In conclusion, as lay people Christ is calling us to build the Kingdom of God. He is calling us into his vineyard, especially at this time in the history of Africa. The call is urgent and mandatory. We cannot do this on our own. We need God’s grace which he gives to everyone to do the work allotted to each of us. I have experienced this in my own apostolate. Thanks and praise be to him!”


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