A national “lay” congress in Spain has left a bittersweet taste in some participants’ mouths due to the over-clericalisation of the event, with one attendee claiming that “priests should give us [laypeople] oxygen to breathe”.

“The People of God going forth”

From February 14-16 some 2,000 laypeople from all over Spain gathered in Madrid for a National Congress of Laypeople on the theme “The People of God going forth”.

It was the culmination of some two years’ planning and reflecting on the challenges, and opportunities, for the non-ordained and non-religious in the Spanish Church today.

The event consisted of three days of intense discussion in reflection groups on themes such as evangelisation and testimony, accompaniment, catechesis and growth as Christians and the presence of Catholics in public life, in areas such as the workplace, politics, universities and relationships both presencial and virtual, on the internet and social networks.

“It’s our moment and we’re the chosen ones”

To judge by the final document – the first substantial reflection on the importance of the laity in the history of the Spanish Church – there is hope for the future for Spanish laypeople.

“It’s our moment and we’re the chosen ones”, the Spanish laypeople proclaim in that text.

“We feel joyful knowing that we are called through the baptismal vocation to develop our mission and discover the message God wants to continue transmitting to the world with our personal and community life”, the laity explain, adding:

“We know that the road is not easy. But at the same time it is exciting… We must go out [from the Congress] with the shared commitment to continue promoting the role of laity in the pilgrim Church in Spain”.

“Bewilderment at the great number of religious and priests speaking at a Congress of Laypeople”

But the road certainly still continues to be difficult for laypeople in Spain, not least of all because of the obstacles the bishops of the country continue to put in their path.

And that’s despite Pope Francis’ explicit indications for the Congress in the message he sent for the event, in which he pleaded with the Spanish Church ” to avoid at all costs the ‘temptations’ of the laity within the Church, which can be: clericalism, which is a plague and encloses them in the sacristy, as well as competitiveness and ecclesial careerism, rigidity and negativity… which suffocate the specific call to holiness in today’s world”.

Even the priest Fernando Díaz Abajo – chaplain of the Workers’ Fraternity of Catholic Action in Spain (HOAC) – noted on Twitter from the very beginning of the Congress his “bewilderment” at the “great number of religious and priests speaking at a Congress of Laypeople”.

Not to mention the presence of bishops, of whom one – the auxiliary bishop of Barcelona, Toni Vadell – read alongside the journalist Ana Medina the final document of the event.

“What haven’t we understood?”, asked the priest Díaz.

Stage-managed from the beginning: progressive Catholics vetoed

As it turns out, and as La Croix discovered, the Spanish “lay” congress was stage-managed by the bishops from the beginning.

Though the prelates did give the laypeople some leash in organising and carrying out the summit, invitees were largely limited to the ecclesial movements favoured by the Spanish bishops, from Opus Dei to Communion and Liberation to the Neocatechumenal Way.

One federation, Redes cristianas (“Christian networks”) – an umbrella group for over 200 progressive Catholic groups and movements – wasn’t even invited to the Congress.

“For the bishops, we simply don’t exist”, lamented a federation spokeswoman to whom La Croix spoke.

One congress participant – Pablo – summed up the situation when reflecting on the opening session inaugurated by only one layperson… alongside three cardinals.

“What nonsense! They should have had young people or families speak”, lamented the 35-year-old Church communications employee.

Charo, a laywoman from the south of Spain, also gave voice to the impressions of in- and outsiders when she said: “I expect nothing from this gathering except the recognition that we laity are truly part of the Church”.

“Priests should give us oxygen to breathe so that we walk together, not the laity on one side and the clergy on the other”, Charo said.

Next on Novena:

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Tens of thousands of Spanish laypeople denounce Church’s “excessive clericalism”, “high degree of paternalism”

Spanish women theologians shout “Enough!” with “deep discrimination” in Church, call on Catholic women to “revolt”

Vatican secretary: “Laity are not to be seen as ‘auxiliaries of the hierarchy’, but as equally responsible for the faith”

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Primacy of conscience, equality, freedom of expression… Austrian Catholics draw up “charter of fundamental rights in the Church”


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.