The European Laity Forum owes its development to two strong roots:
- First to the fact that the Second Vatican Council has once again made aware of the importance of baptism and confirmation for a credible Christian life and the Christian mission of all the baptized in their times,
- and to the growing together of the European countries after the awful experiences and consequences of the Second World War – first in the West, then after 1989 especially con-cerning the whole of Europe, too.
Thus it was a natural consequence that, beginning in the 60ies of the 20th century, those two roots were coming nearer to each other and also inspired each other to mutual growth, which has needed continuous strengthening up to the present day.
Since the 19th century there have already existed unions and activities in several European countries in which lay people on their own initiatives because of their Christian calling were searching for ways of participating actively in the shaping of societal and church activities. But only by the new concept of the Church, modified by the Second Vatican Council, these activities were intensified: “The apostolate of the laity is participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself. To this apostolate all are called by the Lord himself through baptism and confirmation.“ (Lumen Gentium 33) Lay activity is therefore no more dependent on orders by the Church hierarchy, but expression of the proper calling of baptized Christians. The impulses of the Council – first of all in the Apostolic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium) and in the Decree on Lay Apostolate (Apostolicam actuositatem) – concerning the participation of lay people in the overall mission of the Church were taken up differently in the diverse countries of Europe, due to the concrete situation and the respective state of development or organization of lay activities.
Already before the Council in 1960 a “First European Congress of the Lay Apostolate” took place at Copenhagen, summoned by Church authorities. Its special importance consisted in getting to know the various situations of the Catholic Church in the diverse countries of Western Europe. The committee responsible for the preparation of this congress had got the order to elaborate proposals for improved contacts between lay representations of the individual countries in order to strengthen the European consciousness.
On the world level there also took place laity congresses: thus the Holy See had already invited to Rome in 1951 and 1957. In 1967 there followed a third World Laity Congress, during whose preparatory phase1 the considerations and decisions on founding the European Laity Forum were becoming concrete. That was why in 1970 for the first time an assembly of representatives of national laity committees and councils could meet for a study assembly at Innsbruck/Austria, dealing with the topic “Hope as a force for Christians: invitation to commitment and presence at the construction of the community”. That topic particularly took up the important impulses of the Council: the calling of lay people is the root for their committed activity in Church and society. From then onwards there have been study assemblies on topical challenges in Church and society every two years up to the present time.2 It’s their task to promote dialogue and discussions among the national committees aiming at noticing and getting to know the differences and, in common responsibility, to arrive at a form of acting doing justice to the Christian mission as lay people in society and Church. Besides the study assembly, which has always been influenced by the concrete situation of Church and society of the hosting country as well, the Statutory Assembly takes place, during which the general direction as well as the aims and tasks of the Forum are to be fixed and the leading positions of the Forum are to be assigned by means of elections.3 Reviewing the topics of the 22 past study assemblies between 1970 and 2012 it can be stated that there is a balanced change between topics dealing with the responsibility of lay people within the Church on the one hand and their societal commitment as Christians on the other hand.
From the beginning there has always been, besides the focus on the aspect of contents, a struggle for finding a form of cooperation intensifying the community without losing sight of the differences of the single member countries. That’s why the Statutes have been developed regularly up till now, in order to allow an ordered co-working of the diverse members on the one hand and not to give the priority to formal regulations too much on the other hand. First the Forum was headed by a “Liaison Committee”, consisting of seven members from the diverse national committees. Today it is the Steering Committee with the President as its head. Finally – in order to take the financial responsibility from the shoulders of one single treasurer – in 2011 a proper legal body was founded, an association of benefit to the public according to the civil law, following the German law of associations. This also means having the status of an non-governmental organisation (NGO), which opens up the possibility of exercising official functions opposite institutions of European politics (e.g. in a consultative status with the Council of Europe). But achieving that is a task for the future.
Together with the political watershed at the end of the 80ies and at the beginning of the 90ies Europe started changing its appearance. That was not only true of political life, but also of church life. For the Central and Eastern European countries the opening of the borders and the changed political constellations opened up new possibilities of activities in the civil societies, but also far-reaching new views and activities of religious and church life. For the European Laity Forum that meant an increase of new members, which confronted all – the former and the new ones – with challenges. Differences in the relationship between state and church, individual experiences in possible influence on decisions and proceedings of societal politics, differences in the structures of lay activities and in the relations between lay people and the church structures dominated by the hierarchy resulted in the picture of the Laity Forum becoming much more colourful. That increased the task of finding the unity in the diversity. As there had already been differences between the northern and the southern European countries due to the respective church situation and the self-perception of lay activities, they now became even more numerous due to the increase in members from Central and Eastern Europe. As their common task – that is reflected in the topics of the study assemblies4 - the members of the European Laity Forum considered focussing on values which a new Europe ought to feel obliged to, so that lay people could do justice to the Gospel and their Christian mission. Study assemblies in Central European countries5 helped to improve mutual knowledge and to intensify common features. In 2012 the Steering Committee went to Minsk for its autumnal meeting.
Today, in 2014, national lay organisations/committees of 19 European countries are members of the European Laity Forum. The Steering Committee keeps contact with lay organisations of additional countries in order to achieve their membership. A first step of cooperation can also be a status of observer6, so that we can get nearer to our aim of following our proper calling as lay people in the Church in Europe7.
Besides the European initiative of lay people there also happened episcopal activities: Already near the end of the Second Vatican Council several European bishops had had consultations about an intensified cooperation in pastoral questions. The development led to the foundation of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE) in March 1971. Apart from that bishops very closely observed the political development of the European Union. The first direct elections of the European Parliament finally caused the foundation of a Commission of the Bishops‘ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), located in Brussels, in 1980, which aimed at observing the political developments in the European Union, at informing about them within the Church and at promoting the challenges of a united Europe on the basis of the Christian social teaching. In 1974 the newly founded Council for the Laity – unfortunately it had not become a Council of the Laity – and the Council of the European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE) sought cooperation with the Laity Forum. The Steering Committee tries hard to maintain regular contacts to the Council for the Laity. The cooperation with the Council of the European Bishops’ Conferences needs improving. On the other hand there has been good exchange with the Council of European Priests‘ Commissions (CCPE) and the Union of the European Conferences of Major Superiors (UCESM) since 1984. Regular mutual participation in the respective annual meetings of these three associations helps the Church to do justice to her European task in a mutually assisted cooperation and also to have common perspectives developed. At the German Katholikentag 2014 at Regensburg there will be a first common presentation of ELF, CCPE and UCESM. And also at the Katholikentag 2006 at Saarbrucken and 2012 at Mannheim the ELF got important impulses from German lay Catholicism.
Due to political and economic developments the European cohesion is endangered by crises. We Christians in the ELF are particularly challenged to make the cultural and social values come to fruition.
Useful information on the history of the ELF can be found in the publications by Paul Becher:
- Becher, Paul, Katholische Laienarbeit in Europa. Chancen, Aufgaben und Probleme, in: CIVITAS - Jahrbuch fur Sozialwissenschaften, vol. XVI, 1978, p.233-247
- Becher Paul, Katholische Laienarbeit in Europa vor neuen Herausforderungen, in: Haungs, Peter u.a., Widmungen fur Bernhard Vogel zum 60. Geburtstag, Paderborn 1992, p.301-314
- Preparatory meeting in Austria in 1967 and in Switzerland in 1968
- A survey of places and times of all study assemblies can be found under „Study Assemblies“.
- Cp. Statutes of the ELF
- E.g. at Fatima in 2004: “The spiritual and ethical roots of our commitment in European societies“ or in Slovenia in 1994: “Christian vision on solidarity – challenge to the social-economic system in East and Western Europe”
- At Zagreb in 1985, Ljubljana in 1994, Bratislava in 1998 and 2008.
- At the moment for France and the “Comité des baptisé-e-s francophone”.
- In “Christifideles laici” of 1988 Pope John Paul II e.g. especially stresses commitment in politics, responsibility in economics, care for the preservation of the creation, evangelisation in the fields of culture, formation and education as well as the means of communication as proper tasks of lay people.