The members and consultors of the Pontifical Council for the Laity met from 13 to 15 November 2008 for the 23rd Plenary Assembly. A notable feature of the gathering was the number of recently nominated members and consultors who made up one third of the total and who were attending for the first time. The topic for the first two days of our Assembly was “ Twenty years since Christifideles laici: History and development, new challenges and tasks ”. It was chosen because of the anniversary of this essential document for the lay faithful, a document defined as their magna charta by the Holy Father during the audience. The discussions were based on four talks and two panel discussions. Special effort was made to allow enough time for debate. Cardinal Ryłko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, opened the assembly with a warm welcome for the new people present, and he outlined the main areas for subsequent discussion. Cardinal Angelo Scola, Patriarch of Venice, gave the first talk. He spoke of recent developments in the theology of the laity understood in the light of the ecclesiology of communion, and he pointed out the progress and weaknesses. Archbishop Reinhard Marx of Munich brought us up to date with efforts being made in the faith development of the laity with the resources and difficulties encountered. Professor Carriquiry, undersecretary of our dicastery, has extensive experience in this field, and he presented a clear picture of developments in new movements that have emerged since the Council. During the last twenty years they have been moving towards a high level of “ ecclesial maturity ” of which Christifideles laici had spoken, and they have been opening up more and more to the universal mission of the Church. Bishop Dubost of Evry spoke of the coresponsibility of the lay faithful in building the Christian community based on experiences in his diocese. The contributions all drew inspiration from the responsibility of the lay faithful in public life, touching on the crucial points that pertain to the secular character that is proper to the baptised of our times. Lola Velarde strongly condemned all contemporary politics that arc inspired by nihilistic ideologies and arc coordinated at a planetary level. They directly attack the family institution and put fundamental rights into question like the right to life and freedom of education. They do so in order to promote subjective pseudo-rights, harmful for individuals as well as for the community. Thomas Han, one of the "doyens" among our members, presented the major economic and power interests that move those politics. Their immediate effects are seen in the further impoverishment of people in the third world who are already living in miserable conditions. Carl Anderson spoke of the importance of education founded on Christian humanist principles in order to give the new generations the capacity to deal with the current problems in our rapidly changing society. We could not fail to speak about the role of the lay faithful working in the mass media, and this topic was explored by Josep Miro i Ardèvol. An Italian member of parliament, Luca Volontè, dealt with the delicate problem of lay Catholics engaged in politics. Finally, Alessandro Zuccari spoke of the international order. He pointed out the serious economic and social conditions of so many poor countries, especially in Africa and Asia, and he indicated possible ways to achieve greater international justice.
The lively debate enriched the talks and contributions with the participation of all our members and consultors. The publication of the proceedings would never be able to give a full picture of the atmosphere of interest and participation of our assembly. The morning of the third day was devoted to the audience with the Holy Father. The discourse of Benedict XVI placed in evidence the contemporary nature of Christifideles laici that "while taking up again the teachings of the Council, [it] orients the discernment, examination and orientation of lay efforts within the Church faced with the social changes of these years ”. The encouragement given by the Council and renewed by Christifideles laici has meant that “ lay participation has grown thanks to pastoral, diocesan and parish councils revealing itself to be very positive insofar as it is animated by an authentic sensus Ecclesiae”. The clear acceptance of the contribution of the laity and the recognition of the unmistakable “ ecclesial criteria ” on the part of the Christifideles laici, have made way for a maturing of how a “ clear awareness of the Church’s charismatic dimension has brought about an appreciation and esteemed the more simple charisms that Divine Providence bestows on individuals as well as those that bring great spiritual, educational and missionary fecundity ”. In this respect, the Holy Father thanked “ the Pontifical Council for the Laity in a very special way, for the work completed during the last decades to welcome, accompany, discern, recognize and encourage these ‘ecclesial realities’, favouring the knowledge of their Catholic identity, helping them to insert themselves more fully into the great tradition and the living fabric of the Church, and promoting their missionary development ”. The Pope then spoke about youth and recalled the World Youth Day held in Sydney: “ The new generations are not only the preferred audience of this transmission and sharing ” of the rich deposit of Catholic faith, “ but also those whose hearts await truth and happiness in order to be able to give Christian witness, as happens already in an admirable way. I myself have been witness to it in Sydney ”. After speaking about the youth, Benedict XVI dwelt briefly on the “ dignity and participation of women in the life of the Church and of society ”, a theme that is close to his heart. It is true that “ man and woman, equal in dignity, are called to enrich themselves mutually in communion and collaboration, not only in matrimony and in the family, but also in society and all of its dimensions ”, and so women have a special task: that is “ to be knowledgeable of and courageous in facing their demanding work, for which, however, they do not lack the support of a distinct tendency towards holiness, of a special acuteness in the discernment of our time’s cultural currents, and of the particular passion for human care that characterizes them ”. The Holy Father’s final point was “ the secular nature that is characteristic of the lay faithful ”. After emphasising that the world in its complexity is “ a theological place, an environment and a means in which and through which to realize their vocation and mission ”, in particular for “ witness of charity especially with the most poor, suffering and needy, just as it is to assume every Christian task aimed to construct conditions of ever greater justice and peace ”, the Pope made a direct request to our dicastery: “ therefore I ask the Pontifical Council for the Laity to follow with diligent pastoral care the formation, witness and collaboration of lay faithful in the most varied situations, in which the authentic nature of human life in society is at risk. In a particular way, I confirm the necessity and urgency of the evangelical formation and pastoral accompaniment of a new generation of Catholics working in politics, that they be coherent with the professed faith, that they have moral firmness, the capacity of educated judgment, professional competence and passion for service to the common good ”. The Pontifical Council for the Laity, which carries out its work in the service of the Holy Father, has decided to dedicate the next plenary assembly to the theme of the engagement of the lay faithful in public life, in particular in politics. After the clarifying and programmatic discourse of the Pope, the 23rd Plenary Assembly drew up its conclusions in the afternoon of the third day, a very short but nonetheless full session. The president explained the duties and responsibilities of the members and consultors, particularly for the benefit of those who were new. Bishop Clemens, secretary of the dicastery, opened a debate on the programme for the coming years that also served to reflect on the programmatic guidelines indicated by the Holy Father. A large number of members and consultors took part in the discussions and there was barely time to hear all who wanted to speak. The assembly concluded with dinner, thus sealing the three days of intensive work and sharing and communion in love for Christ and for the Church.