The Vocation of the Laity
What is the mission of the Church? It is simple God entrusts both the ordained and the laity to the mission to save souls. We do other ministries which are part of that mandate, but our first mandate is to salvation. We avail ourselves to the tools of the Church by seeking to be holy in our lives and frequenting the sacraments. We also speak to others about the truths of the Gospel in Church teaching.
One of the great errors in American Catholicism, highlighted by the current scandals is the belief that the bishops and the priests have a greater call to holiness than the laity. The truth is the other way around, the laity have an equal call to holiness as the bishops and the priests. St. James teaches that the ordained will be held to a higher standard and other saints rightly curse those clerics who do not live it, but the call to holiness is no different for the laity than it is for the bishop or priest. That is because that call comes from our common baptism.
Pope St. John Paul II put it this way:
This name “Spirit of the Lord” is “upon” the entire People of God, which becomes established as a people “consecrated” to God and “sent” by God to announce the Gospel of salvation. The members of the People of God are “inebriated” and “sealed” with the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; 2 Cor. 1:21ff.; Eph. 1:13; 4:30) and called to holiness.
This is a great time for the laity to get rid of the notion that they have a lesser call to holiness than the bishops, especially those who have disappointed them. The idea that the ordained and the religious are like bus drivers while the laity just go along for the ride has to be thrown out the window. That was never the structure that Jesus wanted to create.
The secular media use the ridiculous term that the role of the laity is to pay, pray and obey. Organizations like the AP among others promote this fake news. The truth is that at our baptism each of us receive the commission to hear God’s word and proclaim His faith to His praise and glory.
So, it is time for the laity to recognize this baptismal commission and act on it; to let go of the notion that the priests and the bishops are there to be holy for you. We all receive the call to be models of holiness, laity, religious and the ordained.
“Oh,” you say. “But the priests and bishops have degrees in theology, they know more than I do!”
The first thing they teach in every seminary is: “Your grandmother knows more theology than you will ever learn here.”
If you live your faith, be people of prayer, seek to be docile to grace, learn, understand and follow Church teaching, and engage in Bible reading, spiritual reading and praying with the Bible, you will be well on your way to holiness, as for a degree: there are no academic degrees in holiness.
Know your faith, live it and teach it. You can teach it in blogs, you can teach it in coffee shops, you can teach it in religious education. I know plenty of lay people, but alas not enough, who do just that. They become leaders of the faith in the community. They attend mass regularly and then out in the community others recognized them as truly living the faith.
Soon after I came back to the Church after an absence during the last year of high school, to the first three of my six years in the Navy, I learned of Frank Sheed. A lay evangelist during the 1940’s and 50’s. He was an Australian born powerful street preacher and author who believed in the mission of the Church and proclaimed her message every day. I learned then as an enlisted man, reading about Sheed, the call to holiness of the laity and it was for each and everyone of us.
One of his most famous quotes is when a man shouted to the evangelist that he could build a better world than one the one created by Sheed’s God. Apparently, without missing a beat he responded, “Just a rabbit, that is all I ask.”
One of my favorite stories is of a great parishioner who would shake the hand of anyone who did not attend mass. Why would a good Catholic do that? Simple, he would explain to the person as he shook his hand that the only ones who do not have to attend mass are perfect people and he always wanted to meet a perfect person. He used sarcasm to evangelize. This man enjoyed the respect of all in and out of the parish community. He was not a member of the staff, but his deep faith preceded him everywhere he went. We need more people like him in every community.
The greatest influence on my vocation was my eighth grade religious education teacher. What did he teach me that was so important? I do not remember, what I do remember is he so much embraced his Catholic faith. He loved Christ and it was obvious. I wanted to know Christ as he did.
Many years later, I learned his secret, he prayed a holy hour. He did not tell me, I saw him in the Church deep in prayer. He was in contemplation as he gazed upon the figures of the saints and other elements in the Church. I knew this man truly loved God. Almost fifty years later he is one of the few in the Church, with or without a degree whose influence touches me every day. I do not believe he studied theology.
There was a member of the parish community at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross who was a saintly woman. (h/t to Kelly Thatcher, the Lady in the Pew) She cared for the homeless and attended mass daily. Also a deep person of prayer, she was such a guide to the laity and the priests. A highly respected member of the community again her deep faith preceded her. She was an inspiration and taught all to bring all our cares and concerns to Jesus and Mary. We learned to do exactly that, and I am the priest. I sought her out for advice at times as well.
All these people and so many more recognize that their mission is to save souls, they took it seriously by just being regular people in the community whose commitment to the faith made them leaders. When they spoke, everyone listened because they were not speaking out of a bestowed authority, but a recognition for their deep commitment to living the Gospel.
Notice, none of those sought to be ordained, they instead fully embraced the role of the laity which is to actively live the Gospel.
Your mission as Catholic is to save souls. You do not have to be ordained to live that mission. You do have to be a person of deep faith, committed to the Christ through His Church and seeking to live a holy, prayerful life and joyful life, even in difficult times. When you do that, you become a leader in the community, even if you hold no official position on the parish staff.
The priest and the bishop are actually there to help you to discern where the Holy Spirit is leading you. Their role is not to drive the bus to Heaven or to be holy for you. Instead, we all have a call to inspire each other in holiness.
Maybe our greatest need in our Church is what it always is: good, holy disciples, laity as much as priests and bishops. No one aspires to that holiness, they just seek to be faithful disciples of Christ on a mission to save souls whether or not they are ordained or laity, and the Lord does the rest.
Action Point: Meanwhile, are you looking for a suggestion of what you can do as a lay person? How about getting out the Catechism of the Catholic Church and holding group discussions of the teaching there with friends and neighbors. Pick a subject and read it completely as a group and discuss what it is saying. You may find that Church teaching is deeper than what many present it to say. You do not need to do it in a parish building, you can use your living room, the local coffee shop or even the city park.