What the Laity Knead


When I was in Omaha recently, I had lunch with a dear friend. We got to talking about the lay vocation (a shock, I know), and the need for the church to re-focus its faith formation and preaching energies on the primary mission of the vast majority of lay men and women: the secular apostolate. For those who’ve read my thought on this, it’s same ole. Here’s a jumbled summary of our combined insights that I wrote in my journal:

The church’s best institutional energies and resources need to be channeled into exalting the exalted call of those lay men and women living and working “in the world.” Those who work in church ministry, both ordained and non-ordained, need to foster a new culture in the church that makes clear, among other things, that (1) all sacred and ecclesial ministry exists in service to the secular apostolate of the baptized (CCC #1120); (2) the secular apostolate discovers its ecclesial center of gravity principally in the home, the office, the market square, the theatre, the construction site, the hospital, the slum, and so on; (3) radical holiness among those “set apart” from the world – Religious, clergy, laity devoted to church ministries – is not meant to become the devoted focus of secular laity (=clericalism). Rather, set-apart holiness points away from itself toward the sent-out, empowering, illumining, encouraging and lifting up the dignity and mission of the lay faithful in the world.

The Eucharist is the gravitational center of ecclesial life, but important to remember that it calls the laity out of the world only to offer, receive and be sent out again. Venite always leads to ite.

The holy cleric, monk, lay ecclesial minister embraces with joy their own magnificent calling unto fascination with the secular apostolate of the laity by which the “world itself is consecrated to God.”

The consecrated hands of the ordained celebrant of the liturgy should tremble with awe and holy fear as the Gifts of the Faithful are brought forward in the Offertory, for he knows that these costly gifts come drenched in the sweat and tears of his people. And as he sees those Gifts brought forward to him, he feels overwhelming joy to see the fruit of all his labors in their harvest.

Those who are “set apart” from the secular concerns of the world in sacred ministry and consecrated life don’t exist as a superior caste, or as a sacred reproach to those who remain fully immersed in the secular world. Though they turn their backs on the world, they don’t turn their backs on those called by God to remain in the world. Rather, these men and women are set apart precisely so they can turn back toward Christ’s lay faithful, who face the heat of battle on the front lines, and minister to them.

The hostility of secular culture against religion has created an ecclesial culture of extremes: assimilation and isolation. In assimilation, faith becomes the handmaiden of the dominant culture. In isolation, faith creates a subculture that insulates itself from the dominant culture. The church’s vision for the lay vocation is the creation of faith-formed subcultures that neither assimilate nor isolate, but separate in order to fully engage. These subcultures are formed in families, parishes, schools, faith-based communities, and so on. They create safe “bushel baskets” under which a great flame can be kindled, only to at-once cast off those baskets and unleash the heat and light into the cold and stormy darkness. They gather together purified leaven only so it might at-once be roughly kneaded into the tough, unleavened dough. They refine a savory salt only to at-once be scattered abroad to season a corrupt world and make all things fresh again.

Between the two extremes of assimilation and isolation is nailed the Crucified Christ. Thus Venerable Fulton Sheen: “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 world and make Christ known.”

It’s why so few choose this via media between these tempting extremes. But we need a church that celebrates this virtuous middle, and that celebrates the extraordinarily ordinary, radical, mystical, common bread of lay life in the world that alone is well-suited for permitting God to carry out His eternal dream: to consecrate every dark corner of creation, transubstantiating it into a new creation of “truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love, and peace.”

Pope Francis catches this need so well: “As I have said before, there is a problem: the temptation to clericalism. We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own thing. And the laity–not all but many–ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar boy than the protagonist of a lay path. The layman is a layman and has to live as a layman with the strength of his baptism, which enables him to be a leaven of the love of God in society. Not from his pulpit but from his everyday life. And the priest–let the priest carry the cross of the priest, since God gave him a broad enough shoulder for this.”

8 comments on “What the Laity Knead

  1. Bro En Spiritu says:

    Is there a way to send this action plan out in an email blast to every person who works for the church in any capacity ever, from the Pope to the president of the parish knitting society? And to all the daily mass goers too for good luck?!

  2. Dr. Neal,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. This is something I have been wrestling with and am becoming very convicted about — the beauty and excitement (and even humble, not-so-flashy radicality) of the virtuous middle! Thank you for more great insights into the lay vocation. Keep em comin, even if you feel like you’re beating a dead horse. I can’t get enough of this stuff.

  3. Blake Brooks says:

    Dr. Neal,

    Great article. I will def read some more of your thoughts on this topic. It is good to know that you are at a seminary and influencing future pastors. I am curious if you could recommend specific people or groups that you’ve come across that do an exceptional job with the secular apostolate?

    When I was a seminarian (recently) I experienced lots of resistance and suspicion among some faculty and students when talking about the laity. It was sometimes as if building up the laity automatically made you anti-priesthood.

    Maybe this resistance stemmed from things that these guys witnessed in the 70’s and 80’s after the Council, as well as a deep seeded maintenance mentality in the Church? Also, it seems that a major barrier for priest and seminarian support is that many lay leaders and groups operate on intuition and experience heavily without referencing Church documents or using traditional language/phrases. Guys would just write them off rather than try and help form them.

    Have you experienced any resistance or suspicion like this?

  4. Brian John says:

    Thank you Dr. Neal for your insights and encouragements. Clearly Holy Spirit inspired! God Bless you.

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