May 2018: The Mission of the Laity

by Fr Chris Chatteris SJ

Pope’s prayer intention:

The Mission of the Laity That the lay faithful may fulfil their specific mission, by responding with creativity to the challenges that face the world today.

When we hear the words ‘lay apostolate’ we tend to think of ministers of the Eucharist taking communion to the sick or presiding at services of the Word. This is all well and good, but that confines the lay apostolate to a small group of people working at quasi-priestly tasks.

The broader sense of the term includes all laypeople and focuses on their engagement with the wider society as well as the Church. The layperson’s primary mission or apostolate is to the secular world. Vatican II put it in, Apostolicam Actuositatem, the decree on the laity, while the mission of the laity finds its origin in the laity’s share in the priestly, prophetic and royal office of Christ, it is primarily ‘directed to the evangelization and sanctification of people and to the permeating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel’.

To my mind this is a much more challenging mission than assisting at the altar. Getting stuck into the secular world and trying to infuse it with the spirit of the Gospel in this day and age is not for sissies. We just have to look at some of the massive moral failures in our local businesses to get an idea of how daunting the commercial world must be for a Catholic businessperson who is concerned about maintaining moral standards. But the call is even more daunting. How does one bring into such a morally compromised world the ‘spirit of the Gospel’?

The same can be said of men and women who work in public office. In a very contaminated moral environment it is hard enough to remain uncorrupted let alone being able to proclaim the Gospel.

And yet this is the lay vocation – to give witness to the Lord and his Gospel in their places of work and among their colleagues and friends. The clergy and religious cannot have access to all the places and people that laypeople can and do on a daily basis in the natural course of their professional and social lives, but laymen and women are rubbing up against people of other faiths and none all the time.

On one level it is about simple witness. Just to be known by colleagues as a person of integrity and to make it clear that this integrity flows from one’s Catholic faith, is half the battle. Such a person will have the respect of others who are not of the Christian or Catholic household. We know this is true because the reverse is also true. We Catholics have a lot of respect for Jews, Muslims and other Christians who take their faith seriously and whose moral conduct is informed by that faith. Sometimes one hears how Catholics are challenged by Muslim prayerfulness or Jewish care to observe the Sabbath or Protestant knowledge of the Bible. The question here is what is it about our practice of our faith that non-Catholics respect?

Then there is creativity. The Holy Father is asking laypeople to respond creatively to the challenge to permeate and perfect secular society through the spirit of the Gospel. There is much encouraging literature around these days to help stimulate the creativity being called for. One example would be the former Jesuit Chris Lowney’s Heroic Leadership. Another is the excellent Vatican document on the Vocation of the Business Leader. Yes, vocation!

The Catholic tradition has some wonderful and often untapped resources which a layperson can delicately and discreetly deploy in his or her professional and social life. The deep listening that comes with a life of prayer, for example. There are Catholic laypeople that I know to whom people are naturally drawn because they listen and they have acquired a store of spiritual wisdom from their faith.

There is also a manner of dealing with people for whom one is responsible that can be beautifully coloured by the Gospel. In the religious life we sometimes call it cura personalis, the care of personnel, or looking after your members. This assumes that we see the other as created in the image and likeness of God and therefore deserving of a level of respect and reverence which a world which reduces the human person to the level of a consumer can find hard to understand.

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