A new front Pope Francis has opened in his bid to reform the Catholic Church may prove one of his toughest challenges yet. But it is also, unquestionably, one of the most important.

“I remember now the famous expression, ‘It is the hour of the laity’,” he said in a recent letter to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, “but it seems that the clock has stopped.”

A resurgence of clericalism, he warned, is stifling the possibility of lay people taking up their proper role in the Church – one of the key insights of the Second Vatican Council.

This isn’t a side issue for Francis; unless lay people assume responsibility for mission and evangelization, he says in the letter, “the prophetic fire that the Church is called to light in the hearts of her peoples will be extinguished.”

In other words, the very purpose of the Church will be undermined unless it allows lay people to fulfill their vocation.

“Clericalism” is a term originally used in political circles in the nineteenth century to refer to what liberals saw as the overweening and interfering power of the Church in political life. But in more recent times, it has been used to describe an attitude that identifies the Church with the hierarchy.

Clericalism is a mindset that leads both to an undue widening of the role of the clergy to the detriment of the legitimate rights of lay people, and to lay people aping the customs and actions of priests. The first denies the majority of Christians their responsibility for evangelization; the second colludes in that disempowerment.

Back in 2011, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio said in an interview to the Argentinian agency AICA that “we priests tend to clericalise lay people. And the lay people – not all of them, but many – ask us on their knees to clericalise them, because it’s easier to be an altar server than a protagonist in a lay vocation.”

In his letter to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, Francis warned that “clericalism does not just negate the personality of Christians, but has a tendency to diminish and devalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit put in the hearts of our people.”

The pope added: “Clericalism leads to seeing lay people in a functional way, treating them as servants, and cutting out their initiative, efforts, and even the necessary boldness to take the Good News of the Gospel to all environments of social and especially political life.”

He came back to the theme during an audience on May 12 with women religious. His speech was eclipsed by reports of his decision to study the role of women deacons in the early Church, but some of the most interesting parts of that speech were against clericalism. He told the nuns it was “a danger, a very strong temptation,” and added: “Lay people don’t know what to do without asking a priest, and for this reason an awareness of the role of the laity has been very delayed.”

Then, in an interview with La Croix on May 9, he reflected on how lay people can and should be at the center of the Church’s work of evangelisation, citing the example of Korea.

“That country was evangelized by missionaries from China who later left,” said Francis. “Then, for two hundred years, Korea was evangelized by lay people … So there is not necessarily a need for priests in order to evangelize. Baptism provides the strength to evangelize.”

Before the Second Vatican Council, it was common to think of the Church as made up of bishops (successors to the apostles), priests (ordained ministers), consecrated religious (who took public vows) and laity, who were seen as non-ordained and non-consecrated — in other words, as “none of the above.”

Vatican II turned this around. Its key document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, describes the Church as made up of Christ’s Faithful. This includes the laity, whose specific mission consists in bringing the secular world to God, and the clergy, who are to help the lay people achieve their mission.

In other words, lay people evangelize with a direct mission from God, which is theirs by right, not as a mandate from the hierarchy.

Last November, on the 50th anniversary of the document on lay people, Apostolicam Actuositatem, promulgated in 1965 at the end of the Council, the pope observed how Vatican II did not see the laity as members of a ‘second order’ at the service of the hierarchy but as disciples of Christ.

Laity are called, Francis said, “to animate every environment, every activity, every human relation according to the spirit of the Gospel, bringing light, hope, and the charity received from Christ to those places that otherwise would remain foreign to God’s action and abandoned to the misery of the human condition.”

He added: “No one better than they can carry out the essential task of inscribing the divine law in the life of the earthly city.”

What might it look like, this vision of the laity taking their proper place?

Some think it’s about lay people – both men, and even more importantly, women – having power in the Church, and taking on more ministries. Yet it is precisely this that Pope Francis calls clericalism.

“In Buenos Aires,” he said at the recent meeting of women religious, “I had this experience: a good priest came to me and said, ‘I have a very good layperson in my parish: he does this and that, he knows how to organise things, he gets things done. … Shall we make him a deacon?’ Or rather: shall we ‘clericalise’ him?”

Francis said he emphatically rejected that idea.

‘No! Let him remain a layperson. Don’t make him a deacon.’ This is important. It often happens to you that clericalism obstructs the correct development of something.”

For Pope Francis, the “hour of the laity” is all about the public activity of lay people, not the internal functioning of the Church.

He warns in the letter to the Latin American bishops against “the temptation of thinking that the committed layman is one who works in the tasks of the Church and/or in the things of the parish or of the diocese, and we have reflected little on how to accompany a baptized person in his public and daily life.”

As result, “we have generated a lay elite, believing that only they are committed laymen who work in the things ‘of the priests,’ and we have forgotten, neglected the believer who often burns his hope in the daily struggle to live the faith. These are the situations that clericalism cannot see, as it is more concerned to dominate areas more than to generate processes.”

Public life is not just about politics but all the areas of human activity — the family, the workplace, shops and restaurants, leisure and the arts. It is the specific role of lay people to sanctify each and every environment of the world.

It means lay people getting together and starting projects for the good of both Church and society, projects distinguished by their liberty yet their loyalty, blessed by the bishops as fruits of apostolic activity, but not controlled by them.

One such initiative is Catholic Voices, a project I co-founded in 2010 that trains lay people of all ages and occupations to tell the Church’s story in the news as well as in talks and in our everyday conversations in ordinary life.

This is what the “hour of the laity” will really look like when it finally comes: lay people who are so well prepared, both in their chosen profession or job and in their knowledge of the doctrines and history of the Church, that they can build the new earthly city placing Christ at the centre of all human activities.

It means politicians working for the common good, not for particular interests, doctors who nurture life from conception to natural death, lawyers who are at the service of justice and human rights, journalists who tell truth to power using ethical means, financiers who are motivated by human flourishing in the workplace.

It means ordinary Catholics who offer up their work to God, whatever it is, and who give their lives in love to those around them.

We need more priests. But we need many more committed, awakened laypeople, not as a remedy for a lack of priestly vocations, but so that lay people at last take their proper role.

When that comes – when the ‘Hour of the Laity’ finally strikes – it will mean the prophetic fire has been lit, consigning clericalism to the past where it should belong.

[Jack Valero is co-founder of Catholic Voices and Press Officer for Opus Dei in the UK.]