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Who has the right to Evangelize?

What does Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Sarah, Rebecca and Judith from the Old Testament have in common with Mary, Joseph, Lydia and Crispin from the New Testament?

All responded to God’s plan for Salvation and submitted themselves to His will as laymen. As Catholics, we are all called to grow in the likeness of Christ and to accept the burdens and joys of the Gospel mission. The obligation to pursue holiness and perfection applies no less to laymen than clerics or religious.

“In the Church there is a diversity of ministry but a oneness of mission. Christ conferred on the Apostles and their successors the duty of teaching, sanctifying, and ruling in His name and power. But the laity likewise shares in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world. “DECREE ON THE APOSTOLATE OF THE LAITY

Christ founded his Church and charged all his followers to glorify God the Father, to spread the kingdom of Christ to the corners of the earth, and to share his saving redemption by word and example.

While we are all called to holiness, religious and lay alike, God blesses us with different vocations, based on temperament, degree of sanctity and station in life.

The responsibility for spreading the Gospel that saves belongs to everyone—to all those who have received it! The missionary duty concerns the whole body of the Church; in different ways and to different degrees, its true but we must all of us be united in carrying out this duty. Now let the conscience of every believer ask himself: Have I carried out my missionary duty? Prayer for the Missions is the first way of fulfilling this duty. (Paul VI, Angelus Address, 23 October 1977)

Active involvement of the laity in the Church’s mission isn’t a Post Vatican II innovation. Most of God’s people St. Paul writes and refers to in his letters were laymen. The majority of the third and fourth century martyrs were lay husbands, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters.

Reception of Holy Orders wasn’t a predictor of faithfulness or apostasy during the age of martyrs. Priests and Bishops sometimes succumbed to the threats of torture while many lay members of the flock resisted and died rather than deny Christ. I hastily observe that the laity were more likely to be faithful and courageous when they were led by the example of a strong Shepherd.

St. Francis of Assisi felt unworthy of the priesthood and was never ordained a priest. Recognizing that all are called to lead the life of the gospel, he established an organization and religious rule for lay people, the Third Order of St. Francis, now known as the Secular Order of Franciscans.

As centuries progressed and the Church grew in numbers and territory, so did the bureaucracy needed to administer the visible Church. The intimacy of the small primitive Church was diminished as the laity became further removed from their bishops both geographically and economically. The separation became more distinct after the Dark Ages, especially in the West, since education survived almost solely among the clergy.

In time, some began to confuse the organizational hierarchy of the Church with a spiritual hierarchy. The unspoken understanding was that the higher up you were in the hierarchy, the holier you were. Priests were holier than laymen, Bishops holier than priests and the Pope was the holiest of all.

The basic widespread misunderstanding among both clerics and lay was two-fold: (1) Only religious had vocations. (2) The way to serve God and grow in holiness was by joining the hierarchy as a brother, sister or priest and then climbing the ladder of the hierarchy.

This led many to erroneously conclude that holiness was reserved exclusively for the clergy. To serve God, one entered a monastery or a religious order. Too often the people responded by leaving it up to the priests to do the praying and worshiping for them.

Eventually much of the laity became so lax about the sacraments, that the Church found it necessary to command the faithful to receive the Blessed Sacrament at least once a year, thus the origins of the Easter obligation. (Note that this was a contributing factor, not the sole reason for the requirement. Jansenists and other heretics led the faithful away from frequent reception of the Sacraments.)

While the vast majority of our religious are holy people, elevation to higher offices isn’t based solely or exclusively on the spiritual excellence of the candidates, nor should they be.

While spiritual maturity is demanded of all servants, Bishops must also be competent administrators, teachers and leaders. The very qualities that led the church to canonize many men and women sometimes precluded them from becoming effective administrators.

Now you are Christ's body, and individually parts of it.
Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then, gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues. 1 Cor:27-28

Many didn’t realize that the gifts of the Holy Spirited listed in 1 Corinthians were available to laity and religious alike.

St. Francis de Sales was perhaps the first champion of the laity to recognize the distinctive nature of the lay vocation and the value of responding to God according to one’s station in life .

“There is a different practice of devotion for the gentlemen and the mechanic; for the prince and the servant; for the wife, the maiden, and the widow; and still further, the practice of devotion must be adapted to the capabilities, the engagements, and the duties of each individual. It is note merely an error but a heresy to suppose that a devout life is necessarily banished from the soldier’s camp, the merchant’s shop, the prince’s court, or the domestic hearth. Doubtless that form of devotion which is purely contemplative, monastic and religious, will not accord with their vocations, but there are other forms of devotion suitable to perfect a secular life.” Introduction to the Devout Life

The path to holiness and sanctity for clerics and laymen are identical. John A. Hardin, S.J., in the Catholic Catechism, identifies four crucial elements that can help sojourners grow in perfection and sanctity.

1. God’s Plan for Mankind: Cultivate an awareness of God’s plan for his people in general and “for me” in particular. Study of the Old and New testaments can help us realize that the history of God’s salvation didn’t end with the resurrection. We are part of the continuing history of God’s salvation plan. We contribute to this history daily through our thoughts, actions and deeds. God’s revelation of his salvation plan ended with the death of the last apostles but his salvation history is being made even today.
2. Humility: True humility is self-knowledge. An awareness of one’s gifts and crosses is critical to vocational discernment. Offering your natural gifts to God’s service makes for efficient use of talent and a contented servant. Part of humility is differentiating between what God’s will for us and self-will.
3. Pragmatism: Practical decisions regarding your station in life, physical abilities, financial obligations, and family commitments must be weighed. A husband’s vocation is to care for his wife; a wife’s vocation is to care for her husband. Ignoring family responsibilities or financial obligations to pursue some romantic notion of a religious calling would be unjust and contrary to Christ’s message.
4. A spiritual program of life: Each person’s program will differ according to interest, aptitude, time and opportunity but it is important to construct or adopt a consistent plan for spiritual development and growth.

The four elements aren’t sequential steps; they are ongoing throughout life. Devout clerics and laity use the same elements in building their faith. While there are many “spiritual programs”, all are built on a similar foundation: Prayer, study, liturgy, the Sacraments and Service.

One proven plan, variations of which were endorsed and promoted by St. Francis de Sales, St Ignatious and other spiritual greats, is to pray in the morning, make frequent short prayers throughout the day, and to close the day with an Examen of Conscience.

Prayer is the vehicle we use to communicate with God. Good communication is necessary to develop and maintain any relationship and our friendship with Jesus is no exception. Good communication is two way: We must listen as well as talk to God.

Morning prayer is our quality time with God. It establishes a foundation and gives us grace that we can draw on as needed through-out the day. We consecrate our day, making our work, our every joy, and our suffering a prayer.

Short, frequent short prayer throughout the day is necessary to conform our action to God’s will. We build on the foundation established in our morning prayer and meditation. Speaking to God spontaneously throughout the work day keeps us focused and aware of our Christian identity and obligations.

The nightly Examen of Conscience, accompanied by an Act of Contrition when necessary, is an opportunity to review our responses to God’s will for us. The Examen provides an early warning system when we begin to stray from the path of sanctity. It is also an opportune time to give thanks and praise for the gifts Christ bestowed on us during the day. Inventorying our blessings is especially important at the end of our bad days.

Regular retreats can supplement our daily prayer regimen, renew our spirit and deepen our relationship with Christ. I’ve found that getting away once a month for an over-night silent retreat gives me an enthusiasm and vigor for responding to God’s will as does nothing else. The solitude and prayer gives us the time and opportunity to discern God’s will in our lives. The Jesuits offer directed retreats and many monastic orders have a tradition of welcoming Christ’s sojourners.
Study enhances our understanding of our Faith and our place in God’s plan of Salvation. If time is limited, reading Scripture a few minutes each night offers the most return. Prayerful reading of God’s Word offers dividends in the form of consolation, instruction and knowledge of Christ. Jesus himself studied and taught from scripture.

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” Mt 4:4

Faith begins with a rational inquiry into God’s mysteries and Glory. The doorway to the heart is through the mind. We can’t love God without first understanding him. Although it is not possible to fully know God the Father, we can begin to know him through Christ his Son. We come know Jesus through prayer, scripture and the teachings of his Church.

Scripture should be studied in the context of the Tradition of the Church.

“Holy Scripture is good, but heresies arise through its not being understood properly” (St. Augustine, In Ioann.Evang., 18, 1)

One of the surest ways to enhance orthodox understanding of scripture is to supplement your scripture studies is to read the works of the Doctors of the Church. The study of the lives of the Saints also inspires and instructs.

The Church particularly encourages us to read and study the writings of the early Church Fathers. The study of the Church Fathers connects us a Catholic people with the cultural, theological and spiritual roots of our faith. A casual reading of the Fathers demonstrates decisively and dramatically, even to skeptics, that the beliefs and teachings of the Catholic Church today are the same as those practiced and promoted by the primitive Christian Church.

While private prayer and study is important in our individual growth, we mustn’t overlook our obligations as Catholics to worship and pray together as a community. Vatican II encourages lay as well as religious to attend and actively participate in the Divine Liturgy. The value of daily mass can’t be overstated when pursuing a devout life. Participation in the sacraments, particularly frequent confession and communion, keeps us whole and gives us the grace to live God’s work.

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Jn 6: 53-54

If it is not possible to attend mass, we can still participate in the Liturgy by celebrating the liturgy of the hours with a parish group, apostolic organization, or our families. Saying the breviary in common is preferred as The Divine Office is the community prayer of the Church. However, saying the office individually is permissible and encouraged if circumstances prohibit us joining with other Christians in our persons.

The laity must learn, especially in liturgical actions, how to adore God the Father in Spirit and in Truth, and be reminded that through public worship and prayer they are in touch with all mankind and can contribute in no small degree to the salvation of the whole world. Christian Prayer General Instructions

Laymen aren’t monastics or hermits. We live in the world. We are involved in commerce and government. While our every day environments may not be particularly supportive of living a Christian life, we have opportunity unique to laity to witness to those around us – not necessarily by proselytizing but through our example.

In fact, this is what makes the lay apostolate so invaluable and unique. Since we live in the secular world, we can reach out and share the Gospel with people we meet daily in our lives. Clergy are often so busy tending the flock, they often lack the time and opportunity to search and minister to new sheep.

Laymen need not, nor should they choose between a life of prayer or a life of Christian activism. We are called to a life of prayer AND ministry. As such, we move from faith to prayer to action and back again. Faith without works is dead but works without faith is as empty.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Mt 5:18

Clerics and religious have the advantage of fraternal support in their communities. The basic unit of support for laity is the Parish. Some parishes are more dynamic and alive than others but all offer plentiful opportunities for both service and spiritual development.

I recall speaking to a deacon in my parish about ten years ago. I was complaining that there was no community spirit, that the masses weren’t celebrated with joy, that we didn’t have an active parish, etc. After bearing with my whining for a few minutes, he looked me in the eye and said, “Yeah, so what are you going to do about it?”

For once, I was left speechless. How to respond? I volunteered to teach catechism classes (If it was good enough for St. Ingnatious, it must be good enough for me), I helped with our Warm Nights program to feed and shelter the homeless, I joined a Cursio discussion group, a bible study group, served as alcolyte, and more.

I even started my own little personal greeting ministry to increase the feeling and actuality of parish community. Every Sunday, I would look around the congregation for a parishioner or couple with whom I was not acquainted. I would introduce myself, learn their names and find out just a little about them personally. I would make a point of greeting them by name over the next week or two. My original purpose was to engage parishioners and to ensure that newcomers were made to feel welcome. But I realize now that as I was building community I was also becoming more engaged in God’s work. I was receiving more than I was giving.

How wise was that deacon. The reality wasn’t that the parish wasn’t active, it was I that wasn’t active. There were many holy and active Catholics in the parish, I just hadn’t met them because I wasn’t involved.

While the parish is the basic family unit for laity and must be supported, there are countless other organizations that can support the secular Catholic in search of spiritual support and formation.

The Church is the original big umbrella. No matter your spiritual temperament, there is an organization that can support you.

You may be called to live by a religious rule by joining organizations such as the Secular Franciscan Order, the Third Order of Preachers (Dominicans), the Oblates of St. Benedict or Third Order Carmelites. Lay members, sometimes referred to as tertiaries, live by the spirit and rule of the order.

Many orthodox Catholics may prefer to associate with Opus Dei, a personal Prelature of the Catholic Church founded by Blessed Josemaria Escriva in 1928. The group’s slogan is Finding God in Work and Ordinary Life and reflects the Opus Dei mission: To help ordinary lay people seek holiness in and through their everyday activities, especially through work.. Since the organization and members are loyal to the Magesterium, their views and practices are predictably misrepresented in the mainstream and liberal Catholic presses. For authentic information, visit the Opus Dei web site at

The Cursillo Movement offers not only powerful retreats but continued support for Catholics desiring to grow in Holiness. The Knights of Columbus and other fraternal organizations support Catholic men in their efforts to raise their families.

Many religious orders, out of necessity and a renewed appreciation for the talents, energy and spirituality of the laity, are expanding opportunities for service to all. Lay people manage retreat centers for the Franciscans, serve as missionaries for the Jesuits, and teach and administer at Catholic schools. Most of the ministries are more appropriate for single or retired people. Some are ideal for couples.

In the end, it may matter little which program of spiritual development you adopt, as long as you chose and adhere to one. Perhaps the classic distillation of Catholic spirituality is the Devotion to the Sacred Heart as promoted by the Apostleship of Prayer. While the program itself requires only a few minutes a day, it offers the foundation of prayer, mediation and service that, if followed faithfully, can and does lead to Holiness. For centuries, millions of Catholic laymen, priests, brothers and sisters have built their spiritual lives around this simple program.

While most of the elements of a spiritual program can be implemented without guidance, a spiritual director can offer support, prayer, counsel and advice as we grow in the Lord. Many of the spiritual giants of the Catholic Church submitted themselves to a spiritual director and often spent much of their ministry directing others in their spiritual growth. For many centuries, devout Catholics customarily submitted themselves to a spiritual director.

At the very least, Catholics should consider finding a regular confessor. Flitting from anonymous confessor to confessor may be easy and comfortable, and the efficacy of the grace obtained from the Sacrament of Penance can’t be questioned, but if we are truly interested in growing in Christ, then a relationship with a confessor or spiritual advisor is irreplaceable. Meeting with the same confessor builds humility and self-awareness. It helps to keep in mind that we aren’t confessing our sins to a mere man but to Christ himself.
Don’t make the mistake of confusing cause and effect. Some might say that you must be holy to effect a spiritual program. In fact the reverse is true. We become holy because we pray, because we participate in the liturgy, because we do penance, because we convert faith to action. We are drawn to the Lord precisely because we are sinners, and as sinners, we hope with confidence for personal salvation.

There is panic in some quarters of the Church over diminishing vocations to religious life. I’m not one of them. Firstly, I have faith in Christ and the Church he founded. The Church has survived times much worse than ours and there has been a shortage of servants since gospel times. Jesus said:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers in to his harvest.” Mt 9:37-38

Secondly, parties interested in justifying married clergy or women priests often exaggerate the crisis in vocations to fortify their arguments, albeit somewhat ingenuously.

Our priests are Christ’s vicars and the sacred powers vested to them are awesome to contemplate. Not all are called or are worthy. Like our priests, the brothers and sisters, the monks and the nuns in religious life are responding to a personal call from God and each is offering their life in sacrifice to the service of God. Part-time laity can’t replace the example of religious and the services they provide to God’s people.

On the other hand, the laity, in our every day life - at work, at play, and in our family - can provide a witness to non-believers. You don’t have to wear your religion on your sleeves. If you’re growing in Christ, people will recognize Jesus when they see you.

It isn’t that a married vocation is superior to a religious vocation or vice versus, they are simply different callings.

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;
there are different forms of service but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 1 Cor 12:4-6

It may be presumptuous of me but I believe that the Catholic hierarchy is approaching the vocational problem from the wrong direction. All religious and clergy were at one time laymen. If you want to harvest more crops, you first have to do some seeding.

What we need to do is grow some priests, brothers and sisters. That must begin with nourishing, inspiring and enabling a holy laity. Our priests and deacons must become better preachers, better teachers and better pastors. While the Church must maintain fiscal oversight, lets turn over the business administration of the parish to the laity through the parish councils. Municipalities hire professional city administrators who are expert in managing towns. Let’s free our priests to become pastors by hiring parish administrators.

Our Bishop’s need to ensure that our pastor’s are providing spiritual nourishment – not poison. Too often, parishes are saddled with confused priests who haven’t quiet figured out the difference between religious indifferentism and ecumenism. I’ve known friends and relatives that abandoned parishes because overly permissive priests preached sermons contrary to the Gospel and the Church. In fairness, I’ve also known of some rigid, unkind men of the cloth who alienated young people from the Church with unnecessarily harsh rhetoric.

If we develop congregations full of faithful, spirit-filled and prayerful Catholics, nutured by holy men of God, the vocation problem will take care of itself naturally.

God’s call to the laity – and religious - may be summed up in the slogan popularized on countless felt banners hung in American Churches throughout the country:` Bloom where you’re planted.

Let’s help each other bloom.

Nor will you find your co-workers asking you directly to share your faith. Americans today are much too sophisticated and self-conscious for the direct approach. I’ve found that the office skeptic with the caustic comments is often camouflaging their pain and self-doubt. The next time a co-worker scoffs at your beliefs or volunteers a jab at the Pope, listen closely. You may in reality be hearing a veiled challenge. The person is saying, Prove me wrong – please!

Many Catholic sisters and other religious have abandoned their habits on the theory that the distinctive clothes make them less approachable. They may have a point. On the other hand, the habit itself was a powerful witness. Every time I see a couple of sisters in the their black habits scurrying down the street, I a part of me would think,”There goes a couple of women who’ve given up every thing to serve God.”

It seems to me that if we laity were doing our jobs as witness in the world, then our religious would have been free to continue their distinctive witness. The important thing is how we respond to our calling. There are bad spouses and bad religious; holy single people and sinful priests.

Original articles on Catholic faith, spirituality, prayer, apologetics and theology are welcome.


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