O Church: Serve the Sacred Secularists!

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One very big obstacle to getting a significant number of lay Catholics to participate in missionary formation is the fact that, when this formation is complete, there will be no “job” for the “graduate” to perform. The current lay ministry formation processes run successfully on the hopeful premise that after lay students complete their formation they will be employed or given meaningful work by a pastor, or a hospital or a prison or some diocesan office. There is no such incentive for formation in the lay apostolate. This is a real hurdle to overcome if we are to attract larger numbers of parishioners to a formation in a theology of the laity. In short, after any education in the meaning of lay life is complete (if it ever really is), one will simply remain, for example, a plumber, a doctor, a truck driver, and will continue in the vocation of marriage, with two children, a dog, and a house payment. The missing incentive of getting to do pastoral ministry (e.g., being an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist or a visitor to the sick), cannot in itself abrogate the necessity of finding a way to offer such formation. To neglect this task is to neglect our duty to fill the world with secular missionaries. — Deacon James Keating

I met with some colleagues yesterday to discuss lay faith formation. You know, my same ole’ trope. Here’s my journal entry from last night. A collage of thoughts:

Every diocese, and every parish and Catholic institution in every diocese, should communicate unambiguously that their best energies are in service to lay Catholics called to live and move and have their being in the world, doing their secular things, and learning how to do them God’s way. In service to helping the lay faithful discover, embrace and carry out their noble secular vocations. Their best energies in service to the work of formation, catechesis, preaching, cultivating small faith communities, etc. All geared toward adequately resourcing those 99% of Catholics not called to church ministry but called to be salt, light and leaven in the lay apostolate. All geared toward illumining the specificities of people’s professional lives; the specificities of their life as faithful citizens in the ordinary, local, day to day worlds they inhabit; the specificities of their married/family lives; the specificities of their engagement with culture.

Those called and gifted for church ministry, ordained or not, need to be all about the specificities of these secular missionaries, experts in the actual details of the real people they are called to serve in the parish, school, nursing home, hospital, etc. under their care.

I remember when a reader of this blog 2 years ago wrote me and begged the church for this:

I am a cradle Catholic and a business owner. I have been very active in my parish for most of my adult life and I have had the benefit of having very orthodox priests and pastors in my life.

Here is my problem. A struggle every day with a whole variety of issues which challenge my ability to live my Catholic Faith in the business world, a world which is agnostic at it’s best and anti-Christian at it’s worst. I am dying for assistance on this, but what do I get at my parish? Homilies which deal with things too general to be helpful, from “do good and avoid evil” to immigration reform and abortion. Don’t get me wrong, I totally believe everything Mother Church teaches and I appreciate homilies which remind me of her teachings. But the Church also teaches us to live our Faith out in the world, and I am not getting any help on doing this.

So I beg you, Dr. Neal, to pursue your inspiration to find people who can speak to those of us in the secular world.

My business consultant friends tell me that if you want to find out how to improve service to your customers, you need to talk to the customers and ask how you can serve them. Even better, talk to former customers and find out why they left.

I’m not saying that the Church is a business, but I have never heard of a priest asking his parishioners for homily ideas. Actually, that is not quite accurate. I have heard many “church people” telling the pastor that he needs to deliver a strong message from the pulpit to the riff raff who show up late, are inappropriately dressed, leave early, etc. I’ve been on all the committees, so I know that the pastor is busy, but perhaps the pastor needs to talk to the riff raff to find out why they arrive late and leave early. And by “talk to,” I don’t mean send out a check-the-box questionnaire. I mean really get to know them, like a father knows his children.

Isn’t that how it is supposed to be?

I desire nothing more in my work as a theologian-catechist than to detonate this “lay apostolate” teaching of the Second Vatican Council in the midst of the ecclesiastical scene of America. I feel I am inept before such an immense task! I want to kiss the feet of those who are sent out into the world to live there, love there, work there, play there, witness there, struggle there, suffer there in order to bring every aspect of the secular life they inhabit into contact with the re-creating power of the living God.

The aggressiveness of anti-religious secularism begs for an equally impassioned religious secularism, an unleashing of the secular genius of the laity that does not withdraw into safe-zone ministries or world-renouncing enclaves insulated from society and culture, but a laity that boldly exits every Mass with a re-enkindled sense of their world-enhancing mission to imbue all-things-secular with the very earthy love of God.

In particular, two temptations can be cited which they have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world. — St. John Paul II

Those of us who are Baptized are living temples (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19), bearing within the fullness of a God who longs to take delight in His creation. As His image, we were created to be the locus of His delight in creation, the nexus of His love, the fire of His justice, the channel of His peace, the overflow of His mercy, a prism for the light of His Face to shine gloriously on all things He has made (Revelation 4:3). Man’s vocation is to reveal to all creation that His love for her transcends her finite longings. It is astonishing to think that it was by becoming man (John 1:14) that God chose to purify, reconcile (Isaiah 11:6-9), elevate, espouse (Isaiah 62:4) and reveal to all creation her final destiny of transfiguration in a New Creation where God will be all in all. The Incarnation was not just about us, but about the whole cosmos He entrusted to our care to cultivate and lift back to Him transformed and consecrated by means of our priestly hands (Romans 8:18-30; 12:1).

How God loves all He has made (Wisdom 11:24-12:1)!

St. Maximus says it beautifully:

…the Cause of all things, through the beauty, goodness and profusion of His intense love for everything, goes out of Himself in His providential care for the whole of creation. By means of the supra-essential power of ecstasy, and spell-bound as it were by goodness, love and longing, He relinquishes His utter transcendence in order to dwell in all things while yet remaining within Himself. Hence those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things; for he longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.

6 comments on “O Church: Serve the Sacred Secularists!

  1. The hardest thing I am faced with is when conversation turns toward faith and questions are asked. How to explain a rich faith full of Christ in a 30 second soundbite? People have little patience (even if they have time)for conversation. Breaking false perceptions held for years infrequently happens in 5 minutes.

    • Right! For me, for you, for all. Trying to share the faith in an A.D.D. world is brutal. And knowing lots of theology does not make it easier. So much of witness these days is embodying the Gospel, lending credibilty to faith by our manner of life. Like Pope Paul VI’s “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” The way we respond to frustration, incompetence, failure, setbacks, gossip, unethical behavior in our work life, or our commitment to excellence in all we do, is vastly more eloquent than a 30 second catechesis about some doctrine. And…If picking up a pin for love of God saves souls (Therese, as you know), imagine the power of enduring an entire day at work, offered with love for our co-workers! That’s the advantage of being hooked into the Incarnate Word, who won the whole world while fixed fast to a Rood, surrounded by scoffers.
      Thanks for the comment!
      Miss seeing you…🙂

      • beads2rosaries says:

        Another struggle for those in the work a day world is the desire for some to blend all Christianity into one simple pot. “It doesn’t matter” is the mantra. How does one demonstrate similar Christian values but voice the differences of faith which are so rich and deep? Another laity puzzle.

  2. Yes, again, the entire witness of faith is a laity puzzle — and requires from the church a sustained commitment to faith formation that meets people in the specificities of their context; which is why all formative outreaches must be in constant contact with real-time people and listen to/respond to their actual needs. So what you describe here, for example, reflects our culture’s tendency to minimize truth claims and relegate religious difference to personal preference or irrelevant semantics. Though, truth be told, most of those types of “indifference” betray simple ignorance of the facts. So it seems that one who would want to respond to this “at work” would (1) have to be able to articulate at some level what does in fact unite Christians in one Body; and (2) what are the distinctives that set them apart as a broken Body; and (3) why Christianity can never rest with a broken Body but demands a reconciled unity-in-diversity in faith-hope-charity; and (4) how one comes to make those truth-claims as a Catholic that are “rich and deep.” And if what you describe is indeed a prevalant experience for laity (which it is in America), it should permeate ecclesial formation, catechesis, preaching, etc. to help people like yourself engage those challenges fruitfully. So you’ve offered a great example that could be endlessly proliferated with new challenges and examples. The beauty of the endless challenges is that each represents a new opportunity for/vocation to exploration, growth and deepening of one’s faith-hope-love! Thanks!

  3. jerry says:

    Thank you for your commitment, Dr. Neal. I’m still following you!
    With gratitude,
    jerry

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