Every Other Day

Dear Readers,

In keeping with my changeable writing pattern, I have decided, for now, to post every other day. Gives me more time to write, and you more time to read.

Tomorrow will begin this new practice with a post, then a pause, then a post, etc. Thank you. Pax et bonum.

Ode to Twenty One Pilots

Yes, the obsession continues.

Someone recently sent me an interview with Twenty One Pilots lead singer, Tyler Joseph. He is so young, yet possesses a remarkable depth and authenticity. He is plagued by the anxieties and insecurities of our age, which makes him a powerful voice for the inhabitants of this age.

I was particularly interested when the interviewer asked him what the mission and purpose of Twenty One Pilots was; what explains the origin of their lyrics, their musical style? He struggled to answer, wading through the numbers game that dominates the music industry — profits, number of fans — and admitted these tempts him. But, he said, what really drives him is the idea that their music makes people think about life’s deepest and most universal questions. He said if their music lifted just one person up, making his or her life better and more full of joy, then that was the mission of Twenty One Pilots. “I don’t just want to entertain people,” he said, “I want them to think with me, to think about universally true things. I’m a seeker. I ask questions and hope they lead to joy.”

There’s no doubt the Christian worldview inhabits the lyrics, but Tyler is exceedingly careful not to speak with overtly religious language. He is very aware of the constraints of reaching a broad audience in a radically pluralistic world. His circumspect approach seems quite intentional. After listening to the interview, I wrote in my journal:

It’s like their music is composed and performed — “offered up” — on “the altar to an unknown God” St. Paul identified in the Areopagus of Athens (Acts 17:23). It’s a natural space to plant faith in the midst of our increasingly pagan culture, without being preachy. It’s a place where faith can encounter, give voice to and respond to the great questions and anxieties of our day. Their (lay) genius, to me, is that they are out there in the midst of that culture, singing with abandon of and to an unknown, hidden and humble God.

I also wrote a poem in my journal after hearing the interview. It’s my summary take on what I see to be their artistic mission. If I could send them a message, which I have concluded I cannot, it would be this poem.

Prophets of Zeitgeist

Voice of angst, prophets of zeitgeist
in authenticity, integrity unsacrificed
inscribing, singing a silent Christ
by twining faith in life, deftly spliced.

Rappers of deepest dark reality
facing who we are, we long to be
discovered by Truth who sets free
we, a restless, twisted humanity.

Not thru preaching, but evoking;
not thru imposing, but provoking
us to think thoughtfully; soaking
greying despair in colorful cloaking

by words that cut, yes make us bleed
though then only to heal and feed
souls yearning for an immortal creed
that won’t break the most fragile reed.

Your call and mission seem clear:
daring us hope in a world of fear;
outing a hidden God, so silently near
who whispers, “I am with you, here
wiping, drying, shedding every tear.”

Now and again

Dear Readers:

Beginning June 14 my new blog routine will begin. I will only post once in a while, as I concentrate on turning my work here into publishable material. If you would like to be made aware of new posts when they come be sure to sign up for the emailed version –>

Thank you to all readers of Neal Obstat. We pray for one another! God be with you.

I will leave you with my second favorite Twenty One Pilots song, Trees. It is a simply profound exploration of the heart of prayer: emerging from hiding to face God and say, “Hello.” I will offer no more explanation than to quote Genesis 3:8-10:

And they heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Yahweh God among the trees of the garden. But Yahweh God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”And he said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

I’m not a Christian singer


I was sitting in McDonald’s the other day waiting for my car to be repaired, trying to write up some end-of-the-academic-year reports amid the noises that tend to populate a McDonald’s. Right above me was a TV that was blaring daytime talk shows. I mustered all of the skills of attentiveness that I have acquired over the years studying and writing amidst screaming children running wild in the house.I was successful until this one interview caught my attention.

I don’t know the name of the TV show, but the host was interviewing a rap artist about his lyrics. When I heard the beginning of the discussion, I stopped my work and started typing what I heard. Evidently his lyrics are free from the usual fare of profanity and sexually explicit content, which makes him unique among pop rap artists. Although he said he talks in his music about real-life struggles, and especially the hard realities of inner city life, he refuses to glorify sex, drugs and violence. The man interviewing him finally asked him, “So, are you a Christian artist?” He said, “It depends on what you mean by that.” He went on to say that there’s a real danger in putting himself in that genre of music, because he would immediately get stereotyped and holed-up in the “religion” box. He said something like this,

If I come into a studio to record and sing a song about life on the streets of Chicago — and that means tellin’ my stories about broken relationships or poverty or despair or about just tryin’ to make a livin’ — and then in the middle of my song happen mention Jesus, they’re gonna to say to me: ‘Yo man, what’s up? You a Gospel singer?’ I say, no man. But what that basically means is, ‘You ain’t a serious rapper cuz if you Christian you have to be all nice and sweet and syrupy about everything. They right away think you ain’t gonna be real and down low with the rest of us. Pie in the sky kinda deal. If you religious, they say, you can’t tell it like it is.’

But that’s not true, man, you know what I mean? Just cuz God comes into the picture doesn’t mean now you unreal, can’t face the dirt on the streets. But that’s the way they see it in the industry. So look, I can say I’m a Christian man who raps, but I can’t say I’m a Christian rapper. Then it’s all over for my career. I’ll get pigeonholed. See, religion’s been put inside this box and you’re either in or out. You can’t be both. You got Christian music and you got secular music. Oil and water. But I don’t like the box, so I just ignore it and sing about life. And God’s just, like, already out there in real life, so I ain’t tryin’ to drag people where they ain’t already livin’. I’m just showin’ what I can see. It’s the same world they see, except faith lets me see God’s right there in the middle of everything. And I want to show it’s a much better world when He’s around, you know?

His brilliant insight reveals very well the depth of impact a radically privatized faith has on how that faith is expressed in public. Every day we move closer toward what Richard Neuhaus called the “naked public square,” where religion is stripped from public life either by being domesticated and contained or by being altogether excluded.

It seems to me that artists, like this rap singer, are particularly well positioned to challenge and help us rethink the hegemony of this aggressively atheistic paradigm by reintroducing a vision of faith that does not threaten to abolish or overwhelm real life, but rather embraces it, builds on it, beautifies it, purifies it and perfects in it all that is good, true and beautiful.

As Pope Benedict XVI said so eloquently:

Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.

As I am writing here of pop culture and faith, I have no option but to mention Twenty One Pilots. I believe they transgress the artificial barriers between faith and life, revealing in their music the infinite ways in which faith and life shade into one another. Their music leaves you more honest, more hopeful and more human precisely because they see so clearly that Christ is what it means to be fully human, God’s way. Like the rapper, I would say Twenty One Pilots is not a “Christian band,” but are musicians whose creativity emerges out of a rich Christian imagination. To that point, I mentioned to someone the other day that they epitomize Paul’s (slightly reworked) injunction:

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, sing about these things (Phil. 4:8).

By the way, I found out yesterday they are coming to New Orleans in March. I am beyond manic about it.

Back to my point. They are particularly masterful at giving clear voice to the existential “feel” of living in a post-Christian culture that is no longer sustained by a Christian architecture. Ours is a deracinated culture, uprooted from faith and so rife with anxiety. Our world has lost its sacraments, repealed its laws, silenced its scriptures, and rendered opaque the stained glass windows that once let in the light of eternity, leaving us stumbling about in the dark. Twenty One Pilots articulates, with such grit, the tremors of Doubt that shake our cultural landscape, especially among the young. Yet — their gift! — they teach us how to pray right out of the heart of this world:

“…entering the kingdom of God before you…” Matthew 21:31


Jesus eating with sinners

God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. — Catechism #1257

We know that Jesus himself ate and drank with sinners (cf. Mk 2:16; Mt 11:19), conversed with a Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4:7-26), received Nicodemus by night (cf. Jn 3:1-21), allowed his feet to be anointed by a prostitute (cf. Lk 7:36-50) and did not hesitate to lay his hands on those who were sick (cf. Mk 1:40-45; 7:33). The same was true of his apostles, who did not look down on others, or cluster together in small and elite groups, cut off from the life of their people. — Amoris Laetitia #289

Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties”. The practical pastoral care of ministers and of communities must not fail to embrace this reality. — Amoris Laetitia #305

I was speaking to someone early last week about Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, which is something I really enjoy doing. This person is Catholic, but the vast majority of her co-workers and friends and relatives practice no faith at all. She herself was raised in a very hard home situation. She’s very bright, teaches literature at a college, loves to write and returned to her Catholic faith a number of years ago. She considers herself a “permanent seeker” because she was raised in an ocean of unbelief which was, as she says it, “kneaded into my marrow and so is hard to totally shake.” She’s quite remarkable, super-honest, incisive and on point, and we have had some of the most refreshingly candid conversations over the years.

I asked her if I could share this one point she made, and she agreed. She shared especially her frustration over what she perceives as the lack of realism among some Catholic pundit-elites who have been railing against the Pope (or the “idiots” who try to make the Pope push their own anti-church agendas). I think the point she makes in my excerpt below is more of an intuition than an argument. While it certainly does not answer the more important technical questions in Amoris about, for example, Communion for the divorced and remarried, I believe it’s a very powerful insight and captures what I consider to be the pastoral genius of Pope Francis. She said (as I recall),

Pope Francis has brought a message of hope to people who find themselves stuck in nearly hopeless dysfunction and complications — their fault or not. People who can’t imagine a seemingly pristine religion of good and saintly people having any place in their yucky life. To me, his message to people like this is: the real Jesus meets you right where you are, right now, and loves you exactly there. He wants to pick you up and take the next best step with you, no matter how incredibly small it is. You don’t have to wait for your life to get fixed first, or match up with all the moral standards, to start feeling you can be holy and worthy. It can start now, in the worst wreckage. Isn’t that where Jesus made the world right?

I think the Pope’s saying: just set aside just for a moment questions about who gets Communion, which canon laws apply or not here and there, and let’s meet the human being where they are, as they are. Let’s show them Jesus wants to eat a meal with them right now. Alright, not Communion yet, maybe, but still a real meal. Right? Not the Real Presence but He’s still really present. And He’s hanging out right in the middle of the sinner’s dinner, long before we get to the Last Supper, and salvation is already there. No matter how furious the Pharisees grow, He’s free to spread His riches as He wishes.

My niece is on her third marriage with as many children, and she seems to have finally found a decent guy who treats her well and holds a job and loves her kids. Her life is really messed up. So is his. But Francis tells me I can invite her back to church today and let her know that God is ready to take her back today and fill her with all His love, even though her life’s still so far off the mark. It’s not that we say everything’s okay, or don’t worry about the annulment. It’s that we say, “God loves you when everything’s not okay and loves you in every step you take forward; in every time you fall back and get up again. He never quits loving.” And even if you die still muddling around, there can be holiness.

Imagine telling people far from the mark there can still be holiness for them here and now. That’s awesome, more hopeful than many critics of the Pope would ever realize. I am convinced that unless you share life with people in desperate situations all the time, you really cannot read Amoris this way; or get its core point. The Pope’s lived with people like that for a long time. The Jubilee of Mercy is designed for people who seem stuck in merciless hells.

I already let my niece know that the Pope says to her — even if she’s not ready for Communion or Confession with all her and his unresolved marriages — God’s mercy is everywhere and God loves her just as infinitely today as He will the on the day she, God willing, can take Communion again. I’ve got her praying now and reading the Bible, and the next step is back to Mass. So far so good. She’s loving finding herself loved. Repentance only comes, it seems, when that is known first…

Fr. Tom Hopko echoed this point:

A woman once wrote me: “Some people seem to come out of the womb with a spiritual silver spoon in their mouths. Yeah, maybe they have huge trials, but they also are holy from their childhood. They have all the advantages that leave them inclined to make good use of all the graces they’ve been showered with. Others get to be used and abused and never even have a choice. And never get to be saints, because they’re just too damaged. If, as the Church teaches, God calls us all to be saints, why is it that he lets some people to get so damaged by life that the best they can do is stumble around the rocks at the foot of the spiritual mountain, never able to trust God enough to make it up the mountain?”

But I would dare to say, maybe that’s the vocation! And if a person still stumbles around the foot of the mountain, and they’re still at the foot of the mountain, and they still have enough sense to know that they’re never going to make it up, my guess is that that person is a saint. That person will be saved. Man, according to the Holy Fathers, if you know that you’re a sinner and you can’t do anything, you’re already saved. You’re saved. If you’re stumbling around the foot of the mountain, you’re saved. You’re a saint. Who knows, maybe you’ll get on an icon one day. Probably not, but that doesn’t matter. It really does not matter. It shouldn’t matter in any case, and if it does matter, then 99.9% of us are in huge trouble if that’s what matters. It doesn’t matter.

I love Fr. Tom.

I will end with that stunning selection from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment that I have quoted three times in this blog before. The book is a must-read! In this scene, Marmaladov, a drunkard and despicable lout who allows his own daughter to take up prostitution to feed the family, and spends her money on alcohol, gives voice to Dostoevsky’s vision of divine mercy that comes to full flower in the midst of the Last Judgment:

…And He will forgive my Sonya, He will forgive, I know it. I felt it in my heart when I was with her just now! And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek. And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. “You too come forth,” He will say, “Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!” And we shall come forth without shame and shall stand before Him, and He will say unto us, “Ye are swine made in the image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!” And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, “O Lord, why dost thou receive these men?” And He will say, “This is why I receive them, O ye wise, this is why I receive them, O ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.” And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him and we shall weep and we shall understand all things! Then we shall understand all!… and all will understand, Katerina Ivanovna even… she will understand…Lord, Thy kingdom come!

St. Augustine said, “If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are meaningless.”


Lay Geniuses, Part III


[Alas, the third and final installment! Apologies for any and all grammatical issues as I had no time to edit]

There are two temptations can be cited which the laity have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that they 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 … The laity fulfill this mission of the Church in the world by conforming their lives to their faith so that they become the light of the world. By practicing honesty in all their dealings they attract all to the love of the true and the good, and finally to the Church and to Christ. They fulfill their mission by fraternal charity which presses them to share in the living conditions, labors, sorrows, and hopes of all people, thus quietly preparing others for the workings of saving grace. — Christifidelis laici

When my wife and I lived in Brandon, Florida, we came to know a man who lived in central Florida and was very involved in an inner city outreach to youth who had run away from home to join street gangs. He had reverted to his Catholic faith about five years before we met him. He worked for a fairly large consulting firm and was married with three children. He said to me that before his personal conversion, he was like most guys his age: worked hard, played hard, drank hard and was willing to cut moral corners when it served his interests. He shared with me his remarkable faith journey story, and gave me permission to share a few parts of that story in my teaching work. I will share a small portion of one of those stories here because it so perfectly illustrates my point. I’ll call him Simon.

Only days after his life-changing spiritual awakening, Simon was at work. It was break-time and, as was the custom at the end of a weekend, his male co-workers gathered to talk about their weekend adventures. “The day had come,” he said, “when, even though I knew I was a different man inside, I now had to call up the courage to go public and face the heat.” His co-worker buddies began to engage in what was previously his favorite part of this Monday morning tradition: the graphic sharing of their weekend “sexcapades and score stories”, i.e. they would each take turns sharing explicit details of sexual experiences with hook-ups, girlfriends or even their wives. He said it was a combination of “whoa!” and “haha!” stories.

When it was his time to tell-all in the circle, he panicked. Then he said a simple prayer to himself, “Help me God.” He decided in that moment that, instead of condemning the practice, he would just tell a story about his wife to honor her. Nothing to do with sex. After he finished, they all laughed awkwardly. One guy said, “What the hell man. That’s a f-ing downer. What’s up with that?” He said he tried to (very awkwardly) share his recent experience of God. A few of the guys responded with mild ridicule and a few “Jesus-freak” comments. But one of the guys came up afterward and asked him in private, “What’s up, man? What’s your new deal?” That coworker eventually became Catholic. Soon after this experience, the Monday morning group stopped meeting. And over two or so years, the influence of these two men brought about a culture change within the firm.

It’s dangerous to speak the mind of God into the City of Man, especially in our post-Christian culture that has declared the Christ and His Church to be mentally ill. But Christians are martyrs at heart and, in their finer moments, have always been the world’s greatest risk-takers — willing to chance being labeled by the world as a fool in order to lead that world back to God. All the gifts of grace and nature, of Sacraments and Scripture, of Religious and clergy are at the service of birthing Christian men and women who live their faith on the front lines, outside the walls of Jerusalem, bearing Christ into culture. For these secular saints, holiness emerges from their wholehearted and Christ-minded engagement in civic life, culture, business, economics, education, politics, science, technology, the armed forces, agriculture, marriage and family life. These serve as the altar on which they offer themselves as a living sacrifice to God for the life of the world (Rom. 12:1).

The Church needs secular saints whose vibrant life of prayer, participation in the Sacraments and in the Church’s communal life throws them back out into the secular world as their native place of flourishing. We need secular saints ready to exit the security of the leaven-jar in order to be kneaded deep into the heart of an unleavened world, saints who flip over every bushel basket to expose the light of Christ in the darkness. We especially need young people falling deeply in love with Jesus, who find their hearts burning to be the social, political and cultural movers and shakers. The Church’s evangelizing strategy has always been to send out culture-making “creative minorities” who are capable of effecting local transformations that feed into broader cultural revolutions. In the past, most of these have been clergy and Religious. But now the Church, kindled by the Spirit, says with special urgency to the lay faithful: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15) by “doing the world” God’s way with that genius that is specifically yours.

The Church’s sacred ministers must help lay men and women in this vocational discernment and encourage them to persevere in their very challenging secular mission. These laity must come to see that their mysticism is not world-fleeing but thoroughly incarnational, wrapped up in God’s self-emptying entry into the ordinary world of family and culture, trade work and play. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of human beings.” These words of the Council set out a spiritual vision for the lay faithful that they might be fully aware that, for them, union with Christ comes about by means of their radical solidarity with the world.

Only a laity invested with this vision of the spiritual life can possibly serve as wellsprings of a new culture and civilization. Only secular saints can give rise to new economists, new artists, new politicians, new journalists, new educators, new students, new spouses and parents, new car mechanics, new salesmen, new justice advocates, new janitors, new business leaders, new lawyers, new doctors and nurses, new digital evangelizers, each of whom excel in their respective field while being thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Gospel.

To be a secular mystic
is to see the intimate bond
between the board room and the indwelling Trinity;
between the bedroom and the Eucharistic Liturgy;
between taking out the trash on Wednesday morning
and taking up the Offertory on Sunday morning;
between harvesting grapes and thumbing rosary beads;
between tailgate parties and the wedding feast of the Lamb.
Without this vision,
one will never discover the way of perfection
in real life,
wherein God lurks in the dust and in the fire.
Secular mystics
must embrace this inextricable bond
if they are to see the glory that fills heaven and earth.
Here abides a most extraordinary truth:
in Christ God made the most
mundane, secular, worldly activities
His own; divinized them
and rendered all of them capax Dei,
“capable of God.”
Learning to love the world with the God
who so loves the world
is the key to lay sanctity.

Secular geniuses set the world free to be itself. The Church must be fiercely dedicated to inspiring the lay faithful become these secular mystics, to become Christ’s Body speaking all languages, living in all states of life, mastering all cultures. These world-wise Catholics stand ready to dialogue 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 promote this absurd idea that the really serious, converted and faithful Catholic must dwell in sacristies and sanctuaries, always doing religious things, and are only really “working for God” if they are doing ministry. When we indiscriminately encourage the lay faithful to abandon their worldly careers, secular interests, secular ties or, most terrifying of all, their marital and family priorities, we renounce the mission of the Church given by Jesus. For the secular saint, church activities, ecclesial ministries and religious practices are always to be seen as servants to their core vocation and mission: to do the world God’s way.

Let me end this obscenely long reflection with a final story.

I had a conversation with a young Catholic student at Florida State University that he graciously allowed me to pass on. He once mentioned to me that after his conversion to Christ he felt guilty and dirty every time he did anything that wasn’t religious or churchy. He said:

I feel like I always have to be doing church stuff to feel like I’m close to God. I mean, I totally enjoy all those things, but I feel schizophrenic. I feel like every time I do something outside of the religious world, like if I listen to non-religious music or hang with my non-religious friends or talk about sports or other secular stuff I feel like I’m somehow settling for less. I mean even if I’m not really doing anything wrong I still feel compromised. I hate it, but I can’t shake it. It feels like religious and secular things are oil and water. There’s God-stuff and there’s world-stuff. It’s like life after a bad divorce. Everything seems tainted by the split.

I told him that his previous lifestyle that involved sexual promiscuity, alcohol and drugs before his conversion had saddled him with a long and hard journey ahead. Fusing faith with a dis-integrated moral character is hard work, and I told him he’d have to endure lots of purifying grace from God that would require years of persevering struggle. But I also told him that is what would make him a great saint! But I also told him that if he continued to embrace this divided worldview he would always feel caught in an unresolvable conflict, and that if he remained stuck there too long he would be mightily tempted to abandon the faith, to become lukewarm or try to hide from the world and isolate. He went on to finish his pre-med work and is now in medical school. And he has persevered, thanks be to God.

19th century English Poet Charles Swinburne famously decried what he saw as a bloodless, world-hating Christian vision of life, saying of Christ:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath…

We must belie that accusation and become artists who reveal the infinite colors God has given to the world. We must be the apologia for Pope Benedict’s words, “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great.” We Catholics go to Mass, pray the rosary, go on pilgrimages, spend holy hours in church, become involved in ministries, talk about God just as we read the newspaper with a cup of coffee, go to a movie, feed the hungry, play cards with our kids, tinker with the car, go hunting, play pool, cultivate excellence in our professions, learn to dance, enjoy sports, read a good novel, make love to our spouse and sip a glass of Chianti with a friend while listening to some good jazz music in the French Quarter. And all the while talking about the world. All these things precisely because we are called to be holy, and make the world so, too.

It all matters, as Steven reminds us:

Lay Geniuses, Part II


“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.