Mushtaq Asad was among the first five Pakistani lay people sent for a two-year study program in Rome in the early 1980s to ensure lay participation. That was two decades after the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), which stressed the role of lay people in the Church’s mission.
Only two of those five returned home. And since then, the hierarchy stopped sponsoring lay people for studies abroad, says 65-year-old Asad, who prefers to wear the traditional shalwar kameez (tunics with pleated trousers) just like other Pakistani men.
After returning home, Asad taught for over a decade at the National Catechists' Training Centre in Khushpur, in Faisalabad district. Now he spends time giving biblical reflections on his YouTube channel to over 4,000 subscribers, from his modest house in Malkhanwala, a village in Punjab province.
Seven decades after the Second Vatican Council, “there is no lay participation in the Church’s decision-making bodies. Their only job is to come to church, listen and return home. It is as if we are born to listen, while the clergy do all the talking,” Asad said.
In the Muslim-majority nation, the role of the laity has been “consciously limited to recitations, collecting tithes and presenting garlands to priests and bishops,” he said.
“Even catechists are not consulted while making decisions. They are considered paid workers. The Church doesn’t accept the participation of the laity, especially women. It is still not ready to see them in leadership roles,” said Asad, a lay theologian.
Parveen Bibi (right), a laywoman from the Punjab province who takes an active part in Church activities and helped build a church, talks with parishioners at a Catholic church in Qila Natha Singh village. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry / UCA News)
Lack of a pastoral vision
Emmanuel Neno, the only other person who returned home after studies in Rome, said the Church in Pakistan lacks a clear pastoral vision resulting in poor lay participation.
“Generally there is no pastoral vision. Catechism has been limited to children alone. Many school principals feel it is their job to run institutes without understanding their Catholic identity,” said Neno, who studied with Asad at the College of Mater Ecclesia, linked to the Pontifical Urban University in Rome.
“Lay people are reminded all the time that the bishops and priests are the pillars of the Church. They neither want to share nor encourage the pro-laity statements of Pope Francis,” he added.
The Basic Christian Communities (BCC) established by the Sri Lankan Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the late 1980s to uplift and develop local people, could have broadened the vision and given clarity on lay participation.
But it is not encouraged. “Many priests believe BCC would mean the death knell for their powers,” Asad said.
Father Emmanuel Asi, a leading theologian in Pakistan, agrees. “Most Church commissions are headed by priests as the bishops don’t trust the lay people. Lay people are treated as servants or volunteers. Priests remain part of an institutional, hierarchical and highly centralized Church,” he said.
Kanwal Rashid, a Catholic, teaches her son at their home in Lahore on March 22. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry / UCA News)
Pakistan has some 3 million Christians, an estimated half of them Catholics. But together they are a tiny minority of 1.27 percent of some 230 million people, 96 percent Muslims.
Leaders of the religious minorities — Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadiyya people — who together form hardly four percent of the population, say the Muslim majority neglects them socially and politically.
Besides the political neglect, the 1.3 million Catholics also suffer social and economic oppression as a majority of them are descendants of socially poor Dalit communities, converted during the British colonial era.
For several decades after the British left the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the Christian churches in Pakistan struggled to maintain an English image in language and dress, Church leaders admit.
Until the 1980s, the hierarchy was mostly led by English-speaking priests and bishops, foreign missioners, or descendants of those who migrated from western India’s Goa area, a former Portuguese colony.
“For a long time, the poor and ill-educated majority in the Church were neglected. Even today, the hierarchy is in a way ashamed to project the real face of the Pakistani Church — those who are sewage cleaners and road sweepers,” said Asad.
“Our people are shabbily dressed, and they articulate poorly. They neither know nor are interested to know theology or ecclesiology. Their priorities are the struggles of daily life. The hierarchy needs to work overtime to make them feel part of the Church,” he said.
“Change began to happen when some leaders of the Church began to stress the teachings of the Second Vatican Council in the 1980s. But it remains a process that the majority in the hierarchy now love to ignore,” he added.
Shafiq Masih a Catholic sanitation worker in Pakistan is seen here cleaning a sewer. (Photo: Sweepers are Heroes)
Change began but moves slow
Most members of the clergy now agree lay people are important in the Church but love to limit their role to manual tasks in the parish such as cleaning and laying the carpets or arranging chairs and pews, Asad said.
However, two decades after the Second Vatican Council, Church commissions began hiring lay people for top positions. The seminary syllabus was changed to add chapters on lay involvement in the Church. Bishops began to organize seminars and courses on lay participation.
In 1993, three decades ago, participants at an Asian bishops' institute on the lay apostolate concluded that the Pakistan Church is young and therefore not caught up in age-old conventions and traditions that often hamper renewal and change.
That seminar was the first such national program conducted in Urdu, the national language. It had 45 delegates from six dioceses — a majority of 24 of them lay people. Church leaders projected it as a “paradigm shift” in lay involvement.
In 1997, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Pakistan established the National Catholic Institute of Theology (NCIT), the first Catholic theological institute to help lay people earn academic diplomas in theology.
The Karachi-based institute accommodated six to eight students each year for its three-year certificate course. Most of them become catechists or religion teachers in Catholic schools.
Peter John, who graduated in 2021, works as a part-time catechist in St. James parish. But not everyone gets a job.
“At least six from my parish, who earned the theology institute’s certificate, are awaiting a call to work in any parish. Their diploma is gathering dust,” said John, who also works for an automobile company as an administrator.
“The laity is generally ignored but they cannot be involved in every aspect of Church management,” he said.
In this picture taken on March 10, 2022, Christian community workers from Lahore Waste Management Company clean a street in Lahore. (Photo: AFP)
Papal calls ignored
The Sri Lankan Oblates of Mary Immaculate along with the BCCs also established 25 lay organizations to uplift and develop the people in Gojra parish of Faisalabad diocese.
However, these communities disappeared shortly after the Oblates handed over Gojra parish to diocesan priests in 1996, Asad said.
“The BCC was the only concrete thing for us. The Sri Lankans were our heroes. Sadly, the experiment remained limited to Gojra and the southern Archdiocese of Karachi,” said Asad.
“There was no encouragement from diocesan priests. The BCC faded away as people were never prepared for it. There was no groundwork. Our churches are now reduced to a one-man show of priests,” he added.
Bishop Indrias Rehmat, chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Catechetics, agrees change is hard. He initiated five-year pastoral planning in 2021. But it has not been finalized yet.
“Our priests couldn’t do it. They remain fixated on their own planning and parish activities, though I urged them to engage more in pastoral visits,” Rehmat said.
He believes that “both clergy and laity share the same role of giving testimony to their faith.”
As part of the Pakistan Church's preparation for the new millennium, a Church forum published an Urdu translation of 24 handbooks on the Asian Integrated Pastoral Approach (ASIPA) method. They were published after giving training to priests in Lahore and Karachi archdioceses as well as laity in six dioceses in 1999.
The handbooks aimed to build Christian communities through clergy and laity collaboration, adapting the Asian context of pastoral methods, said Theologian Father Emmanuel Asi, who coordinates the forum.
“Despite knowing that parishes cannot grow without the laity, they have not really thought of being a synodal Church. At present the Church is dominated too much by institutionalism and clericalism, without taking lay voices into consideration,” Asi added.
“The local Church has turned a deaf ear to ideas given by Pope Francis,” he added.
“Nobody makes any reference to his teachings, preaching and dialogue. A few bishops quote him, the rest just prefer decorating their rooms with his photos,” Asi said.
"We have formed many groups of youth and women in local churches," he said.
Arshad, who submitted the local Church’s response to the synod to the Continental Stage of the Synod last year, never made it public. It is for the Asian bishops' federation to make it public, he said.
Shunila Ruth (center), a Christian woman leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Party with her supporters, hold red crosses at the Liberty Roundabout in Lahore on Oct. 28. 2022 to welcome ousted Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan. (Photos courtesy of Shunila Ruth)
Unhealthy lay demands
Many Church leaders privately admit that the poor treatment of the laity is the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, who pushed for a more traditional Church.
However, “despite the setbacks, there are some signs of engaging with lay people, thanks to encyclicals by Pope Francis,” said Sister Genevieve Ram Lal, the national director of the Catholic Women's Organization.
For example, some religious congregations, including hers, now hold joint retreats with lay associates, she said.
Neno said lay people should also be blamed for clergy developing an overall mistrust “caused by their behavior and actions.”
For example, three of the five sent to Rome for studies did not return. “Sadly the opportunity for studying in Mater Ecclesiae is now limited exclusively to nuns,” he said.
Most lay people who complete short courses on theology want to see “themselves as equal or even superior to the priests. They demand privileges claiming to be theologians.”
Although the hierarchy’s original plan was to ordain at least some of the theologically trained people as married deacons, the unwarranted demands resulted in the hierarchy abandoning the plan for married deacons.
“Now, there are no lay deacons in Pakistan. Slowly even the role of trained lay people will amount to nothing,” he said.
Since publication a quote by Sister Genevieve Ram Lal, the national director of the Catholic Women's Organization, has been edited for factual correctness.