Laity, Formation and Education of

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In the context of Christian belief and discipleship, formation can be understood as a continuing, lifetime process by which one grows into the likeness of Christ, according to God's will and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The task of formation of the lay faithful, whether viewed as a responsibility of the individual or as a ministry of the community for its members, is considered critical for the development of "a living, explicit, and fruitful confession of faith" (General Directory for Catechesis, 82).

Numerous references to the importance of formation appear in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (e.g., Apostolicam actuositatem, 2832) and in postconciliar documents (e.g., Christifideles laici, 5763). Christifideles laici (57) urges that formation be placed among the priorities of a diocese's plan of pastoral action. The U.S. Bishops underscore this direction and assert that attention to adult faith formation will render all Church ministries more fruitful (Our Hearts Were Burning within Us: A Pastoral Plan for Adult Faith Formation in the United States, pp. 1214).

Formation is situated within the renewal of the Church as a means to an end. Conciliar and postconciliar teaching envisions a laity who are witnesses to Christ: well-formed in faith, enthusiastic, capable of leadership in society and in the Church, filled with compassion, and working for justice. Formation is a tool for achieving these outcomes.

The fundamental purpose of lay formation is a clearer discovery of one's vocation and a greater willingness to live it so as to fulfill a mission of discipleship within the broader communion and mission of the Church. Because it aims to bring about a unity of faith and life, formation encompasses and integrates such activities as catechesis, religious education, and various types of pastoral training. Formation has several interrelated dimensions: spiritual, doctrinal, and the cultivation of human values.

Formation takes place at many levels and through a variety of methods. Noting that formation is an ecclesial activity in the Church and by the Church, Christifideles laici (6162) mentions as typical places of formation the "domestic church" of the family, the diocese and parish, small church communities, schools, groups, associations, and movements. Each of these agents plays an appropriate and complementary role in the total endeavor. Formation efforts in the United States include also parish religious education programs for adults in general, for catechists, and for parents preparing their children for sacraments. Every year the RCIA/Catechumenate enrolls thousands of adults seeking baptism or full communion with the Church or simply returning to the practice of their faith. Parish or diocesan-sponsored renewal programs and Scripture study groups often provide a systematic process of faith formation for many adults. For others, a process of formation is integral to their membership in a small Church community, an apostolic movement or association of the Christian faithful (Codex iuris canonici c. 298ff), a secular institute or third order, or an associate program connected to a religious congregation. Catholic colleges and universities, as well as some seminaries, offer undergraduate and graduate degrees to lay people in theology, canon law, religious studies, and pastoral ministries.

In the United States particularly, the postconciliar flourishing of lay ministries has led to an increase in the number and variety of education and formation programs conducted by diocesan agencies, academic institutions, and some Catholic organizations. The distinguishing characteristic of these programs is their focus on equipping lay men and women for designated roles of service and leadership in the public ministries of the Church. Programs are designed for both full-and part-time participants. Diocesan formation programs typically involve two or three years of part-time study and offer a certificate of completion at the end. Some diocesan programs are affiliated with a local college, university, or seminary and enable a student to earn an academic degree. Programs sponsored by institutions of higher learning typically offer a masters degree (e.g., M.A. or M.Div.) upon completion. Between 1985 and 2000 the number of persons enrolled in diocesan and academic programs of lay ministry formation grew from 10,500 to more than 30,000. Women account for a little over 60 percent of the total enrollment.

A significant effort in lay formation is carried out by the Hispanic Catholic community in the United States through diocesan lay leadership programs, lay movements, and a network of regional pastoral institutes, e.g., the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC), the Southeast Pastoral Institute (SEPI), and the Northeast Pastoral Formation Institute. There are more than 20 such institutes, each serving several dioceses in a geographic region.

[h. r. mccord]