The almost 50 years since the commencement of the second Vatican Council have witnessed a remarkable change in the activity of lay persons in the Catholic Church. And frankly, those same 50 years have observed an equally notable change in the role of clergy and religious in the Catholic Church.
Before the Council the lay apostolate was concerned largely with the transformation of the social order. Lay organizations ranging from the Catholic Worker Movement on the one hand to the Knights of Columbus on the other tried to make this world a better place to live - never, of course, ignoring the next world and its demands. Catholic clergy and religious in that era were mostly concerned with the next world, preparing believers for eternal life. Not entirely but often enough, priests were seen in church, sisters were met at school, and lay people earned a living. The 1960s heralded a major transformation in the life of the church. Many clergy and religious relinquished their former parochial and community lifestyles for the lay state - or what amounted to the lay state. Similarly laypersons were welcomed into roles previously enjoyed by the clergy and religious alone. Catholic schoolrooms and religious education classes became the province almost entirely of laypersons. Parish councils became fundamental to church life. Lay coordinators were hired for any number of parish ministries extending from summer Bible camp to grief counseling. Women and young girls served at the altar. Laypersons read at Mass. The laity assisted with Communion. Sometimes these liturgical honors were reinforced as the adult laity donned albs within the sanctuary.
While the specific role of the lay Catholic remains the transformation of the social order, all Catholics should be reminded that the church is essentially a community of priests, a community deputized to offer worship to the Father through and in the name of Jesus Christ. Catholics, in fact, all the baptized, form a priestly people, a holy people, a people set apart specifically for the authentic worship of God through the regular offering of Christ's sacrificial body and blood at Mass. In fact, the chief work of any Catholic is the dutiful participation in Christ's supreme act of worship. No ministerial expertise, no social contribution, no parochial transformation outweighs the privilege of offering Mass. This holds for clergy and laity.
No doubt an urgent attempt to recognize that both clergy and laity, both priest and people, were genuinely offering Mass every Sunday prompted English translators 50 years ago to present the "Orate, Fratres," or "Pray, brethern," prayer at Mass to read as follows: “Pray, my brothers and sisters, that this our sacrifice may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father.” Such a prayer is not wrong in itself. The Mass is indeed the sacrifice of the entire community. But, first of all, these words do not reflect the original Latin in the Roman Missal and, equally important, these words do not reveal the different if complementary roles of priest and people at Mass. Come Advent, Catholics at Mass will notice a slight but significant modification of this invitation to prayer. The celebrant will say: "Pray, my brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father." There is, of course, but one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the redemptive sacrifice offered on the cross 20 centuries ago. Calvary is still the sole effective means of salvation. But when the Catholic community gathers on Sunday, the priest is uniquely ordained to make present again the body and blood of Jesus Christ as at that moment of self-offering on the cross. The priest distinctively makes the sacrifice of Christ available for the congregation. Without the priest, whose ordination traces back to Apostolic times, there would be no authentic sacrifice. There might be a memorial meal. There might be a session of praise and song. But there would be no sacrifice.
When the ordained priest has made the sacrifice of Jesus Christ present once again under the appearance of bread and wine, the assembled laity are then empowered by their baptism and confirmation to offer this saving sacrifice to the Father in union with and through the instrumentality of the priest. Recall that the congregation at Mass has always responded, "May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy church."