Laity and such

[except for the last quote, I wrote this Blog 18 months ago and left it unfinished. Pope Francis gave me the end I was looking for, and as I shared this week another early “aha” insight in my own theological career I thought this was a nice sequel. I have written a dozen times on this topic here, but, as they say, repetition is the mother of all learning! 

I still remember the first time I read the documents of the Second Vatican Council back in 1990, in class taught by moral theologian Dr. Germain Grisez (see his work here). As I had at that time assumed church documents would be dry and abstract, I was amazed at their beauty, depth, relevance and clarity of expression. But what I recall most vividly was being thunderstruck by a particular paragraph in Gaudium et Spes that contended was still a long way from being translated into on-the-ground catechesis and preaching.

This text seemed to me to be a key that unlocked the possibility of living an integrated life in the world, and not always feeling intractably torn between my religious identity and my secular identity. Though the deeper implications of this insight would not occur to me until over a decade later, it was one of those “aha” moments that remains a vivid memory and, as with so much of my theological education, blew my confused categories wide open and reconfigured them. Please bear with me here as I share that (lengthy) quote that once caught my attention:

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. Long since, the Prophets of the Old Testament fought vehemently against this scandal and even more so did Jesus Christ Himself in the New Testament threaten it with grave punishments. Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation. Christians should rather rejoice that, following the example of Christ Who worked as an artisan, they are free to give proper exercise to all their earthly activities and to their humane, domestic, professional, social and technical enterprises by gathering them into one vital synthesis with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are harmonized unto God’s glory. #43

When I read this I blurted out, “What?!” To neglect temporal duties — non-religious, worldly activities — is to jeopardize salvation? To pursue fully and freely “earthly activities” represents a necessary and vital complement of religious activities? You mean being secular, in the sense of doing worthy non-religious things, leads to salvation? Really? I’d always thought it was doing religious stuff that was holy and saving, and that secular activities were at best neutral ground. Or maybe it was a place of benign exile where we have to go to gather enough worldly mammon to keep the lights on at Church. Or again, even when the exile temporarily relents and allows us to exit earth’s Egypt and occasionally taste of the heavenly Sabbath, being religious really is meant to steel our tainted souls against the unfortunate and inevitable regression back into a secular exile within the world of jobs, civic associations, community social events, sports, non-religious music and the like. But to imagine a harmonized “vital synthesis” of earth and heaven, secular and sacred, worldly and Godly was just too outside the box for me to easily reconcile intellectually or, more poignantly, psychologically and spiritually. I thought my conversion experience years prior had finally freed me from worldly concerns and dedicate my whole life to God alone.

Then I read another line further down in paragraph #43 that gave me the knock-out punch:

It is to the laity, though not exclusively to them, that secular duties and activity properly belong.

In other words, in the language of the Council, the vocation and mission of the laity is found principally in “secular duties,” in laboring in those profane spheres of life and culture that are not overtly religious.   What does this look like? What does that mean that we must do? The document continues:

Let the laity also by their combined efforts remedy the customs and conditions of the world, if they are an inducement to sin, so that they all may be conformed to the norms of justice and may favor the practice of virtue rather than hinder it. By so doing they will imbue culture and human activity with genuine moral values; they will better prepare the field of the world for the seed of the Word of God; and at the same time they will open wider the doors of the Church by which the message of peace may enter the world. #36

The laity are missioned by God to infest and invade every crevice of the secular world around them in order to illumine its truly beautiful good and imbue its distortions with the refining fires of the Gospel. It’s precisely there, plunged into the secular, that each discovers their unique genius, their specific mission. Whether it be in marriage and family life, careers, education, politics, arts, entertainment or social action — every and any dimension of human culture! — the Christian faithful are to embrace their personal vocation to make known the Christ whose Incarnation has bound Him to the whole fabric of human existence, rendering the whole of creation capax Dei, “capable of God.” For the lay faithful, Christ is most fully encountered and served in midst of their life’s daily demands, in their leisure and in their suffering. In other words, a spirituality that is uniquely appropriate to the laity is one that harmonizes with where their secular mission leads them, and their spiritual greatness corresponds to the extent to which they offer their lives in service to raising up a fallen world. The laity become saints not by cursing and fleeing from the ruins of a fallen City of Man, but rather by raising out of the midst of those ruins the materials out of which the City of God is built. And they, as citizens of both Cities, are tasked, like the Master, with love for both Cities so that the reconciling Kingdom of God might dawn hope for all mankind.

Let me end with a reflection given by Pope Francis on the lay vocation that beautifully reflects the points I wish to leave you with.

Here’s my final point: the nature of the lay vocation. In May 2009, speaking to a pastoral convention of the Diocese of Rome, Benedict XVI made a comment that many people overlooked. But I think his words have exactly the spirit that needs to guide this conference.

He said that the Church needs “a change in mindset, particularly concerning laypeople. They must no longer be viewed as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy, but truly recognized as ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity.”

Christians are in the world, but not of the world. We belong to God, and our home is heaven. But we’re here for a reason: to change the world, for the sake of the world, in the name of Jesus Christ. That work belongs to each of us. Nobody will do it for us. And the idea that we can somehow accomplish that work without engaging — in a hands-on way — the laws, the structures, the public policies, the habits of mind and the root causes that sustain injustice in our countries, is a delusion.

Laypeople are not second-class disciples in this task. They’re not second-class members of the Body of Christ. There is no such creature as a “second-class” Christian. Baptism is a sacrament of redemption; but also of equality in God’s love. Laypeople have exactly the same dignity as clergy and religious — and this moment in history cries out for mature, intelligent, zealous and faithful lay leaders in an urgent way.

Priests and bishops cannot do the work of laypeople. That’s not what Christ called us to do. It’s not what the Church formed us to do. Our role as clergy in bringing Jesus Christ to the world, and the world to Jesus Christ, flows through you lay men and women who hear the Word of God; who love the Church for the truth she teaches; and then bring that Catholic witness into society to change it and sanctify it in Christ’s name.

Every Christian life, and every choice in every Christian life, matter eternally. Laypeople, not clergy, have the task of evangelizing the secular world, and only you can do it as God intended.

So never be embarrassed by your baptism. Never be afraid of the consequences of your faith. Take pride in your Catholic identity for the blessing and mandate it is. Act on it. Share it with others.

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