On the Mission and Vocation of the Laity

Text of a talk I gave to St. Michael’s Young Adults group during Spirit and Spirits, on Monday, August 11, 2014 at the Irish Bred Pub in Opelika, AL.

Tonight I’ll be talking about the mission of the laity in the Church. I hope that by the end of this talk we will have arrived at a useful definition of laity, one that can help us grow in awareness of how we can better serve God, His Church and, in fact, the entire world. This is an important topic for several reasons. First of all, practically all of us here (except for Father Zach) are lay men and women, and most, if not all of us, will continue to be so permanently. In the Church, the vast majority of the faithful are called to some form of the lay vocation. The second reason for the importance of this topic is that without the laity, the Church would disappear in about one generation. That’s the problem with having a celibate clergy: someone has to pick up their slack in preserving the species. Third, Pope Francis and his predecessors have been very outspoken critics of “clericalism”, which is the view that leaves all responsibility of the Church and her mission to priests and religious, and demands holiness of them alone. Last but not least, it is important because there is a huge lack of appreciation for the dignity of the lay vocation, to the point that we have made it a sort of “default” vocation, with lower standards and less demands. Many people’s thought process goes something like this: if you’re not “holy” enough to be a priest or religious, then you will be a layperson, which means you can settle for a spiritual mediocrity, a sort of permanent religious infancy. This is absolutely and blatantly false. St. Francis de Sales, in his book “An Introduction to the Devout Life,” says that it is not just an error, but a heresy, to claim that holiness cannot exist in the soldier’s camp, the merchant’s shop or the domestic hearth. It is a heresy to think that the laity is not called to equal holiness as priests and religious. It is heresy to think that holiness is banished from a pub where young Catholic adults get together to drink and talk about their faith. From this widespread misunderstanding of the lay vocation stems all sorts of errors that have greatly hindered the Church’s mission and have led many people astray. I aim to help correct that with this talk.

To give a common thread to the stream of ideas that have been running through my head, I will keep coming back to Saint Paul’s beautiful analogy of the Church and the human body (1 Cor. 12). Paul says that even though the body has many parts, it remains one body. He then goes on to say how  it would be stupid for a foot to think itself a hand, or ridiculous  for the body to be composed solely of feet or hands or noses. I’m paraphrasing by the way; St. Paul didn’t use those exact words. And though that passage of Scripture refers to the gifts of the Spirit, it applies just as well to the different vocations within the Church. Now there’s a problem with this line of thinking: often the laity is defined in terms of the other vocations. The immediate response to the question “what is the laity?” is often “those who are neither priests nor professed religious.” This definition is not only vague, but pretty much useless. Imagine trying to define a “hand” as a “not foot” and “not nose.” That definition would tell us hardly anything about the hand itself. When we ask what the hand is, we want to be told what it looks like, what it does, what its purpose is; we want to know what distinguishes it from other parts of the body. That is what I will attempt to do in defining the laity. However, in order to talk about what the purpose and role of the laity are, we need to take two quick digressions.

The first digression has to do with the nature and operation of grace. Grace, as the Catechism defines it, is a participation in the life of God. To live in a state of grace is to literally “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) in God. A hand is only good insofar as it is attached to a body and receives life from it; it is given its worth and value by being part of a whole. A hand sitting in a freezer might be beautiful and perfectly preserved and ready for transplantation, but it will not be fully itself until it is part of a living body, of a whole that gives it its perfection. Likewise, a  person is only a Christian insofar as he receives life from the body of Christ (the Church), to which he has been attached by baptism. Nature is perfected by grace, as the theologians like to say. What this means is that when the baptized act in a state of grace, all their actions, however insignificant and ordinary they may be, are perfected and made holy because they are infused with the very life of God. In a very real way, God is acting through them. Nobody says “my hand did this or that”, but, rather “I did this or that” even though they did it by using their hand. It is just like that with us and Christ. When you are in a state of grace and do something, Christ can say “I did that,” because you and He are so perfectly united that one’s actions are also the other’s.

This leads us to our second digression, which concerns the nature of redemption. We all know that Christ came to redeem the world, but I get the sense that many people see that as a purely human-centered thing, as opposed to the cosmic event that it actually is. I get the sense that many expect us to go to heaven and float around as disembodied souls with Jesus and the saints. The fact is that Christ came to redeem not only mankind, but the whole of creation:

“For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21).

God created the world and saw that it was very good, not only humans, but also the animals and trees and rocks. Even though our sin has affected creation and subjected it to corruption, God has not abandoned it and will bring about its restoration in a new heavens and a new Earth, where we will dwell with Him and He with us. Hence, not only humans, but all of Creation as well, waits with eager expectation for its fulfillment. We proclaim this every Sunday when we say in the Creed: “we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

These two digressions set the stage for us to really grasp what it means to be called to be a layperson. If the whole of creation is waiting for its redemption in Christ and we, as Christian faithful, live the life of Christ that is within us through grace as parts of His body, then it follows that we have a role to play in this redemption. Now, just like each human body part has a different and very specific function, so it is with Christ’s body. The priesthood is called to serve the people of God by providing for their sanctification through the Sacraments, and the contemplative religious are called to intercede for all of us through their lives of prayer and sacrifice. That leaves to us, the laity, the task of sanctifying the world, or all of creation. These vocations are all complementary and are not—should not—be in competition with each other. This is a difficult thing to envision, since we live in a society that is constantly claiming that competition brings about so many good things, but it is absurd to think so of the parts of a body. If my feet were competing with my hands to see who can better put this pint of beer in my mouth, everybody would be like “Alejandro, you’re drunk, go home” and I would be thrown out of this pub. Likewise, we have to stop thinking about vocations as if they were in competition with each other. We have to stop wondering about which vocation is better. The best vocation is whichever God is calling you to.

But what does it mean to “sanctify the world”? As parts of Christ’s body, we share in His threefold mission as Priest, Prophet and King. By virtue of our baptism, therefore, we are all priests, prophets and kings. The laity and also priests and religious. How, then, is the lay vocation unique in this respect?

A priest offers sacrifice and consecrates things. To consecrate means to offer and make something holy and acceptable to God. By offering ourselves and our daily activities to God, however trivial and insignificant they may seem, we as lay people are glorifying Him and sanctifying both those activities and the people around us. You might feel tempted to say: “But Alejandro, my job sucks. I literally sit in front of a computer all day doing nothing valuable to anyone and my boss only uses me to get him or her some coffee.” Here’s the thing, if you make sure that coffee is not burnt, pour it and bring it to your boss with a smile, even when you could have spit in it; because of your union with Christ, you have become a medium through which God’s grace can pour into the world. And God is not cheap with His grace. He’s not going to pour just two ounces for your small deed. God’s grace overflows, and that grace will reach not only you, but your boss, and your co-workers, and will spread across to the very last corner of the cosmos. In doing so, you will have brought God’s very life into the world, you will have made it more holy. You will have consecrated it.

We are called to be prophets in announcing God’s salvation to the world through word and deed, in preaching the Gospel to all nations and in spreading the Good News to those we come in contact with in our daily lives. There are so many people who are beyond the reach of priests and religious and missionaries, but who are not beyond the reach of their Christian neighbors and co-workers. Like the prophets of the Old Testament who often acted out what they were announcing to make a point—sometimes even doing the weirdest of things, like Jeremiah wearing dirty underwear (Jer. 13:1-11)—we are called to reveal through our actions the transforming power of the Gospel, to make palpable its changing effects on us. If others cannot see what the Gospel has done to our lives, then why should they believe us when we claim that it is life-transforming? We are to be prophets in revealing to the world of our everyday lives—the world of our office, our school, our home—the saving power and the goodness of God.

Lastly, we fulfill our mission as kings by ushering in the Kingdom of God in history. We are not talking about some future time when everything will be better, but rather, we’re talking about the here and now. Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God by saying: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” The coming of the kingdom has already begun, and it is our responsibility to quicken its arrival. By working for peace and justice in society, serving the poor and destitute, by denouncing evil and conquering sin, lay men and women exercise their kingly duties and offer to the world a first glimpse of the glory to come when all of Creation is subject to Christ, and through Christ, to God the Father. They are speeding up Christ’s triumph and victory and they are beginning to govern with Him.

It is my hope that these preceding reflections offer us a better picture of the laity and perhaps we can now proceed to define it in more adequate terms. The laity is composed by all those faithful Christian men and women who are called to become holy by sanctifying the whole of Creation by their words and their actions. The world is the place and the means for them to fulfill their Christian vocation. They are to become holy in their families and jobs, by infusing society, politics, economics, the media and all other realms of human activity with Christian values. In doing so, they open channels for God’s grace to enter into the world and change it from within, to redeem it and make it an acceptable offering to God.

The work of the laity is essential for the well-being of the Church. As St. Paul reminds us, when one part of the body suffers, the entire body suffers with it, and when one part of the body rejoices, all the other parts rejoice with it. A weak and apathetic laity results in a weak and apathetic Church. A lack of commitment on the part of the laity affects the priesthood and the religious vocations. If Christian families have little interest in becoming holy, how can we expect them to produce many holy priests and religious? The work of all vocations is complementary, each fulfilling its purpose in the overall mission of the entire body. While priests and religious lay down their lives in service of the holiness of the entire people of God, the members of the laity should strive to lay down their lives to restore the entire cosmos to its original value. Its mission, its vocation, is a beautiful and worthy one that is as demanding (and in some respects, more demanding) than the other vocations. Let us not give into the mediocrity that is one of the laity’s strongest temptations, let us not sell it cheap. The health of the body of Christ, of His Church, as well as our eternal salvation and that of many others, in fact, the redemption of the entire universe, depends on it.

Statues on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France.

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