The perils of “apostolic necessity”: The soul of the apostolate is Presence.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 23, 2017

I suspect we all know people who are so invested in their jobs that they have little time for anything else. This may be how they define success, which is in itself unfortunate, but there can be a similar imbalance in the Christian life. Have you also known lay persons who work so hard in various apostolates that they seem somehow out of balance? Or have you encountered priests and religious whose particular apostolic work consumes nearly all of their time? Perhaps you even find yourself caught in this same trap.

If so, you’ve come to the right place. I have rubbed shoulders with many zealous men and women who have had trouble balancing what they regard as their Catholic apostolate or mission with the rest of their responsibilities. In fact, when I look in the mirror I see someone who barely escaped from this trap (or at least so I believe), and only after far too long a time. I am referring the dangers of a life based on the principle of “apostolic necessity”.

What I mean by this is what we might call a preferential option for apostolate in comparison with vocation. It is easy enough to see the importance of apostolic work. The harvest is great and the vast majority of people pay no attention to it at all. We can easily become convinced that somebody must take up the slack. If we have an acute sense of spiritual responsibility, we may well regard it as beneath our dignity to shirk the apostolic labor that so desperately needs to be done. But this sense of apostolic dignity can also get us into trouble. We may find that our apostolic efforts take root in the wrong kind of prayer—the kind of prayer that begins, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men” (Lk 18:11).

The great temptation of this principle of “apostolic necessity” is to rely primarily on our own efforts, as if the apostolic work we have set for ourselves is somehow indispensable to the Kingdom of God. This work quickly becomes bound up with our own identity. No sacrifice seems too great and failing in God’s work is unthinkable. If it takes long hours and single-minded dedication to establish the Kingdom, then so be it. In a staredown with the devil, we will never be the first to blink.

Sadly, such attitudes are damaging and dangerous, for the first lesson of every form of apostolic work is simply this:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. [Ps 127:1-3]

I cast no stones here. It is easy enough to make a bad example of myself. It took me far too long to realize that it was absolutely impermissible for me to explain to my wife and children that I could not give them the time they needed—I could not give them the personal presence they needed—because of the demands of “my apostolate”.

Vocation and Presence

Hopefully, the danger of the “Apostolic Necessity Principle” is now clear enough. But since we also know that it really is important to engage in apostolic work, we might still wonder how to discern how much is too much. Fortunately, God and the Church give us a basic rule of life which, if followed, makes our discernment and decisions much easier. This rule is very simple: Vocation always trumps apostolate.

If we are married, our vocation is to be a good spouse and, if blessed with children, a good parent. This can be accomplished only by being present to both God and to our families. If we are priests, our vocation is to tend the flock of Christ. This can be accomplished only by being present to both God and to the people who have been entrusted to our care. The vocation of permanent deacons is a ministry of service, which also requires being present to both God and to the people they serve; but for married deacons, this service must be subordinated to their primary vocation of marriage. If we are in a form of consecrated life, our vocation is to remain focused on God in the particular way of life to which we have been called. This can be accomplished only by being present to God and, through our distinctive community charisms, to the souls we have been called to serve, in accordance with our rule of life.

Single unconsecrated lay persons survey a more open field. But they can also give of themselves in less restricted ways because this state in life does not encompass a predetermined community of reference for their vocation. The soul of the apostolate is always a kind of “being present” to others that brings them into contact with Jesus Christ because “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). But as those in the unconsecrated single state cannot be jolted out of themselves by spouses, bishops, or the community of which they are a part, openness to spiritual direction is extraordinarily important.

Again, vocation always trumps apostolate. I have already suggested the dangers to husbands and wives of ignoring this principle. But similar dangers apply to all. A priest, for example, may be tempted to elevate his work in a favored apostolate over both his availability to souls in need and his commitment to his bishop and to the task his bishop assigns. And how many religious have abandoned or destroyed their communities, setting aside the founding charisms in the name of some “vital” social service which they see as their “apostolate”?

In addition, we too often see “apostolate” in terms of “work”—that is, finances to be secured (perhaps even from the government!) and tasks to be accomplished. Those registered on CatholicCulture.org are surely reminded of the potential danger every time I send a fundraising message. But our vocations are first and foremost fulfilled through presence, and our particular apostolic plans and goals must not be permitted to disrupt this fundamental vocational presence. Moreover, presence to others within these vocational boundaries is inescapably the measure of every apostolic work.

Insofar as He has called us to some particular activity, work or apostolate, God wishes only to use our intermediary presence as a way of opening others more fully to Himself. It is never the list of external accomplishments that matters. It is never even the worldly success of our various Catholic enterprises that matters. What matters—and the only thing that matters—is that, through our own willingness to make ourselves present to others in His name, and within the limits set by the vocations to which He has called us, we in some measure become living conduits for the Presence of God. The right sort of presence is, in fact, a kind of grace. This is how the Lord builds His house, protects the faithful, accomplishes the work, and gives us rest.

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.

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  • Posted by: nix898049 - May. 30, 2017 11:29 AM ET USA

    Thank you for this insight. My spiritual life is based on the rule of St. Benedict and was before I met my husband. He does not share my faith and I tend to compartmentalize my marriage vocation and my oblation, I fear. Thank you for clarifying this obstacle. St Joan of Arc, pray for us. Holy Ghost, guide us. Amen.

  • Posted by: winnie - May. 24, 2017 2:26 PM ET USA

    Thank you for a timely reminder that my vocation as wife, mother and grandmother trump my role as lector and EM to a local nursing home. I will feel torn no more when out of town family visits and family occasions colide with those duties-usually in the summer. I will choose my family and be at peace.