Laity is the common term used to describe everyone who is not clergy.  Laity in Greek is laos, “the people”. In the early Church the word referred to the new chosen people; the laos theou, the people of God.  Through the years, “laity” evolved with a more negative connotation that attempted to distinguish the “common” people from the “elite” clergy. Vatican II did much to recapture the original meaning of the word reminding us that laity is all the people of God who are called through their baptism to transform the world.  Ninety-eight percent of the Roman Catholic Church are laity.    

Apostolate comes from the word apostle, as in one who is sent by Jesus Christ to proclaim the Gospel by word and deed. Apostolate refers to the particular activity undertaken for this purpose by an individual or community. Lay Apostolate is the work most of the 98% percent of the laity do everyday to transform the world and spread the love of Christ.  This is done through their work as mothers, fathers, teachers, farmers, doctors, store clerks, students, etc.  Most of the laity work not within the ecclesial (church) realm but in the temporal (secular) realm.  

Lay Ministry has often been used as a general term to designate lay activity in the Church. Although laypeople have been closely linked to the Church’s mission and service from earliest times their ministerial role was renewed by Vatican II.  These ministries include volunteer positions such as extraordinary minister, lector, catechist, acolyte, cantor and numerous others that laity partake in to participate fully in the daily life of the Church. Lay Ministry also includes those who have a more professional role in the Church, such as Youth Minister, Director of Religious Education, and RCIA coordinator.

Lay Ecclesial Ministry is the newest word to enter our common Catholic vocabulary when referring to the ways laity serve the Church and the world. In November of 2005 the U.S. Bishops approved the document “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord” to explore the reality of Lay Ecclesial Ministry (LEM) in the U.S. Church. To define LEM they listed several elements, all of which need to exist for someone to be officially designated as a Lay Ecclesial Minister:
  • Authorization of the hierarchy to serve publicly in the local church
  • Leadership in a particular area of ministry
  • Close mutual collaboration with the pastoral ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons
  • Preparation and formation appropriate to the level of responsibilities that are assigned to them (Co-Workers, 10)
Lay Ecclesial Ministry is a generic and broad term. The Co-Workers document leaves room for the diocesan Church to further define and clarify the qualifications for being designated and authorized as a Lay Ecclesial Minister, such as educational and formational requirements.