Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
May 1st, 2012

‘How Do I Serve the Church as a Lay Person?’


Michael Redell and Rachel Roa pray during a commissioning Mass for Franciscan lay missioner Susan Slavin at the Franciscan Mission Service house in Washington. Redell was preparing for a missionary assignment in Bolivia.
(CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

For two and a half years I was a Jesuit, living religious life and experiencing what it was like to be part of the Church in more of a public capacity. I had many opportunities to serve people from all walks of life in different places. I had to get used to people calling me brother or father, though I was neither. It was kind of nice to be an “official” representative of the Catholic Church as a religious. But after a long discernment I decided to leave religious life in order to pursue the vocation of marriage and family. The biggest question for me was, How can I continue to serve the Church as a lay person? I wondered if not being a religious anymore would put a damper on being able to minister to people fully.

In an age when the Catholic Church is struggling to keep her voice relevant and prominent within society, the Catholic world sees the Church hierarchy at the fore of the effort. It is the bishops and priests on the news, writing the letters, and speaking out against complacency and the rise of secularism. Sure, they have the duty to shepherd the flock, but non-laypersons — including bishops, priests, religious, and seminarians — make up only 0.1% of the world Catholic population. The remaining 99.9% — laity — also have a vital responsibility to their role, as the Catechism says, “in the front line of the Church.” I was bothered that we seem to hear little about the lay vocation.

Mission of lay people

Lay persons are unique because they hold a special place in the function of human society … Their very engagement in secular activities can transform their ordinary work into apostolic work — work that touches lives and changes hearts.

Interestingly, the Catholic Church has a great deal to say about lay people. Pope John Paul II emphasized the role of the laity in his 2000 apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte. He said that we need to rediscover the vocation of the laity who play an important part in the new evangelization, simply put: The laity — not just the priests — can bring the love of God to all people.

Lay people have a real vocation that is an essential mission in the Church. The word “mission” should not be taken lightly. The Jesuits were all about mission, so knowing that I had a mission even as a lay person was comforting. God still wanted me to serve.

In the document Lumen Gentium, a principle document from the Second Vatican Council, the Church says, “The laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God.” Lay persons are unique because they hold a special place in the function of human society. They can affect laws, cultural attitudes, and social systems in the many places they live and work. The laity have an influence the bishops do not have. Their very engagement in secular activities can transform their ordinary work into apostolic work — work that touches lives and changes hearts.

As I entered into the secular activities of the world I found that I could actually sanctify them as a lay person. The Catechism says that prayer, work, family life, and relaxation, if guided by the Holy Spirit, become spiritual sacrifices. Whatever I ended up doing — whether at work, at home, or in relationships — if I did it prayerfully and with God at the center, I could be “priestly.” At baptism we are called to participate in the “priesthood of all believers,” different from ordained clergy. And the laity need not restrict themselves to just the secular world. They can be non-ordained “lay priests” in the Church, too.


When I was working as a chaplain at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., as a Jesuit, I quickly learned that though I was not an ordained priest I could still exercise priestly functions with the people to whom I ministered: I could listen, pray for them, bring Communion, and even baptize when necessary. The Catholic lay person has great empowerment in the Church!

At the end of every Mass Catholics are dismissed and told to “go!” for the missionary purpose of sharing the Gospel with those they encounter in their lives. And the Church places a lot of trust on this happening. Why? Because the laity are the Church whose mission from Christ is to love and spread the Gospel. By tilling the soil through their prayer and action the lay person assists in preparing the world to better receive Jesus’ message of peace, love, and justice.

The Catholic Church demands of the laity an important ministry: To fuse their faith and love for Christ with everything they undertake in the secular world and within the Church. Women and men of all kinds assisted the Apostle Paul in his laborious missionary work. Today, the Church’s documents call the laity to continue that work.

Every Christian lay person ought to ask himself or herself what more can he or she do to participate in Christ’s mission inside and outside their parishes. It’s a question I need to ask myself as I reemerge as a lay person. God gives the laity great and holy empowerment, calling us to be priests, prophets, and kings. With their diversity of gifts and talents, lay people have the opportunity to become instruments of Christ’s presence and influence in every corner of the world with every kind of person and in every kind of context.

The Author : Andy Otto
Andy Otto is earning his graduate degree in theology and ministry at Boston College and is the creator and editor of GodInAllThings.com, a blog and podcast on Ignatian spirituality. He lives with his wife Sarah in the Boston area.
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  • ren

    As a married person, your vocation is your most important ministry in your life. You will find many, many opportunities to serve as a husband and father every day. Albeit most of how you love your wife and family is “unseen by the Church world” but since the family is the cell of society, I believe it is one of the most important ways to serve the Church today. If my activities of serving God outside the home are detracting from my vocational duties in my family, then I know something is wrong with this picture. I believe that if I sincerely devote myself to my calling the way He wants me to,God will lead me(and possibly my family with me) to areas of serving that will enhance, and not detract from my vocation. “Don’t think that love, to be true, has to be extraordinary. What is necessary is to continue to love. How does a lamp burn, if it is not by the continuous feeding of little drops of oil?
    Dear friends what are our drops of oil in our lamps?
    They are small things from every day life: the joy, the generosity, the little good things, humility and patience. Our way to be silent, to listen to forgive, to act, a simple thought for someone else.” Mother Teresa

  • Steve

    Tom, it is my suspicion that your difficulty in becoming an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion at the hospital is a local problem. Recently, during college, I volunteered regularly at the hospital and distributed the Eucharist. I had to undergo a few afternoons of training to ensure respect for Christ’s presence in the host, but everyone was very happy for my help.

    Perhaps you can write a cordial letter to your bishop, letting him know of the vital need for this type of ministry in your area, particularly if the older Eucharistic ministers are unwilling to provide it. From their you might be able to partner with a local parish to get access to the tabernacle on a regular basis.

  • James A.; Whelan

    Dear Andy Sound like you are a perfect candidate for Opus Dei.I am a Discalced Carmelite OCSD.

  • Tom Rowan

    I am a ‘lay ecclesial health care minister’ and have been involved in health care ministry for more than 10 years. Before this, I served as a lay missioner in Brasil. In both experiences, I had to deal with being treated as someone less than the ordained. I currently am a certified lay chaplain pending the ecclesial endorsement of the local ordinary wwho has said publicly that he will not endorse lay chaplains. This means that I cannot be trained to be a supervisor of chaplains and cannot apply for positions in health care that demand this endorsement. The patients I serve welcome me and that is the only endorsement I need. Another affect on lay ministry is the move by the Church to limit eucharistic ministers to the ordained. The current eucharistic ministers who volunteer with me are all over 70 years old and their are no younger ones being trained. I guess the answer to the question is that it depends where the lay people who work for the church are welcomed or not.

  • Peter

    Dear Andy Otto,
    Thank you verry much Andy Otto. It is an amazing thought. As you see, there is a decrease in vocation. Therefore, the Church needs those who like you.
    Best Wishes

  • Suzanne Walsh

    Andy, great thoughts. Especially now the church needs all of us to support with our various gifts and talents. Seems like often times we wait for an invitation when in fact the invitation is already there, we need to respond.

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