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
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.