From the Auxiliary Vicar
Laity: Saints in the Middle of the World, Article Published in Mundo Cristiano (February 2020)
At the beginning of this millennium, St. John Paul II defined the Church’s pastoral plan for the future. It can be summed up in one word: holiness. Pope Francis dedicated an entire apostolic exhortation to holiness. Both of them have always looked for guidance to the Second Vatican Council, one of whose focal points is the universal call to holiness.
We are all called to follow Christ, to imitate him, for that is precisely what holiness involves. All the baptized share this call and, at the same time, the different members of the faithful have a specific mission in the Church. The members of the hierarchy – bishops, priests, deacons – have as their mission to teach with authority the Word of God, to guide the faithful and celebrate divine worship; the religious, to remind the world of eschatological realities through their consecrated life; the laity, to strive for sanctity in the heart of temporal realities, in the middle of the world. After the Council and the magisterium of recent Popes, no one can think that holiness is reserved to priests or religious: we have all received, by virtue of baptism, the vocation to the fullness of Christian life.
Nowadays we speak a lot about the need for a “Church that goes out.” We need to “go out” of our comfort zone, of a defensive attitude, in order to meet and be with the people. We can ask ourselves: where are the people? The answer is obvious: in families, in work settings, in social relationships.... Hence we could say that the lay person is someone who is naturally always “going out,” because he or she is there where the people are, and this is the most important space for evangelization. There is no need to “penetrate into” temporal structures, since the lay person is already present there, in his or her natural habitat.
In a letter written several years ago, the present Pope wrote: “Looking at the People of God is remembering that we all enter the Church as lay people. The first sacrament, which seals our identity forever, and of which we should always be proud, is Baptism. Through Baptism and by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, (the faithful) ‘are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood’ (Lumen Gentium, no. 10). Our first and fundamental consecration is rooted in our Baptism” (Letter to Cardinal Ouellet, 2016).
Baptism is a salvific force and a sending out. Like the “big bang,” receiving this sacrament initiates something new, our life in Christ, destined to expand outwards towards others in history and in each one’s personal life. The place of “expanding” for the laity is the world in all its dimensions, that is, in family life, in work environments, in public spaces. The grace of baptism is what drives this movement.
In that same letter, referring to certain slogans, Francis added: “I now recall the famous expression, ‘the hour of the laity has come,’ but it seems that the clock has stopped.” And it is true; it seems as though the majority of the lay faithful still are not aware of the immense dignity of being children of God and their responsibility to illuminate with the Gospel every corner of their daily lives. Perhaps we pastors too have not yet fully realized the immense potential for holiness and evangelization of lay men and women, which they need to develop with their personal freedom and initiative, accepting the call to bring Christ to all mankind. Rediscovering the role of the laity in the Church requires a major change of mentality. The starting point is to return to baptism and its first consequence: the call to identify ourselves with Christ, to be saints.
Referring to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, St. Josemaría said that “the specific participation of the laity in the Church’s mission consists precisely in sanctifying ab intra (from within) – in an immediate and direct way – secular realities, the temporal order, the world” (Conversations). At times we tend to think of the “lay person” as someone who has a position of responsibility in ecclesial structures or who carries out liturgical functions.
No one doubts the importance and need of these services, but the laity’s mission in the Church is, above all, to make God present in temporal structures, at the crossroads of society, in the middle of the world. In striving for this change of mentality, we must always be attentive to the temptation of “clericalizing” the laity, shirking the challenges of formation and accompaniment that this paradigm entails, in order to take shorter but perhaps less effective paths.
It is impossible to describe all the scenarios where the laity are found and where so many people are seeking God. A few will have important roles in public and political life. The figure of St. Thomas More, proclaimed by St. John Paul II as patron of government leaders and politicians during the Jubilee in the year 2000, shows of how important the example of a layman can be. Thomas More’s integrity, fortitude and sense of humor are a great inspiration for many politicians and public servants in our times. As a statesman,” the Polish pope recalled, “he always placed himself at the service of the person, especially the weak and the poor. Honor and wealth held no sway over him, guided as he was by an outstanding sense of fairness. Above all, he never compromised his conscience, even to the point of making the supreme sacrifice so as not to disregard its voice.”
Most lay people are not involved in politics or public office in the strict sense, but they are not – they can never be – indifferent to the challenges presented by today’s society or new lifestyles. They are not “public figures.” They are ordinary men and women who try, in their families, professions and social settings to leave God’s “mark” there. I will dwell briefly on three dimensions proper to the laity that seem particularly significant: family, professional work and lifestyles.
Family, work, lifestyles
For centuries, the family has been the greatest transmitter of the faith. It is the first area of the laity’s responsibility, where the work of evangelization takes place above all through the witness of a consistent Christian life, and not so much by means of intellectual explanations, although these will also be needed as children mature. Besides the example of Christian piety, a vision of the human person is also transmitted within the family, which, at least in secularized societies, seems to be growing ever weaker and less common.
What is the Christian vision of the person? As the Second Vatican Council teaches, man and woman find their full meaning in Christ, expressed in the sincere gift of self. Christ gives his life for others, and we are called to imitate Christ on this path. The “truth about man” includes, among other things, love understood as gift, learning to forgive, emotions and sexuality integrated in a context of mutual and fruitful self-giving, the requirements of justice, preferential option for the poor, the sick and the elderly, and gratuitous giving. In a society where almost all bonds are becoming liquid, the Christian family can offer a clear vision of the fulfilment of the human person through the sincere and faithful gift of self: mothers and fathers who share the responsibility of forming their children with love expressed in daily self-giving, helping them to administer their freedom, for without freedom we can neither form nor be formed. The family, as a domestic church, is the strategic point of the new evangelization, as the recent Roman Pontiffs have stressed. It is the seedbed of the new generations of Christians.
Another important sector proper to the laity is work, a vast area that can enlighten entire societies. As St. Josemaría said, every Christian is called to “sanctify work, sanctify oneself in work, and sanctify others through work.” Before God no job is of greater or lesser importance; its importance depends on the union with God that a person achieves, developing all of one’s potentialities in one’s work, placed at the service of others. The founder of Opus Dei used another graphic expression to stress the importance of work in evangelization: Christians – and especially men and women in the middle of the world – must place “Christ at the summit of all human activities.”
Today’s society presents us with many challenges. The laity are called to solve them – or at least to strive to do so – with a Christian outlook, with professionalism, moved by justice and mercy. Usually social problems require adequate technical knowledge. At the same time, the proposed solutions can be very different from one another. Lay people who are committed to improving this world and making it accord more fully with God’s plan must place all their abilities at the service of the common good. They will be closely united in their desire to imitate our Lord and in their determination to make the light of the Gospel present in society. But obviously they will not all agree on the specific technical solutions that should be adopted.
Since we are dealing with temporal questions, the solutions will normally not be univocal, but multiple. Hence the freedom and responsibility of each person will come into play. To impose a “catholic” solution to problems that offer many possible answers would be an intolerable “clericalism,” opposed to the freedom of the children of God. It would mean confusing doctrine with what is open to opinion, with the risk of instrumentalizing the Church for temporal ends. Already in 1934, a great Catholic thinker, Étienne Gilson, wrote: “All the insults that Voltaire in his hatred poured out against priests, we are ready to repeat against clericalism; we are perhaps the only ones who can give a theological justification for this.”
Family, work. Let us dedicate now a few words to lifestyles. In the first centuries of Christianity, the laity participated with their fellow citizens in the course of history without leaving the world. Their influence on society was not primarily economic, political or military. Rather, their lifestyle, inspired by Christian charity, attracted some people and was rejected by others. The early Christians have left us an inspiring heritage about the experience of the laity in a society that does not know Christ. They showed that it is possible to be consistent with one’s faith in any circumstance and that it is also possible, from ones ordinary occupation in the midst of society, to transform it.
Following Christ implies a certain way of confronting life. The guidelines of the Gospel, such as loving one’s enemies, leading an austere life, treating others as we would like to be treated, welcoming the poor and the stranger, taking on permanent family commitments, hope in a future life, etc., will be evident to all around us and will serve as inspiration for many, even though they will also be rejected by others. The challenge for the laity is to maintain their consistent faith in the face of the pressure of other behaviors that may be widespread and to know how to explain, in a simple and joyful way, the reason for their lifestyle and the happiness they find in it. As St. Peter asks us, we Christians have to “give a reason for our hope.”
The light of the lay saints
Like our first brothers and sisters in the faith, in recent decades there have been numerous examples of other lay people (canonized or not) who have been a reflection of Christ in the world of work, sports, civil society, culture, the family, in the midst of their ordinary life; people who in no external way differed from their fellow citizens, who knew how to strengthen their baptized condition and who have been leaven, encouragement and support for thousands of their colleagues. In their own way and in their own environment, they were great heralds of the Gospel.
Among those in the process of beatification, I like to mention a businessman from my homeland named Enrique Shaw (1921-1962), whose cause for canonization was opened when Cardinal Bergoglio was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. He was a great husband and father of a large family, and also a successful businessman, who devoted himself to the service of those who worked with him. He strove continuously to improve the working conditions of his employees and took on as his own mission that of “making the company more human,” which he spoke about frequently in the meetings he organized with his friends in Catholic Action.
He was generous, patient, kind, attentive to the needs of others, drawing strength from his relationship with God; in fact, as many have testified, he radiated Christ’s love to those around him. His short life is an extraordinary lesson on the value of the Church’s social doctrine, with its legitimacy testified to by someone who lived it from the inside, in the world of business.
The chemist Guadalupe Ortiz de Landázuri (1917-1975) was recently beatified in Madrid. Pope Francis defined her as “an example for Christian women dedicated to social work and scientific research.” She was a joyful person who put her “many good qualities at the service of others,” the Pope said. In her various facets as a teacher, friend, researcher, she brought many people closer to the faith, doing so in environments perhaps where an ecclesiastic would not have easily reached.
A number of lay people have left a deep mark despite their brief life. For example, the beautiful example of the Roman Chiara Corbella Petrillo (1984-2012), a music lover married to Enrico. Her example is a powerful catechesis for us on the value of courtship, marriage and love of life. Or that of the young Milanese Carlo Acutis, who died of leukemia at the age of 15. His authentically Christian life was reflected in everything he did, including on the internet where he connected with many young people who shared his love for the Eucharist and for our Lady. His Christian joy caused great admiration among all who know him well.
Enrique, Guadalupe, Chiara and Carlo are just a few examples of how the laity are the visible face of the Church – the face of Christ – in environments (the world of work, chemistry, technology, the family) that are proper to them. They encourage Christian lifestyles, and are evangelizers of the first order, in different ways – sometimes complementary and always necessary – than those who have ministerial or other functions in the Church. It will always be “the hour of the laity” in the Church. Lay men and women will always be able to transform the world, provided they deepen the new life they received in baptism, which grafts them onto the One who said of himself that he is Life.
Romana, n. 70, January-December 2020, p. 109-114.