“To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of the monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world, getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe in anything much at all down on your head.” — Flannery O’Connor
I have worked within the institutional church for 26 years. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been told by devout secular-career Catholics over the years, “I wish I could work for God like you do.” Before reading John Paul II’s magna carta on the lay vocation, Christifidelis laici, I would probably have agreed with them at some level. I may have subconsciously thought I was in possession of a real luxury to do God-stuff most of the time. In fact, I vividly recall an encounter where this tension came up in an assaulting way.
I came to know a Catholic gentleman who was a professor at Florida State. When I met him, he had only recently come back to the faith after attending a men’s retreat at a friend’s invitation. He expressed to me one day over a cup of coffee his painful feeling of regret that he was trapped in a worldly job at a secular university. He grieved the fact that, because of his busy work and family obligations, he could not get more involved in parish activities and ministries and prayer groups. One day over lunch he told me that he really envied my job, getting to work “so close to God” every day. I recall stumbling for a reply to assuage his sadness, and said something like, “God will reward your sacrifices.” I think I also managed to protest my unworthiness to serve God in the way I was able to as a church employee. At least that was a start.
Later that same year (1996 or so) I happened on Christifidelis laici. I read it through in one sitting. I recall being so captivated by its message. After I finished reading it, I wrote in my journal for about two hours. I wrote, “How did I miss this? How did this not come up in my graduate degree work? This is revolutionary.” The next week I decided to write that FSU professor a letter. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote to him:
…I’m writing to finish our conversation the day we met for coffee. I was of no help to you that day, but I think I have something worthwhile to say to you today…
… Yes it’s a privilege to work for the church as a layman. I try to never take it for granted. It’s a grave gift and responsibility! But you have to know our Pope’s teaching is that it is I who am the abnormal layman seeking holiness by doing church work. A blessed abnormality, but abnormality nonetheless. I am the exception, not the rule. You are the rule, not the exception. The universal call of the laity is to become saints by consecrating the world to God by living and working within it. Like leaven kneaded into dough, or like a soul needs a body, the secular world needs you.
…And my vocational abnormality exists for one purpose: to serve your vocational normality. I am set apart to serve you who are sent out. Your calling and mission in the world is the essential reason priests, Religious and laity like myself are “set apart” from the secular world. We are set apart not because we are an elite class, better and holier. We are set apart so that we might serve you. Set apart to inspire, encourage, educate, pray for and support your calling to be in the world, in your family, consecrating the whole of it from the inside out. If monks and nuns are called to consecrate their lives to God by renouncing this world to remind us laity that earth was made for heaven, we laity are called by God to live our lives immersed in this world to remind Religious that heaven is made of earth consecrated by our lives.
…As a man with a secular career, who is a married with a family, you are an exemplar of who and what the laity are called by God to be in their highest and noblest manifestation. As a Catholic layman you are on the front lines of the Church, struggling to bring light to darkness, joy to sorrow, truth to falsehood, faith to a faithless world in order to lift it back to God in thanksgiving. When you are away from parish activities you are not simply absent, but sent. You are church wherever you are, drawing close to Christ in the world and drawing Him close to the world …
He called me the day he got my letter and said, “Tom, you cannot imagine what you did for me. I feel like an enormous weight of guilt has been lifted from my shoulders, or like scales have fallen from my tear drenched eyes…”
The laity are first and foremost to be fully engaged citizens of this world, serving as an outpost of the City of God in the City of Man. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium put this forcefully:
The laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.
In fact, the Council continues, failing to be a faithful citizen of the temporal world is eternally risky business:
This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. 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.
Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The lay faithful who neglect their temporal duties, neglect their duties toward neighbor and even God, and jeopardize their eternal salvation.
Last summer I had a long chat with a priest I know who is a college campus chaplain. We were discussing the trend among younger on-fire, orthodox Catholics to dissociate themselves from secular life. I wrote down in my journal some of my insights from that conversation– here’s a snippet:
… Being insulated in church circles is much safer, less conflict. Especially for those who’ve had sudden conversions to Christ after having lived lives of moral wreckage. Obviously it’s important to be rooted in a strong faith community, and living the faith in a culture that grows in hostility toward religion is a serious challenge. These young men and women are suddenly thrown out there as signs of contradiction. There’s loads of dissonance between the song you’re singing and the ones others are singing. Being called to love our broken world God’s way is a really crucifixion; like living in the Colosseum and choosing during every moment of your years-long martyrdom to joyfully love the jeering crowds and your heartless executioners because you want them all to join you in the Kingdom. Being a faithful layperson promises a life of sustained tension, living between furious opposites. But Chesterton told us tension is precisely the point of our mission: “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”
Working and living outside the sanctuary safe-zone as sojourners at home in the world is fraught with ambiguities and ragged edges. The church, especially its catechists and pastors and preachers need to let the church be herself toward the lay faithful. She’s good Mother and good mothers make home a safe place come to, rest, be renewed and encouraged. But they also know their children were born to do out into the world. Mothers help children see the home as a Missal (misspelling intended) that launches children out the door to become world-consecrating saints. The church shouts out to her children at the end of every Mass: Go, be sent!
Archbishop Sheen caught this great mystery of the lay vocation with his characteristically vivid images:
The laity will have to come to a comprehension that our blessed Lord was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but in the world, on a road way, in a town garbage heap, at the crossroads where there were three languages written upon the Cross. Yes, they were Hebrew, Latin and Greek, but they could just as well have been English, Bantu or African. It would make no difference. He placed Himself at the very center of the world, in the midst of smut, thieves, soldiers and gamblers. He was there to extend pardon to them. This is the vocation of the laity: to go out into the midst of the world and make Christ known.