How can the laity renew the Church?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 02, 2017

In March and April I suggested that what the business world calls rightsizing is absolutely critical to the renewal of the Church. My point was that if the Church does not learn once again to exclude those who, within her own ranks, have rejected her official teachings on faith and morals, then she is doomed at best to spiritual lethargy. But I also pointed out that the laity have provided the chief impetus for renewal in the Church for the past fifty years, which means that those most active in this quest have no ecclesiastical authority.

I concluded with this question:

How do we expect this constantly growing group of deeply committed lay leaders in the Catholic Church, and the outstanding organizations they have developed, finally to grab the brass ring—that is, to precipitate a sea change in a far too stagnant Church? [Obstacles to “Rightsizing” the Church]

I followed this question with silence. For a period of a month now, I have not provided a concrete proposal as an answer. This is because I do not know the answer. In fact, I do not even believe there is an answer.

Fidelity, or despair?

This sounds like a recipe for despair, but it is not. It is the very nature of the Gospel to spread without the left hand knowing what the right hand is doing. Consider Our Lord’s instruction:

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” [Jn 4:34-38]

Let us resort to the analogy of war. The private in the front lines of a particular battle does not know his strategic role in the winning of the war, nor how his defeat or death fits into the pattern of victory. Even the Pope himself does not perceive how he fits into Our Lord’s providential plan for His Church. We do well to remember how Christ answered Peter after foretelling the manner of his death. Referring to John, Peter asked, “Lord, what about this man?” To which our Savior replied: “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” (Jn 21:21-22)

Follow me! As the angel told St. John in a vision: “[T]hey will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Rev 17:13, emphasis added). And in another place: “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth” (Rev 14:13). The point should be obvious, and it is a point to which we must all return from time to time. We are not called to succeed. We are called to be faithful.

Or better, our success is our fidelity. We are not to attempt to rise beyond our station, for “the horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD” (Prov 21:31). Our mission is fidelity, and this should fill us with joy. With a hope so well-founded, despair is impossible. This is the first and most important lesson of authentic Catholic renewal.

The Complexities of Renewal

A moment’s reflection will reveal another aspect of the case: It is extraordinarily difficult to compare one place and time with another place and time in order to determine which is better for the salvation of souls. For example, was it better to live in thirteenth-century Italy, where the Church and her teachings were largely taken for granted and afforded great public respect, than it is to live in twenty-first-century America, where the Church and her teachings are largely ignored and even publicly ridiculed?

A single cry of agony to God in our faithless age may do more for a soul than a lifetime of Catholic complacency in a culture to which much has been given. A refusal to slip into the grossest of sins in one of today’s dysfunctional families may be credited as a greater righteousness than that merited by the many virtues of a monk who fails to take full advantage of his well-ordered monastery. I do not mean to suggest that we are not bound to strive toward cultural openness to God, political and social justice, and sound Church discipline, for these are all great goods. What I mean is that, presuming we are faithful, our success matters far less than we may think.

Moreover, our outward lack of success in transforming our cultural, social, economic, political and even ecclesiastical life in Christ may well, in the infinitely merciful economy of salvation, produce a greater wealth of grace than the apparent success of those who enjoyed historical situations in which everything came together to produce a far more deeply Catholic culture. Toi take the best-known example, let us consider the range of mysterious factors which came together to form medieval Christendom.

To begin, Christians remained a persecuted minority until the Emperor Constantine (whose mother was a saint) won a great battle under the sign of the cross and determined to advance the fortunes of Christianity (while delaying his own baptism to the point of death). In succeeding centuries, most of the old Roman order was swept away through a relentless series of barbarian invasions. It was the Church, including the monasteries. which preserved the obviously superior classical and Christian virtues, a coherent legal system, vast learning and a vibrant culture, and it was the Church that taught the tribes how to survive and improve even their temporal prospects (including imparting knowledge about things like crop rotation). The younger sons of what would become the nobility were often destined for ecclesiastical careers as the Church increased in worldly power.

Christendom was a very great achievement indeed, and yet it also bred a strong strain of ecclesiastical worldliness—the very seeds of its own destruction. The point, surely, is that we must beware of lamenting the lack of what it takes to make Catholicism dominant in human culture; or rather we must recognize that in human affairs such dominance will often depend on something other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Again, we do not know anything like the full pattern of Divine grace. But we do know that where sin abounds, as it certainly does in our own time and place, grace abounds all the more (cf. Rom 5:20).

God’s Presence in our Lives

Nothing I have said above suggests that we need not pray and reflect carefully on what Our Lord is calling us to do, what role He wants us to play. As far as strategic planning goes, efforts to transform singularly influential aspects of a Godless culture ought to be seriously considered. Yet this is hardly rocket science. In our own time, education is a key purveyor of the prevailing godlessness, as are the various forms of mass media. Political regulation and law are singularly influential as well. Among the poor, the depersonalized and amoral nature of current social services plays an important role. With respect to education and social services in particular, I have long since presented the thesis that Catholics can only shift things in favor of God’s will through a far greater willingness to pay twice: First, through taxes; and then by establishing truly Catholic social and educational services which are more broadly available free of charge.

After all, if we could dismantle public education and substitute lay-run Catholic free schools, each with an outstanding priest as chaplain, what a difference it would make! There, if you like, is a program for renewal of both the Church and the world. But the key for each one of us is not the adoption of a particular program. The key is the recognition that God calls us not to success but to fidelity. This means we must first discern His will for us in our current circumstances.

Here is another way to say it: If the first lesson of authentic Catholic renewal is fidelity then the second lesson can only be constant prayer. It is not my office to provide spiritual direction, but let me suggest, as a very rough and simple rule of thumb, that if we are not spending at least an hour a day in prayer, then we have probably not progressed as far as we might in discernment of and fidelity to God’s will.

Those caring for several small children, of course, face a special challenge. Still, apart from this, in my experience two hours seems to be more normal for even very busy lay people in the world who take discernment and fidelity seriously. Conversely, a common refrain of priests, religious and lay persons who have spun off the rails in terms of fidelity to something as basic as the teachings of the Church, and for those who abandon the priesthood or their religious vows, is that they have long since ceased to engage in personal prayer at all.

In contrast, St. Paul enjoins us to pray without ceasing: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thes 5:16-18). This means not only setting aside specific time for prayer but also practicing the presence of God and discerning His will of the present moment. It means receiving each moment as kind of sacrament in which we discern God’s presence and open ourselves to grace. (If these terms are unfamiliar, see the books linked at the end of this article.)

To begin, let us take a page from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s book:

O Father, the first rule of our dear Savior’s life was to do Your Will. Let His Will of the present moment be the first rule of our daily life and work with no other desire but for its most full and complete accomplishment. Help us to follow it faithfully, so that in doing what You wish we will be pleasing to you. Amen.

Again, I do not have a specific program, a sure-fire plan to reclaim and renew the Church or to make her more influential for the good of souls than she has been in recent history. But I hope you will trust me when I say that this does not matter in the least. Our vocation is fidelity. It is only fidelity which Our Lord asks of us. Fidelity to God’s will is the only measure of our success. We are speaking of fidelity for the sake of Catholic renewal, and for everything else that is good.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - May. 04, 2017 11:34 AM ET USA

    iprayiam5731: I am very sorry that you perceived my article as you did. There is no question that there are a great many things that all of us can do to contribute to authentic renewal. CatholicCulture.org wouldn't exist if that were not the case. My point is that lay people are in the forefront of renewal right now but, because of their lay state, there is no particular plan to renew the Church with institutional teeth (so to speak) which they can implement in the way a priest could in his parish, a bishop in his diocese, or the pope in the universal Church. But you do have your marching orders. You are to become holy so that you may properly discern and effectively pursue whatever it is that the Holy Spirit prompts you to undertake. There are a huge number of fruitful apostolates in which you could participate, or you may be called to begin a new apostolate of your own (which, of course, is exactly what Trinity Communications has done).

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - May. 04, 2017 11:30 AM ET USA

    rlloret6216: On the advice of Francis De Sales, two additional thoughts: First, leisure time for most lay people in that era was far, far less than what most lay people enjoy today; second, I don't think Francis envisioned the contemporary need for highly-educated lay people to become Catholic leaders in default of the bishops. With greater spiritual responsibility comes the obligation for greater time spent in prayer. Also, I should mention that in prayer time I include Mass and spiritual reading in addition to what may be a family Rosary, and of course private personal prayer.

  • Posted by: rlloret6216 - May. 03, 2017 9:02 PM ET USA

    A timely and helpful article, interesting to read in conjunction with Phil Lawler's article on the loss of churches. As for prayer, St. Frances DeSales thought it was unwise for a fully occupied lay person to plan to spend more than an hour a day in prayer, because to do so risked undermining proper attention to his or her calling. I've found his advice sound. Finally, Rev 12:11 seems like good tactics in the ongoing struggle.

  • Posted by: iprayiam5731 - May. 03, 2017 12:58 PM ET USA

    Please take this kindly, but beyond recourse to prayer, this article offers no proposal for what I, a lay person can do. You say: "The private in the front lines of a particular battle does not know his strategic role in the winning of the war" OK. But he at least has orders. I don't need to be a captain, but I need one to give orders. Otherwise, I am in no army. You ask "How can the laity renew the Church?" It sounds like your answer is, "nothing really. Pray that it gets better without you"

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - May. 03, 2017 12:02 PM ET USA

    I strongly encourage regular visits to and prayer with (or as often said, before) the Blessed Sacrament. This beautiful practice leads to interior peace and strengthens the life of charity. Jesus is so glad to see us come to Him, and He grants so many blessings to those who do it regularly.