"Witnesses of Christ in the new millennium". The Congress of the Catholic Laity

They came from every part of the world - the 550 representatives of the Catholic laity who participated in the Congress of the Catholic Laity held in the Domus Pacis in Rome from 25 to 30 November 2000. Organized by the Pontifical Council for the Laity on the theme: "Witnesses of Christ in the new millennium", the Congress was attended by the Council's own members and consultors, by the lay delegates of the Episcopal Conferences of over 90 countries and by the representatives of 114 Iay groups-international associations, organizations, ecclesial movements, new communities-which are a significant expression of the participation of the lay faithful in the life and mission of the Church and their Christian witness in the various fields of social, economic, political and cultural life. The participants also included cardinals, bishops, 'representatives of other offices of the Roman Curia, superiors of religious congregations, ecclesiastical assistants of international Catholic organizations and ecumenical observers.

The jubilee dimension of the Congress was emphasized by a programme punctuated with moments of prayer and liturgical celebrations. They culminated on Sunday, 26 November, solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe, when the Congress delegates joined with the pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Basilica to celebrate the Jubilee of the Apostolate of the Laity with the Holy Father.

In the course of the proceedings, as wished by John Paul II (cf. L'Osservatore Romano, I0 March 1999, p.5), the participants proceeded to review the journey made by the laity from the Second Vatican Council to the Great Jubilee of the Incarnation. They tried, at the same time, to identify the traces of the presence of God and capture the signs of the newness of life aroused by the Holy Spirit among the lay faithful of our time. On the first day, after the opening address by Cardinal James Francis Stafford, three keynote addresses, followed by complementary interventions, placed the theme of the Congress in its context: first, "Reflections on the 20th century and prospects for the future: challenges to Christian witness", given by Prof. Pedro Morandé of the Catholic University of Chile; second, "The mission of the Church at the dawn of the third millennium: disciples and witnesses of the Lord", given by Bishop Angelo Scola, Rector of the Pontifical Lateran University; and third, "The Second Vatican Council: a milestone in the development of the Catholic Laity", given by Bishop Stanisław Ryłko, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. On the three following days reflection focused on the essential dimensions in the life of the lay faithful: vocation, mission and formation, which were examined in three panel discussions preceded by three introductory reports: "The baptismal roots of the identity of the christifideles" by Bishop André-Mutien Léonard of Namur (Belgium); "Witnesses to the 'newness' of the Christian life" by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris (France); and "Toward human and Christian maturity", by Archbishop Robert Sarah of Conakry (Guinea). The fruitfulness of the journey of the lay faithful in the course of the last decades - wrote the Pope in the autograph message addressed to the congress delegates - can be detected in the "clearer awareness that [they] have acquired of their own dignity as baptized [...], of their own Christian vocation [...], and of their own membership of the Church". To this phase of maturation major contributions were made by Vatican Council II - and it is necessary to return continually to its teachings -, and by "various forms of group endeavour [that] in our time represent a significant means for deeper Christian formation and for a more incisive apostolic activity". But in the climate of widespread secularization that characterizes our societies-John Paul II added-all believers must feel themselves called to a renewed missionary endeavour. And the laity are called to proclaim Christ "by the witness of life and by word [...] in each circumstance and situation, in each social, cultural and political context", and to assume their own "share of responsibility also for the life of the ecclesial communities to which they belong [...]. No baptized can remain inactive". To emphasize how essential the role of the laity is for the life of the Church, John Paul II recalled that, during the harsh persecutions suffered by the Church of the twentieth century in vast areas of the world, "it was especially thanks to the courageous witness of lay faithful, not seldom taken to the point of martyrdom, that the faith was not wiped out from the life of whole peoples". It is by following their luminous example - the Pope concluded - that "the present generation [must assume the task]  of bringing the Gospel to the humanity of tomorrow" (L'Osservatore Romano,6 December 2000, p. 5).

What laity, then, for the third millennium? On the last day of the Congress, this question was addressed by Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, Archbishop of Boston (USA), and by the Under-Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Prof. Guzmán Carriquiry, who presented the message with which the Congress participants concluded their work and of which we publish some passages below.

"Conscious of the royal, priestly and prophetic task that derives from our baptism - they write - we strongly reaffirm our Christian faith with a renewed commitment to respond to our vocation and mission in the Church, in full harmony with the Magisterium [ ..]. We take on the responsibility to live the Gospel' and in a world characterized by indifference, nihilism, ethical relativism and threatened by a spreading culture of death, we pledge to seek ways of proclaiming Christ, the one Saviour of the world [...]. Conscious of the fact that it is witness more than words that can reach the heart of contemporary people, we shall never cease to question ourselves about what it means for us to be Christians today, here and now, and never tire of working together with all Christians, with the believers of other confessions, with people of good will to help build a more human society by bringing the light of the Gospel to each dimension of life, from conjugal love to the education of children, to friendship, to study, to work, to politics, to the efforts to protect the dignity of each person, especially those who suffer from injustice and poverty [...]. Called to be salt of the earth and light of the world, we know it is our duty to bring the distinctive character of our faith into society, as courageous witnesses of Christ, ready to accept the cross and to respond to the greatest challenge, which is holiness, true humanity and fullness of Christian life. Humbly certain that the Lord is at work in our life, we walk forward into the new millennium, bearing the words of Jesus in our heart: 'I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him' he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing' (Jn 15:5)."

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On 1 September 2016 the

Pontifical Council for the Laity
ceased its activities.
Its responsibilities and duties
have been taken over by the
Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.