Appeared in Summer 1990, Vol. XVI, No. 2 Download PDF here

At the beginning of this century, Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson, a noted Anglican convert to Catholicism, wrote two intriguing books entitled respectively Lord of the World and The Dawn of All. In the former, he prophesies a future world where secular humanism has almost completely triumphed and Catholicism is a negligible cultural force with only a remnant of adherents. He also foresees air travel, nuclear weapons, and the emergence of two great superpowers in the East and West, not to mention the coming of the Anti-Christ through world government. In the latter volume, written in reaction to critical comments made regarding the first, he portrays a world where a new Christendom has been established with a wonderful harmonizing of the teachings of the Church with medicine, science and politics.

In the 21st Century, the beginning of the third millennium to which the Holy Father has so often referred in the course of his pontificate, one of these visions could very well come about.

I tend towards the more optimistic view and it is my thesis that a new re-evangelized world, at least in the case of the West, will come about precisely due to the flowering of authentic lay spirituality in the professions and the workplace.

One does not have to be a particularly insightful historian of the Church to see that we may very well be coming to the end of a 2000 year cycle. The spirituality of the first Christians was rooted in the secular world, in family and civil life, and in the workplace. Although, some early Christians undoubtedly dedicated themselves totally to apostolic works, there is relatively little mention of monastic life until the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth. Ironically, the fleeing from the world by tens of thousands to the desert of the Thebaid of Egypt came at precisely the time when Christianity was about to receive religious toleration through the Edict of Milan, and, with time, their moral life was to be incorporated into the law of the Roman empire. This is when it became the common opinion that in order to seek sanctity seriously, one had to abandon the world, and the best the laity could aspire to was a second-class sanctity due to the “distractions” of commerce, family, and social life, etc. However, listen to a description of Christian life in the second century prior to the emergence of monasticism:

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law … (Epistle to Diognetus, Nn. 506; Funk, 397-401)

The development of religious life from the hermits of the desert through the monasticism of Benedict and Columba, continuing with the founding of the mendicant orders of the 13th century and the emergence of the missionary congregations of the 16th century, reveals a constant evolution of the consecrated religious life towards greater involvement in the world. The most lay people could hope for was a derivative “third-order” spirituality which was religious.

It is clear that the Holy Spirit is working in a special way in the Church most particularly through the Second Vatican Council in placing an emphasis on the work of the laity in the transformation of the world of Christ. As Christopher Dawson puts it (Enquiries, 1933, pp. 308-310):

We need a new asceticism suited to the conditions of the modern world – a strenuous training of body and mind in the new life…. The position of the laymen is inevitably more difficult since the external forms of life are determined by economic forces which take small account of religious consideration. And not only is religion confined to the inner life but that life itself is exposed to multiple distraction…. It calls for a heroic effort like that which converted the Roman Empire. I believe myself that the need produces the man and that the coming age of the Church will see a new outpouring of spiritual energy manifested in the Christian life…. The saint, like every other great man, is the organ of a social purpose, and the success of his mission depends on the reserves of faith and spiritual will that have been accumulated by the anonymous activity of ordinary imperfect men and women, each of whom, has made an individual contribution, however minute it may be, to a new order of Christian life.

In this paper, I want to focus on a few themes that are highlighted in the Holy Father’s post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation “The Laymembers of Christ’s Faithful People” (Christifideles Laici). I will try and limit myself to the given topic although the document contains much, much more. Christifideles Laici contains the best synthesis of the Church’s recent teaching on the laity. The Holy Father quotes liberally from Gaudium et Spes, Lumen Gentium, and Apostolicam Actuositatem from the Second Vatican Council and also from his important postconciliar documents, Familiaris Consortio on the family, and Laborem Exercens on work, two areas where the laity must sanctify and be sanctified.

The Holy Father begins by putting the stress on the divine calling by the Lord, man’s vocation, by citing the parable of the vineyard. The laity are all called to labor in the vineyard, and the vineyard is the world and there no excuse not to be involved. The laymen not only form part of the Church, they are the Church – the Church which is referred to as “the universal sacrament of salvation” (L. G. #48). This clarifies the conciliar teaching that the laity are not simply instruments of the hierarchy or of religious congregations but rather free and responsible members of the Church called directly to evangelization in the vineyard of the world. He underlines the urgency of the task in this historical moment:

For faith throws a new light on all things and makes known the full ideal to which God has called each individual and thus guides the mind towards solutions which are fully human…. It is necessary then to keep a watchful eye on this our world, with its problems and values, its unrest and hopes, its defeats and triumphs: a world whose economic, social, political, and cultural affairs pose problems and gave difficulties in light of the descriptions provided by the Council (CL. #3).

He communicates a sense of adventure, even of crusade. What is emphasized is the secular nature (in the world) of this mission, making reference to avoiding:

the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, cultural and political world: and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world (CL. #2, p.12-13).

The Second Vatican Council makes clear that the laity “have the capacity to assume from the hierarchy certain ecclesiastical functions, which are to be performed for a spiritual purpose” (L.G. #33). This involvement is good and necessary. However, the idea, unfortunately, is indeed widespread in our country, due to a faulty interpretation of the Conciliar documents, that the laity manifests its involvement in the Church chiefly through participation in liturgical functions, parish councils, church positions, etc., rather than in family, work, political, social, and cultural life. In short, in some circles there is an emphasis on sharing “power” rather than service and a concept that somehow the laity become more integrated in the life of the Church the more clericalized their function. Apart from the danger of this clericalization for the identity of the laity itself, this train of thought leads inevitably to a shirking of responsibility for the state of the world by Catholic laymen; at the same time the enemies of God and the Church will not find any determined opposition to their machinations by committed Catholic laymen. However, totally committed Catholics are needed on the sports field, on Broadway, in the university, in the media, and indeed in all legitimate activities, as well as being involved in liturgical and parochial activities.

The document makes clear that it is the faith of the Christian which enables him to see what must be done in this particular moment. The Holy Father speaks of conflicts which must find their resolution in “peace in justice” and that the only answer is Jesus Christ:

“The Church knows that all the forces that humanity employs for communion and participation find a full response in the intervention of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of man and the world” (CL. #7).

Under the heading of “Who are the Lay Faithful?,” the Pope asserts the full identity of the laity with the Church: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Their mission is “to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God” (L.G. #31). And “through Baptism the lay faithful are made one body with Christ and are established among the people of God. They are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ” (L.G. #31).

Here is the essence of the spirituality of the workplace. They are united to Christ by “the offering they make of themselves and their daily activities” (CL. #14). “For their work, prayers, and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily labor, their mental and physical relaxation, if carried on in the spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne – all of these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (L.G. #34). All of this should be united to Christ’s offering in the Eucharist.

The laity share in the prophetic mission of Christ through “their ability and responsibility to accept the Gospel in faith and proclaim it in word and deed without hesitating to courageously identify and denounce evil” (CL. #14). Finally, they exercise their kingship “above all in the spiritual combat in which they seek to overcome in themselves the kingdom of sin, and then to make a gift of themselves so as to serve in justice and charity” (CL. #14). Interesting here is the priority that the Holy Father places on interior struggle and conquering oneself as the battle that must be fought prior to and concurrent with establishing the kingship of Christ on earth.

This calling, this mission, is clearly secular because “the world becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation because the world itself is destined to glorify the Father in Christ” (GL. #15). “There they are called by God” (L.G. #32). Therefore, in the case of the laity, the world is not an obstacle to holiness but a help. It is not a question of contempt or a fleeing from the world but rather ordering the essential goodness of the world to the glory of God and the good of souls while always respecting the legitimate autonomy of the secular order, pointed out in Gaudium et Spes (no. 36). This conciliar teaching is radical and has yet to fully sink into the consciousness of many Christians who are accustomed to believe that holiness is reserved for the few. They are called to follow the example of Jesus who spent thirty years of his life working and praying in anonymity; these thirty years that John Paul II refers to in Laborem Exercens as “the Fifth Gospel.”

“The vocation to holiness, that is, the perfection of charity is the basic charge entrusted to all the sons and daughters of the Church.” It is “an undeniable requirement” (CL. #16). Only holiness can change the world: “Men and women saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult circumstances of the Church’s history” (C.L. #16).

At this point the document mentions a phrase which offers what heretofore has been the missing link between spirituality and the workplace – unity of life: “The unity of life of the lay faithful is of the greatest importance; indeed they must be sanctified in everyday and professional and social life. Therefore, to respond to their vocation, the lay faithful must see their daily activities as an occasion to join themselves to God, fulfill his will, serve other people, and lead them to communion with God in Christ” (proposition #5).

The prayer and sacramental life of the Christian, while prior to the active life, has to be intimately connected with it. Therefore, professional and family life, lived in the presence of God, should be the overflow of the interior life. It is more important to be rather than to do, or as the scholastics would have it, Agere sequitur esse. Christopher Dawson tells us:

A Christian has only to be in order to change the world, for in that act of being there is contained all the mystery of the supernatural life. It is the function of the Church to sow this divine seed, to produce not merely good men, but spiritual men – that is to say, supermen. Insofar as the Church fulfills this function it transmits to the world a continuous stream of spiritual energy…. A despiritualized Christianity is powerless to change anything; it is the most abject of failures, since it serves neither natural nor the spiritual order (Christianity & the New Order, p. 103).

In perhaps the most mystical and beautiful passage of the document, the Holy Father points out, echoing Dawson, that this redemptive work will often pass unnoticed:

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both men and women, busy at work in their daily life and activity, often times far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard (CL. #17).

Now we move on to the apostolic mission of the laity, i.e., the apostolate, the witness to others by deeds and words of the saving Gospel of Christ. The Holy Father reiterates:

The apostolate exercised by the individual – which flows abundantly from a truly Christian life – is the origin and condition of the whole lay apostolate, even in its organized expression and admits no substitute. Regardless of circumstances, all lay persons are called to this type of apostolate and obliged to engage in it. Such an apostolate is useful at all times and place, but in certain circumstances it is the only one available and feasible (C.L. #28).

Apostolate is primarily individual, one-on-one, so to speak: a personal call and commitment to sanctify others starting with the family, and spreading out in ever widening concentric circles to colleagues, friends and acquaintances. The apostolate is only limited by the lack of interior life or apostolic zeal of the individual: “Such an individual form of apostolate can contribute greatly to a more extensive spreading of the Gospel, indeed, it can reach as many places as there are daily lives of individual members of the lay faithful” (CL. #28). The identity of the lay faithful is crucial here, since wherever the layperson finds himself, there the Church will be exercising her evangelical mission to preach to the very ends of the earth the gospel of Christ.

Although, as the document points out, not everybody is able to collaborate in lay associations, the Holy Father makes mention of “a new era of group endeavors of the lay faithful.” He sees them as means for a “responsible participation … in the Church’s mission of carrying forth the Gospel of Christ – the source of hope for humanity and the renewal of society” (CL. #29). They are works of the Holy Spirit that can be “very diverse from one another in various aspects” but yet show “a profound convergence when viewed from the perspective of their common purpose.” The Church recognizes the right of association of all the faithful, yet declares various marks of ecclesiality that show the authenticity of each particular movement. Among these marks are the following: (a) a primacy of the vocation of each Christian to holiness, favoring the connection between faith and real life; (b) a profession of the Catholic faith, following faithfully the teaching authority of the Church; (c) a firm and convinced communion with the Pope and bishops and a mutual respect among all the forms of apostolate in the Church; (d) a participation in the apostolic end of the Church; and (e) a commitment of service to human society by the light of the social doctrine of the Church (cfr. CL. #30).

At the same time, these movements should show positive fruit as proof of their authenticity. Some of these would include: the care for the liturgical, prayerful and sacramental life; the winning of authentic vocations to Christian marriage, as well as to the priesthood; collaboration with the Church on the local, national, and international level; an involvement in works of catechesis; and fostering of charitable, cultural, and spiritual works to cultivate a spirit of poverty and detachment and to work for the return to the Christian life of alienated Christians (cfr. CL. #30). The Holy Father promises a list of officially-approved associations composed by the Pontifical Council on the Laity soon.

In speaking of the reality of work, the Church tells us through the Councils and Synods that “the lay faithful must accomplish their work with professional competence, with human honesty, with a Christian spirit, and especially as a way of their own sanctification (Prop #24)…. Moreover, we know that through work offered to God, an individual is associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, whose labor with his hands at Nazareth greatly ennobled the dignity of work” (G.S. #67). What a powerful, yet simple, message the Church sends us; unfortunately, it has not yet been transmitted in all its force and vigor to the laity who could find in this message their own spirituality.

The penultimate topic is one very close to the heart of the Holy Father – culture. Christianity does not exist in a vacuum. We have only to look at the Middle Ages and the Baroque, for example, as two periods where the Christian spirit heavily influenced and we could say were the creators of a culture whose art, music, and literature were strongly sympathetic toward Christianity. Culture is defined as follows:

To humanize social life both in the family and in the whole civic community through the improvement of customs and institutions, to express through its works the great spiritual experiences and aspirations of all peoples throughout the ages, finally, to communicate and preserve them to be an inspiration for the progress of many, indeed of the whole human race (G.S. #53) … in particular, only from within and through culture does the Christian faith become a part of history and the creator of history (CL. #44).

The Holy Father most particularly encourages the faithful “to be present as signs of courage and intellectual creativity in the privileged places of culture, that is, the world of education – school and university – in places of scientific and technological research, the areas of artistic creativity and works in the humanities” (CL. #44).

In September of 1987, during his second pastoral journey to the United States, the Holy Father spoke directly to the American Bishops regarding this theme:

Primarily through her laity, the Church is in a position to exercise great influence upon American culture. This culture is a human creation. It is created through insight and communication. It is built by an exchange among the people of a particular society … But how is American culture evolving today? Is this evolution being influenced by the Gospel? Does it clearly reflect Christian inspiration? Your music, your poetry and art, your drama, your painting and sculpture, the literature that you are producing – are all those things which reflect the soul of a nation being influenced by the spirit of Christ for the perfection of humanity?

The answer is clearly “No,” and the Holy Father is telling both the bishops and laity that, until there can be perceived a change in the tone of our culture, we still have not yet put the teachings of the Council and post-Council into full effect.

I believe it very appropriate that the Holy Father closes the document with an examination of the essential element of formation. For without a well-defined formation that is spiritual and theological, any resolution to put the ends outlined in this paper into effect is worthless. He writes: “There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called spiritual life, with its values and demands, and on the other hand, the so-called secular life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social relationships, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture”(C.L. #59). How to avoid this dichotomy is answered very concretely:

To be able to discover the actual will of the Lord in our lives always involves the following: a receptive listening to the Word of God and the Church, fervent and constant prayer, recourse to a wise and loving and spiritual guide, and a faithful discernment of the gifts and talents given by God, as well as the diverse social and historical situation in which one lives (CL. #58).

The emphasis on human virtues is of interest, given that they may be precisely that which is needed in order to unite the spiritual with the material in a true unity of life. “The lay faithful should also hold in high esteem professional skill, daily and civic spirit, and the virtues related to social behavior, namely, honesty, a spirit of justice, sincerity, courtesy, moral courage; without them, there is not true Christian life” (CL. #60). Without a total formational program, the putting into practice of lay spirituality would be stillborn. Inside the Church, the Pope, bishops, and parishes have the primordial responsibility for this formation along with Catholic schools and universities, and those “lay movements” that have appeared in recent decades.

To summarize, an authentic spirituality for the workplace does exist and is presented in the teachings of the Church, particularly in the Conciliar and post-conciliar documents as summarized in Christifideles Laici. This spirituality is deeply secular, based on a commitment to holiness through an interior struggle fed by prayer and the sacraments. The spiritual life is completely integrated and indeed completed in family and professional life. This unity of life inevitably leads to an evangelization not only of individuals through friendship but also extends to entire societies and culture. All of this necessitates a union with the hierarchy of the Church and a willingness to seek out the personal formation necessary to reach the goal of personal holiness.

Let us remember the Holy Father’s challenge to the American laity:

The temporal order of which the Council speaks is vast. It encompasses the social, cultural, intellectual, and political life in which all of you rightly participate. As lay men and women actively engaged in this temporal order, you are being called by Christ to sanctify the world and to transform it. This is true of all work, however exalted or humble, but it is especially urgent for those whom circumstances and special talent have placed in positions of leadership or influence – men and women in public service, education, business, science, social communications, and the arts. As Catholic lay people, you have an important moral and cultural contribution of service to make to the life of your country. “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much” (Luke 12:48). These words of Christ apply not only to the sharing of material wealth or personal talents, but also to the sharing of one’s faith (JP II in America, p. 254).