|Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman|
You see, one of the persistent errors existing prior to the Second Vatican Council (and existing under a slightly different form today) was a sort of clericalism that treated religion as the sole province of priests and “religious,” while the laity were, at best, part-time Catholics. The view is best epitomized by a remark by Msgr. George Talbot, criticizing Blessed John Henry Newman for over-involving the laity:
What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain? These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all, and this affair of Newman is a matter purely ecclesiastical…. Dr. Newman is the most dangerous man in England, and you will see that he will make use of the laity against your Grace.In this view, “the Church” consisted of priests, male and female religious, and no ordinary laypeople. As a result, worship was too often conceived of as what’s done on the altar (and perhaps in the choir), not in the pews.
I. The Saints Against Clergy-Only Ecclesiology
The Saints fought against this bad ecclesiology for centuries. Besides Newman, there’s St. Francis De Sales, whose Introduction to the Devout Life was written to a laywoman who struggled to live out a life of sanctity, while remaining in the world. In the third chapter of the book, Francis reminds her that “Devotion is suitable to every Vocation and Profession.” At the end of the nineteenth century, St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s “Little Way” inspired scores of Catholic laypeople to live out the faith in small, daily acts. Five years after her death, St. Josemaria Escrivá was born. In 1928, he founded Opus Dei, in order “to announce the universal call to holiness and to point out that daily life and ordinary activities are a path to holiness.”
The universal call to holiness is a simple, radical notion: all of us are called to be Saints, whether or not we’re called to the priesthood. Religion isn’t just done in the convent, or on the altar. It’s done in the pews, and even more radically, it’s done in the supermarket, and in the home, and in the office. In 1947, Ven. Pope Pius XII approved and endorsed secular institutes in Provida Mater Ecclesia. These “secular institutes” are institutes “of consecrated life in which the Christian faithful living in the world strive for the perfection of charity and work for the sanctification of the world especially from within.”
II. Vatican II on the Role of the Laity
The Second Vatican Council continued this focus on the universal call to holiness. Lumen Gentium declares that the universal call to holiness is not dependent upon ordination, since “in the Church, everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness.” The Council made two important points:
- The Church, and the economy of salvation, includes an important role for the laity. In other words, the laity are not just the recipients of the Catholic faith, but are called to share it and participate in it themselves.
- The mission of the laity is distinct from the mission of the clergy. In His plan for the salvation of the world, Christ established different roles, and the role of the laity is necessarily different from that of the priests. While the hierarchy are tasked in a special way with caring for the lay faithful, the laity are equipped (by virtue of their secular state of life) to evangelize the world through their daily lives.
|Metropolitan Community Church communion service|
A year earlier, Sacrosanctum Concilium made the same point in the context of the liturgy: the laity are called to “full and active participation,” meaning participation “by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes.” But the form of that participation differs, based on an individual’s vocation:
Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the "sacrament of unity," namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops 
Therefore liturgical services pertain to the whole body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their differing rank, office, and actual participation.
In the intervening fifty years, several people have claimed to represent the “spirit of Vatican II” by encouraging the blurring of the differing ranks and offices within the Church, or by pushing for the ordination of women priests, or by cramming as many laypeople as possible into the sanctuary. In fact, these people are perpetuating the exact mindset that Vatican II was trying to eliminate: the notion that only the priest (or at least, someone mulling about the sanctuary) fully participates in the Mass. Put simply, Vatican II was calling the laity to be more Catholic as laity, not to be ordained priests.
III. One Way for the Lay Faithful to Participate in the Mass
So if that’s not what Vatican II meant by “full and active participation” or the universal call to holiness, what did they mean? It’s important to emphasize that the laity aren’t called to be ordained priests, because they are called to participate in the priestly office of Jesus Christ, but in a unique way. The Second Vatican Council explained all of this in Lumen Gentium:
The Widow’s Mite, Ottobeuren AbbeyThe supreme and eternal Priest, Christ Jesus, since he wills to continue his witness and service also through the laity, vivifies them in this Spirit and increasingly urges them on to every good and perfect work.
We see the same two themes: the laity have a role in the economy of salvation, but it’s different role from the one played by ordained priests.For besides intimately linking them to His life and His mission, He also gives them a sharing in His priestly function of offering spiritual worship for the glory of God and the salvation of men. For this reason the laity, dedicated to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and wonderfully prepared so that ever more abundant fruits of the Spirit may be produced in them. For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become "spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ". (1 Peter 2:5) Together with the offering of the Lord's body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God.
We see the unique sacrifice of the laity in a few places in the Mass, but the central place is during the Offertory. As the General Instruction on the Roman Missal explains:
The offerings are then brought forward. It is a praiseworthy practice for the bread and wine to be presented by the faithful. They are then accepted at an appropriate place by the Priest or the Deacon to be carried to the altar. Even though the faithful no longer bring from their own possessions the bread and wine intended for the liturgy as was once the case, nevertheless the rite of carrying up the offerings still keeps its spiritual efficacy and significance.
Even money or other gifts for the poor or for the Church, brought by the faithful or collected in the church, are acceptable; given their purpose, they are to be put in a suitable place away from the Eucharistic table.
If they’ve been following the instructions of Lumen Gentium, the Catholic lay faithful have been offering up their daily work, and carrying out their daily tasks in the Spirit. Now, it is time to turn the fruits of that work over to God, in two forms: by tithing (giving God’s money back to Him), and by symbolically bringing forward the bread and wine (to represent the fruits of their labors). The priest then acknowledges this, by praying:
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you: fruit of the vine and work of human hands it will become our spiritual drink.This is a two-fold acknowledgement: it recognizes the bread and wine as coming from the laity, but it also recognizes that their ultimate origin is from God Himself. So we are giving back to God what He has given us, through the lay faithful.
So instead of viewing the Offertory as a break in the liturgical action, understand it for what it is: the first of the two Sacrifices offered in the Mass. The laity consecrates the work of their lives to God, symbolized in the bread and wine. The priest then consecrates the bread and wine, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, it becomes Jesus Christ. Christ, along with our “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15; EP 1).