Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Are You Ready to Change the World?

by Deacon James Keating, Ph.D.


This article by Deacon James Keating reflects on what Vatican II taught regarding the secular character of the role of the laity in evangelizing the world. He points out that according to the Council the area for the layman to become a saint is in converting the world to Christ. He stresses the urgency of forming the laity to become secular missionaries and the prerequisite of this formation — a deeper understanding of the centrality of worship. The mission of the laity to the secular world "is more crucial today then it was when the Council closed in 1965, simply because more and more of us in the Western world can live as if God does not exist."

Larger Work

Envoy Magazine


18 – 23

Publisher & Date

Envoy Institute of Belmont Abbey College, Belmont, NC, November/December 2007

Since the closing of the Second Vatican Council (1962 - 65), there has been an increasing effort in many local parishes to draw lay people into the Church's global mission of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. Progress in this area has only recently gained significant momentum. Until recently the bulk of diocesan and parish formation programs revolved around the formation of the laity for intra-ecclesial ministry — that is, for ministry within the Church, not outside the Church in the secular; temporal order.

Happily, the secular character of lay people's role in the church and the world ("in the world but not of the world.") is becoming clear to lay people and clergy alike, and the Catholic church is experiencing a new found sense of urgency for equipping lay people to fulfill their mission of explaining, defending, and sharing their Faith with the world. As legitimate as these roles are for the laity to undertake, the essence of lay life is not to be found in the sanctuary performing liturgical roles or even catechetical functions. The essence of the lay vocation is to transform culture by witnessing to the truth of Catholicism's doctrinal and moral teachings by both word and deed. The dignity of the lay vocation, therefore, lies in its missionary and not maintenance quality. The Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People specifically closes by identifying the lay vocation with Christ's missionary mandate:

It is the Lord who is again sending lay people He Himself into every town and every place where He Himself is to come (Luke 10:1). He sends them on the Church's apostolate . . . knowing that in the Lord their labor cannot be lost (1 Cor. 15:58). (AA 33)

Even more specific to the secular vocation the laity is called to live and embrace, the Council Fathers noted:

The characteristic of the lay state being a life led in the midst of the world and of secular affairs, laymen are called by God to make of their apostolate, through the vigor of their Christian spirit, a leaven in the world . . . On all Christians, accordingly, rests the noble obligation of working to bring all men throughout the whole world to hear and accept the divine message of salvation . . . Laymen ought to take on themselves as their distinctive task [the] renewal of the temporal order (AA 2,3,7).

It is true that there is and always will be a role for laymen, both men and women, in intra-ecclesial ministry flowing from their baptismal identity (see AA 24). These ministries would include, for example, extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, lector, catechist, pastoral visitor to the sick or imprisoned, and more. But the processes for such formation have been mastered. There are very few parishes and dioceses that do not have a competent formation program for training intra-ecclesial ministers for work within the Church. It is rarer to find dioceses that have developed explicit processes for assisting the laity to come to know and appropriate its identity as the Church in the world.

More often than not, I find people in the parishes very hesitant to witness to their faith or speak about it in public. Most of the questions I receive in the parish come from professionals and laborers struggling to give solid, convincing answers to their non-Catholic friends who raise questions or objections about Catholic doctrine or practice. The topics included in these questions are as diverse as family and marriage issues, work issues, political and cultural experiences. More often than not the Catholic layman remains mute before the spun theories or positions given to him by non-Catholic Christians or secular co-workers. The Second Vatican Council looms in the parish like an unnoticed elephant on these issues. Yet the bulk of lay formation mandated by the Second Vatican Council had very little to do with intra-ecclesial ministry. A recovery of the full meaning of the call to holiness and a renewed theology of baptism led the Council Fathers to see that the laity needed to be called to sanctity within the very context of their secular lives.

Get Out and Get Secular

According to the Council, therefore, the arena for the layman to become a saint is located not in "churchy" activities but in converting the world for Christ, working out in the secular (from the Latin word for "world") arena. The time has come to move beyond lay "ministry" and begin the very difficult work of forming lay missionaries. The institutional mechanisms are now in place for intra-ecclesial ministry, but the development of existing, yet nascent, programs for the lay apostolate or mission to the culture has yet to begin. To reiterate, in moving "beyond" lay ministry I am not advocating its demise or calling for its formation programs to be dismantled. I am simply observing that as a church we are competent in that area now. We are not so competent at the diocesan and parish level in the formation of the secular mission of the laity. In fact, we are often quite poor at it.

One very big obstacle to getting a significant number of lay Catholics to participate in missionary formation is the fact that, when this formation is complete, there will be no "job" for the "graduate" to perform. The current lay ministry formation processes run successfully on the hopeful premise that after lay students complete their formation they will be employed or given meaningful work by a pastor, or a hospital or a prison or some diocesan office. There is no such incentive for formation in the lay apostolate. This is a real hurdle to overcome if we are to attract larger numbers of parishioners to a formation in a theology of the laity. In short, after any education in the meaning of lay life is complete (if it ever really is), one will simply remain, for example, a plumber, a doctor, a truck driver, and will continue in the vocation of marriage, with two children, a dog, and a house payment. The missing incentive of getting to do pastoral ministry (e.g., being an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist or a visitor to the sick), cannot in itself abrogate the necessity of finding a way to offer such formation. To neglect this task is to neglect our duty to fill the world with secular missionaries.

By secular missionaries I mean Catholics who fill the nooks and crannies of culture as only they can. In the traditional understanding of a missionary, a priest or religious sets out for a foreign country to evangelize it and set up a sphere of Catholic worship and catechetical instruction.

Later this may widen to include other tasks, both secular and religious, but initially the thrust is to bring a religious presence and create of zone of faith: a mission church, a school, a charitable outreach of some sort, and so on. The secular or lay missionary simply brings his faith, hope, and love to the place where he already lives and works. The lay missionary is not penetrating a foreign country with Gospel witness; rather he or she is penetrating a foreign culture. This culture is located anywhere where the customs and mores of a society are not explicitly aligned with the moral and spiritual truths of Christ. To the extent that prudence allows, the layman is called to slowly, humbly, and lovingly witness to hope within his or her public life. Over time he or she brings the light to the dark corners of business, or health care, the judicial system, or the mechanic's garage, places that no priest will ever be employed as a matter of routine. This is the dignity of lay life, to be given the mission to evangelize the secular world. This is the adventure of being a public Catholic.

This is also at the heart of so much of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which exhorted the laity, often in strong language, to engage the culture and evangelize it. Gaudium et Spes, the Council's document on The Church in the Modern World, states:

This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine that they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life . . . The Christian who neglects his temporal duties neglects his duties toward his neighbor, and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation (GS 43, emphasis added).

A Theology of the Laity

The reality of forming the laity to be secular missionaries is so urgent that I now see the course I teach on Catholic social doctrine at the seminary as a course on the theology of the laity. I frequently encourage the seminarians to consider that the rest of their lives will be spent trying to help parishioners understand and live out a theology of the laity. I explain, very directly, that very few parishioners will come up to them and ask, "Father, will you explain the theology of the priesthood to us?" Yet many, in both ordinary and implicit ways, will ask, "What is my role as public Catholic?" If we see the parish as the most likely place of formation in the apostolate of the laity, then the pastor is the most likely candidate, at least initially, to delve into the secular character of the laity for his parishioners. Of course, eventually this effort will be more a collaborative work as laymen themselves begin to articulate for one another the virtues needed to be a faithful public Catholic. Presently, there are some members of the laity able to articulate the Catholic vision of what it means to be a secular missionary, but by and large the general population in a parish will need some formation before explicitly appropriating and fostering such a public identity. Whether laity or clergy accomplishes this formation is not the vital point. What is vital is that this formation begins to be accomplished.

Wanted: Lay Leaders of All Kinds, Any Age or Background

According to Lumen Gentium, it is the laity's "special vocation . . . to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will . . . There they are called by God that, being led by the spirit to the Gospel, they may contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties . . . It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are so closely associated that these may be effected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer" (LG 31).

The Second Vatican Council was quite clear in its theology of the laity and made a claim still valid in our current day: "The split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age" (GS 43). In the United States this split has been widened further by the continued cultural affirmation that religion is a private matter. Since religion is seen to be a matter of privacy, there is then, one might think, no need to develop a facility with religious language and ideas. After all, faith is to remain in its place within the confines of worship. While the privatization of faith is not universally accepted by any means (after all, some Christian denominations put public evangelization in word and deed as a top priority for their members), many Catholics are still not comfortable with words like evangelization and witness. They sound foreign; they even sound non-Catholic! This must change.

Pope John Paul II was not shy about asking the Church and her members to be public, visible, and vocal. In his famous homily delivered at Oriole Park in Baltimore in 1995, the pope made it clear that Catholics need to become articulate in the faith so as to transform the American culture. In no way should a Catholic think of his or her faith as being private in nature. John Paul II exhorted Catholics to defend religious freedom by actively being Catholic, for "today religious freedom must be upheld and defended against those who would remove religion from the public domain and make secularism America's faith." It is the faith that founds and supports our public efforts to introduce virtue into public policy, entertainment, family life, education, and more. To exclude the truths of our faith from our social lives leaves Catholics with no opportunity to "contribute their deepest convictions" to public policy discussions. ("Homily at Oriole Park" in Make Room for the Mystery of God [Pauline books, 1995], 90). If we cannot be Catholic in public, from what source are we expected to draw our public mission? Are we to be limited to secular sources only? It is not, however, from secular sources that our deepest convictions spring; it is from religious sources. Pope John Paul noted this in Veritatis Splendor:

To imitate and live out the love of Christ is not possible for man by his own strength alone. He becomes capable of this love only by virtue of a gift received . . . Christ's gift in his Spirit, whose fruit (Gal. 5:22) is charity . . . Saint Augustine asks: "'Does love bring about the keeping of the commandments, or does keeping the commandments bring about love?" And he answers, "But who can doubt that love comes first? For the one who does not love has no reason for keeping the commandments." (VS, 23).

He is even more direct in Christifideles Laici, his Apostolic Exhortation on the role of the laity in the Church, where he states:

"Therefore, I have maintained that a faith that does not affect a person's culture is a faith not fully embraced, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived" (CL 59). It is time we lived the faith fully, in the secular world, informed by a theology of the laity.

Mission Flows from Communion

From what we love comes the wisdom and strength to think about and implement what a culture needs to promote public character and virtue. It is God we love above all; to do otherwise is idolatry. In the light of our vocation to love God, all other loves — family, country, profession — are relative in importance.

A prerequisite for the formation of the laity, then, is to deepen lay understanding of the centrality of worship. It is in the loving worship of God that one finds the depths of what it means to be a secular missionary. Where real Eucharistic community exists, one sees fruit in bold public witness. If I think my Catholicism is private, I would be unwilling to risk my job, profession, or, in the case of politicians, an elected office, in order to stand up for what is true. Why should I risk all only to find that no one is there to help restore my life and pick up the pieces when my witness to Christ has been rejected and I am fired or lose an election. Barring negligence or fanaticism, it should be the rule of the Catholic community to support any layman spiritually, economically, and emotionally when authentic witness to the Gospel costs him or her dearly in the secular world. Without such a community rule, who would reasonably risk public sanction? The Pope informs us that "all the members of the People of God — clergy, men and women religious, the lay faithful — are laborers in the vineyard. At one and the same time they all are the goal and subjects of Church communion as well as of participation in the mission of salvation. Every one of us possessing charisms and ministries, diverse yet complementary, works in the one and the same vineyard of the Lord" (CL 55). So we need to first develop community through sacramental worship, charitable service, and formation in the Word of God and then send people forth to be leaven in the secular world.

The Second Vatican Council saw baptism as fundamental to the ecclesial identity of any and all of its members. The urgent question today is not what distinguishes a layman from a priest, but rather what vision of discipleship will identify and sustain the laity in secular realities? The priest, too, has responsibilities in the secular realm, but these are not the essence of his vocation. Lay people may have intra-ecclesial services to perform, but these do not exhaust their true dignity as Christifideles. The essence of the lay life is to be in the world for Christ, and it is this that must guide their formation, so that men and women may not lose heart and become of the world. There is a complementarity between the priestly vocation and the lay vocation that is imperative for the Church, as the Holy Father makes clear: "In Church Communion the states of life by being ordered one to the other are thus bound together among themselves. They all share in a deeply basic meaning: that of being the manner of living out the commonly shared Christian dignity and the universal call to holiness in the perfection of love. They are different yet complementary, in the sense that each of them has a basic and unmistakable character which sets each apart, while at the same time each of them is seen in relation to the other and placed at each other's service" (CL 55).

"Typical Catholics" do not aspire to administer a parish in the absence of a priest, nor do they want to be on the altar doing acolyte or lector functions. Most typical laymen do not care about intra-church arguments over who has the power and who does not. If a layman is the "typical Catholic," then he or she wants to worship God, participate in the sacraments, perhaps attend a Bible study or infrequent adult education session during Advent or Lent. They want to do works of charity, understand their vocation to marriage or single life, attend to ethics in their profession or trade, and participate in citizenship activities at reasonable levels. In all of these activities and relationships the content of Christian formation and discipleship should be ready to assist.

The weight of Catholic formation hangs upon the Sunday Mass. This means that the homily is crucial and should be oriented toward a theology of the "typical Catholic." Beyond this obvious point, it may also mean that Catholic parishes have to begin an adult faith formation revolution. If adult formation is to be taken seriously, then the Catholic culture has to change. We can no longer imagine Sunday as simply the Mass and then back to our homes. We need to saturate the parish with several different opportunities for adult education, including Sundays. That is a great strength of the Protestant culture; many see Sundays as God's day, and seek him all day, not just for the length of a forty-five minute Mass. In denominations there is a willingness to see Sunday morning as a time of adult faith formation. I was personally involved in a program at a parish where over seventy adults met for adult education every Sunday from September to May. It took almost a decade to build up to those numbers and that level of commitment but it was done.

You Can Change the World (By God's Grace), If You Want To

The truth is, we are all called by Christ to be agents of change ("salt" and "light" are two terms Jesus used to describe this) in the world. But before we can change the world, we must first change Catholic culture. The call to transform the temporal order goes out to the whole Church, but the whole Church is not at my desk or workbench or driving my delivery truck. At some point each Catholic must realize that the mission of the parish falls on him or her to carry out. This mission is person-specific.

The parish gathers believers together to worship God in the "foreign land" of popular culture and society. Typical Catholics usually have only the Sunday Mass, slight fellowship, and perhaps a subscription to a Catholic periodical as the extent of their formation. These times demand more.

We need to gather laity "on occasion" to learn, discuss, and appropriate the truths of baptism and Catholic social ethics. We still have the seasons of Advent and Lent to depend upon as popular seasons for Catholic formation. We can also exploit the season of early autumn when Americans instinctually seek education opportunities as the seasons change from summer to fall. During these key seasonal times, fused with any existing adult educational processes (adult education classes, RCIA, marriage prep, baptism classes, parish retreats, etc.), we can make an intentional effort to form Catholics in the dignity of their lay vocations: evangelizers of secular culture.

A Time of Crisis Is the Time for Christ

The mission of the laity to the secular world is more crucial today then it was when the Council closed in 1965, simply because more and more of us in the Western world can live as if God does not exist. Within everyday consciousness very few persons in the secular world view "nature" as creation or the human person as the "image of God." Beyond this there is an expected comfort within middle-class Catholic life which lulls us into thinking our days are dependent upon good electrical companies, fine hospitals, sufficient schools, and a strong economy rather than God. Therefore, in obedience to the call of Christ to go out into all the world and preach the Good news, the laity need to become "martyrs" (Greek: marturia = witness) so that our faith in Christ does not slip further into the category of private activity or, worse, irrelevancy.

The U.S. Bishops' message Everyday Christianity (1998) gives adult educators and homilists concrete examples of what areas of lay life need to be penetrated with Catholic formation: family, work, citizenship, being owners, managers, investors, being consumers, and practicing stewardship of the earth's resources. Few lay Catholics are not touched by at least three or more these realities. The bishops say, "There is simply no substitute for Catholic men and women carrying their faith into the world . . . Parishes are essential sources of support . . . for Christian discipleship." Of course, there is a role for diocesan formation processes as well, or for privately initiated groups of formation, but the revolution in lay formation will take place most effectively in the place Catholics call home, their parish.

The documents of the Second Vatican Council and the writings of Pope John Paul II (especially Christifideles Laici) insist that the laity has a unique vocation. It must pursue this vocation in order for the Church to grow and to permeate the world. It is rooted in the holiness infused into us at baptism and nourished in the Eucharist. Even though laymen are sometimes called to help the ordained in various ways within the Church, the central focus of Catholic men and women must be outside the Church — in the temporal world, the culture and society they live in, of which they are an integral part: "The lay faithful, precisely because they are members of the Church, have the vocation and mission of proclaiming the Gospel: they are prepared for this work by the sacraments of Christian initiation and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit" (CL 33).

Deacon James Keating, Ph.D. is the director of theological formation for the Institute for Priestly Formation, located on the campus of Creighton University, in Omaha, Nebraska. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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