Vatican II’s vision of lay sanctity needs a new St. Francis of Assisi, stripped of a religious habit and re-clothed in a secular baptismal garb. His 13th century mendicant revolution transformed cloistered monastic life into an outwardly focused, mobile, mission-minded movement.
Someone asked me to re-post this post I wrote 16 months ago. I reworked it a bit over last Fall, and it likely needs more editing, but as I have only received 2 requests in 4 years to re-post a specific post, how could I resist? It recapitulates some of the points I made a few weeks ago on the lay vocation, but for what it’s worth, here it is…
This post began with a hope to simply offer a few brief thoughts on a radio interview I heard last week, but as you’ll see my meandering mind got the best of me. Pardon its length and its ragged edges.
I was listening to a radio show featuring a convert to Catholicism whose radical conversion to Christ had led him from a life of moral corruption and spiritual aimlessness to a profound and lively faith in Christ. It was a beautiful and moving story. This sudden life-rocking roundabout eventually led him to quit his highly successful job in the business world and start a Catholic company that distributes religious goods.
It was indeed inspiring, and I admired the man for his courage. But there was a moment in the interview when I found myself really perturbed. After the man recounted for the interviewer the moment he felt Jesus was asking him to abandon his secular career and turn to selling religious goods, the interviewer said,
That’s really great. How inspiring for our listeners to hear that you abandoned your worldly pursuits, like St. Matthew, in order to serve God and his holy Church. We need more of you.
Out of my visceral reaction, I thought, “Oh, yes, as opposed to the uninspiring choice of remaining in a secular career to serve God in his Church!”
A clarification aside here. The word “secular,” which comes from the Latin word saecula, meaning “age” or “span of a lifetime,” refers in theology to this present time-bound world, the “temporal order,” in contradistinction to the “Age to Come,” the heaven of God’s eternity. Also, in the New Testament, the phrase “the world” (in Greek, ho kosmos) can refer to those elements of creation opposed to God, to creation as made good by God, or to creation as a “theater of redemption” loved by God even in its rebellion.
Though the word “secular” has come to refer in pop Catholic-speak to hostile cultural forces that sideline and demonize religion, here I will use the word secular (and worldly) in a more complex theological sense. However, in addition to the senses I just mentioned, I will also use secular/worldly to refer to those dimensions of our life in the world that are not explicitly religious or related to church institutional structures, liturgical worship, acts of piety, etc., i.e. all that is not directly related to the virtue of religion. In this positive sense, secular refers not to what is irreligious (which implies disdain or hostility) but to what is non-religious. For a person of faith, it’s important to affirm that there’s lots to talk about, think about and do that’s not religious.
For Catholics, the “religious” and the “secular” are seen to each possess a certain rightful autonomy relative to one another, and are understood to be each distinct but integrally related to the other. Such a view would reject any notion that the secular is somehow is absorbed into the religious or that the religious is absorbed into the secular, just as it would reject the idea that religious and secular dimensions of this world are either unrelated or opposed (which represent the growing consensus of Western culture). It was this necessary distinction that Pope Paul VI was thinking of when he said,
Here is the answer; and here is the new concept, of great importance in the practical field, the Church agrees to recognize the world as such, that is, free, autonomous, sovereign, and in a certain sense, self-sufficient. She does not try to make it an instrument for her religious purposes, far less for power of the temporal order. The Church also admits a certain emancipation for her faithful of the Catholic laity, when they act in the domain of temporal reality. She attributes to them freedom of action and a responsibility of their own, and she trusts them.
The Lay Call
Now, it may be that this Catholic businessman felt after his radical conversion that he was unable to maintain his new-found integrity within the matrix of the morally compromised business relationships he had previously established, and that Jesus was indeed calling him away into a religious-goods business. That’s not my judgment to make. And though I don’t know what the interviewer really meant by his comment, here’s the underlying message that I find detestable: when it comes to radically serving God, secular careers constitute a form of “settling for less,” while ecclesial, religious or even non-profit careers are the higher, more-radical way. Likely, I would not have been so attentive to this point had I not, since I came back to my faith in 1987, seen this mindset at work so many times. Though it is rarely blatant, and mostly latent, it lurks in the shadows as a sort of pious concession to contemporary culture’s secular-sacred schism.
Such an approach implies that coming near to Christ forces the faithful into an option crisis: secular or sacred, godly religious/churchy careers or godless secular/worldly careers. And flowing from that logic, those who convert and leave their secular careers to work for the church, engage in ministry, or to do overtly religious things are valorized and championed as the truly radical witnesses of real discipleship, superseding the choice of their still-secular counterparts to muddle along in the shadows.
Ordinary and Extra-
I cannot tell you the number of times I have been told by secular-career Catholics, “I wish I could work for God like you.” Though many years ago I would have probably agreed in some way, after reading the Pope’s magna carta on the laity, Christifidelis laici, for the first time back in 1997 my whole worldview was upturned. Not long after reading CL, I had a university math professor (I’ll call him Frank) express his regret that he could not be more involved in parish activities and ministries, and say to me that he really envied my job working so close to God every day. I said something like this back to him,
Yes it’s a privilege to work as a layman for the church, but you have to know that the church’s teaching is that I am an abnormal layman, an exception to the universal call of the laity to be secular like you. And my vocational abnormality exists to serve your vocational normality. As a man with a secular career, as a family man, you are exactly what the church says the laity are called to be, and being there where God wants you makes you very close to Him. The truth is, God has called me into the church’s employ for one single core purpose: to support what you are about in the world. That’s the real privilege for me.
I recall him saying, “I feel like a thousand pound weight of guilt has been lifted from my shoulders.”
As a man long employed by the Church, I obviously am a firm believer in the lay ecclesial ministry/career path as a genuine calling from God. In fact, for those laity who believe themselves called to serve in voluntary or employed ministries, the Bishops have spelled out a program and vision for their rightful place in the Church Institutional. But the fact remains, mine is not the ordinary or even preferred career path for the vast majority of lay men and women. It’s extra-ordinary, non-normative. The orthodox Catholic vision is that the essential character of the lay vocation is secular, meaning that the vocation of the laity is to primarily live, play and work in the temporal world, to be fully engaged citizens of the City of Man, engaging in the ordinary circumstances of secular affairs or domestic life.
St. Gianna Beretta Molla
From whence the temptation?
Last summer a priest friend of mine and I were talking about the many possible reasons that people who have radical conversions immediately want to abandon all-things-secular. Among the many points we shared, I found this particular point made by the priest to be very powerful,
For those who suddenly “get” Christ, living in the secular world while not being “of the world” becomes a great challenge, with lots of dissonance between what’s in you and what’s out there. Being called to love the world God’s way and remain in the world to consecrate the world to God, while not shunning or fleeing or disdaining the world, is as at times like a crucifixion. Working and living outside the ecclesial safe-zone is filled with ambiguities and ragged edges. We need to help people see the “church institutional” as a mother who makes a safe place to come to and be filled with strength, but to see the “church missionary” as a mother that thrusts them out the door to become saints.
It’s risky business to bear the mind of Christ into the City of Man, and in a post-Christian culture that increasingly judges Christ’s mind to be mentally ill, it’s even harder. But Christians, martyrs at heart, have always been risk-takers who are willing to chance being labeled a madman or fool for love of Christ. They’re on the Church’s front lines, engaging in God’s risky business as God’s foolish geniuses.
Personally, I have always been far more inspired by Christian men and women who live their faith outside the walls of the Church, fighting the good fight on the front lines, bringing the light of Christ to life’s darkest corners, revealing the goodness of creation and culture. For these lay saints, all forms of work, civic involvement, cultural activities, marriage and family life serve as their personal altar of sacrifice set up in the midst of a cosmic Colosseum.
And we must never forget that it was the Colosseum that offered Roman Christians in antiquity the very best PR for Christ.
So, what we really need hold up in the Church are the lay witnesses who encounter Christ in a life-altering way and subsequently heroically choose to remain in their secular careers, retain their “worldly” friends and acquaintances as befits their own personal limitations, embrace more fully their spousal and domestic duties, uphold more vigorously their civic responsibilities, feeling wholly at home in non-church environments among friends, co-workers and strangers of all persuasions and ways of life. In a word, the Church needs secular saints whose vibrant religious-church life naturally thrusts them back out into the secular world as their natural habitat and place of flourishing. We need secular saints who see that the leaven of the Gospel needs to exit the security of the leaven-jar in order to be kneaded deep into the heart of an unleavened world.
We especially need young people who fall in love with Jesus only to find their passion for future secular careers set aflame, allowing them to become a new “creative minority” in our society. And the Church ministers, lay and ordained, must help them in their discernment and encourage them in their vocation and mission to take on secular careers. They alone will serve as the wellsprings of a new culture, creating new economists, new artists, new politicians, new journalists, new educators, new students, new spouses and parents, new car mechanics, new salespeople, new justice advocates, new janitors, new business leaders, new lawyers, new doctors, new technologists who each excel in their respective field, being thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Gospel while being at home in the midst of the world.
The Church must help them acquire what Vatican II called the “lay genius,” that they might become adept at doing the world in Christ, speaking all languages, living in all states of life, and mastering all cultures in order to offer all humanity the chance to think with them. These world-wise Catholics are ever-ready to speak with anyone about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, or anything worthy of praise” (cf. Phil 4:8). Nothing that is genuinely human is foreign to them.
But such lay geniuses will never be unleashed into the public square as long as we continue to think that the radical, converted and faithful Catholic is only “working for God” if they work for the church, do ministry, abandon their careers or secular interests or at least view their secular ties as necessary evils. For the secular saint, church activities, ecclesial ministries or religious practices are essential servants to their core vocation and mission: to do the world God’s way. And let me note here that doing the world God’s way is the very purpose of the magnificent social teaching of our church. God’s gift of this magisterial teaching at this time in history is meant to give birth to a fresh flowering of holiness in the communion of saints: secular lay saints. And it’s primarily through such godly secular saints, in whom sacred and secular are reconciled, that God will heal the ills of godless secularism.
They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. — Gauduim et Spes #43
A final “unsettling” anecdote
A young Catholic man I knew at Florida State University once mentioned to me that, after his conversion to Christ, he felt “guilty” every time he did anything secular. He said,
I feel like I always have to be doing church things, or talking about God, to feel like I’m close to God. And I feel like every time I do something outside of that religious world, like if I listen to non-religious music or hang with non-religious friends, I’m somehow settling. Even if I’m not really doing anything wrong, I always feel compromised. I hate it, but I can’t shake it! I guess I feel that religious and secular things are like oil and water. There’s God-stuff and there’s worldly stuff, and never the two shall meet.
The message I tried to convey to him was that he really radical lay Catholic finds him/herself in love with all that is genuinely human, and sees that every aspect of life, if carried out in the spirit of Christ, is an integral part of your path to holiness. Though it was clear that his experiments with sex, alcohol and drugs before his conversion had left him with a long and hard journey ahead to integrate his new-found faith with his moral character, ensuring his restlessness would be around for a while, I wanted him to understand clearly the positive vision of a reconciled religious faith and secular life that should inform and motivate his desire to be a saint. If he continued to drink in the toxic “split of faith and life” model that Gaudium et Spes describes so well, he would always feel caught in an irresolvable conflict between God-church-religion and the rest of life in the world. And anyone caught in such a conflict for too long will either abandon the faith or abandon the world.
Going to Mass, praying the rosary, going on pilgrimages, spending a holy hour, talking about God are all part of growing in lay holiness. Reading the local newspaper with a cup of coffee, going to a movie with a friend, playing cards with your kids, tinkering with your car, going hunting, playing pool with co-workers, learning to dance, enjoying sports, reading a good novel, making love to your spouse, or sipping a glass of Chianti with your bride while listening to some good jazz music in the French Quarter, all the while talking about the world, is likewise part of growing in lay holiness.
O Lay saints, end the schism that sin had driven between God and the secular Garden He made for you to labor to cultivate and to celebrate with joy as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Remind the world that all that nothing is good in the world is strange to you, and that nothing broken in the world, when purified and transfigured by God through our lives, is lost. Remind the world that the riot of beauty that is our worldly pilgrim home will be caught up into the beatific happiness in the next world. The vision of God and the goodness of creation do, and will, both constitute our eternal happiness. As my moral theology professor in grad school pithily put it, “The Risen Jesus still loves fish sandwiches (cf Luke 24:41-43; John 21:12).”
There are two words that frame the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Venite, “Come!” and Ite, “Go!” These two words encompass the entire spirituality and mission of the lay vocation: to come to the Eucharist with all the “material” of your worldy labors, to give them over to Christ, and to receive them back transformed in the reconciling fire of His God-Man heart. O laity, made priests of the world in baptism, go out and labor in the world, making of it new bread and new wine susceptible to Christ’s consecrating power. Then, at the end of the day, bring it to Christ in his Eucharist that He might multiply it for the nourishment of many and keep it safe in His joyous Paradise for the everlasting Day of God and man’s immortal wedding Feast!
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard” — Matthew 20:1-2