Although the term “the faithful” is comprehensively applicable within the Church, it is commonly used to designate the laity. The faithful — it is a praising and pro-vocative term, telling us, if not so much what in every instance we actually are, what unquestionably we should always strive to he: Faithful.
We are all well enough acquainted with the various woes that beset the Church today. We have all been audience to various suggestions as to what the Church stands most in need of in these times of trial. Many good lists have been drawn up. But of all the things the Church needs today, she needs nothing more than simple faithfulness, for upon that everything else depends. The Church needs to be composed of a “faithful” who are truly that, a veritable people of God, a people who have heard the word of Christ and keep it.
The call to faithfulness — this, then, I would take to be the very heart and center of the general vocation of the lay person in the Church. Every member of the Church, lay, clerical, or religious, is an apostle; each and every one of us is duty-bound to spread the Gospel of Christ. What Christ has given to us through the medium of human beings, we, guided by His Spirit, are obliged to bring to other human beings. This is not a matter for preferential discretion on our part; what is at issue here is an obligation of the most solemn sort. The inestimable gift which we have been given comes with a condition, the condition that we in turn make it a gift to others.
Such a task would be impossible — indeed, it would smack of the absurd — if it were not supported and promoted by faithfulness. To pass on, in our role as apostles, the gift of faith to others necessitates that the gift we give is the gift we have received. The word for which we have been commissioned the official disseminators by our baptism and confirmation is not our word, but the Word of God. Hence the critical importance of faithfulness, for it is our faithfulness that enables us to transmit the Gospel message in its purity and integrity.
But if all of us in the Church, regardless of our status, are apostles, is there anything special about the apostolate of the laity? Does it even make sense to talk about the apostolate of the laity? We are helped in answering these questions by recalling the inspired imagery St. Paul uses to describe the Church. All of us in the Church go together to compose the body which is the Church. We are incorporated into Christ. Just as different parts of a living organism share in and contribute to the life of the organism, so those of us in the Church, though performing different functions, share in and promote the life of Christ in the world. As for lay people in particular, our task in its essential character is as uncomplicated as it is extensive: we bring Christ wherever we go, into whatever we do. Each individual lay person is unique, not simply in terms of his personal singularity, but also in terms of the collection of circumstances and associations which are peculiar to him. Each lay person should exploit his uniqueness; he should do what he and he alone can do to make known the message of Christ in the world.
The lay person would be doing a disservice to the Church, and vitiating his own special vocation, if he were in any way to minimize the specialness of the priesthood or the consecrated life in the Church. Failure to honor the uniqueness of others is to dishonor one’s own uniqueness. This being said, it remains a matter of practical fact that lay people — simply on account of their sheer numbers if for no other reason — are possessed of a kind of societal mobility and concomitant capacity for creative intrusiveness which would be impossible, and in many cases quite improper, for priests and religious. It is, after all, our vocation to be in the world, albeit always as, from the world’s perspective, unregenerate outsiders.
Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, succinctly delineates the work which we lay people have to set our hands to in these waning days of the twentieth century:
At a time when new questions are being put and when grave errors aiming at undermining religion, the moral order and human society itself are rampant, the Council earnestly exhorts the laity to take a more active part, each according to his talents and knowledge and in fidelity to the mind of the Church, in the explanation and defense of Christian principles and in the correct application of them to the problems of our times.
The Council was keenly aware of the parlous times in which we live, of the fact that the atmosphere we breathe is polluted by errors whose potential for moral destructiveness is incalculable. In response to these errors, the laity must assume a spirited militancy. The errors must be combated and destroyed before they are allowed to lay waste the world.
What does this mean, in more specific terms? Well, among other things it means that the Catholic laity must have the wherewithal and the will to engage those who shape and direct the intellectual climate of opinion that dominates our day. This focuses attention on Catholic thinkers, scholars, writers, and those generally who live and work in the world of ideas. There seems to be no better way that they can fulfill their peculiar vocation than to be single-mindedly devoted to the truth. Although their task is an arduous one, there is a sense in which, fundamentally, it is marvelously simple, for if the truth prevails, Christ prevails. How are we situated in this country in this respect? It would seem much better than some thirty years ago, when people were wondering out loud about the absence in America of a Catholic intelligentsia. I think it can be confidently reported that there is today an identifiable Catholic intelligentsia, that it is respectable, and that it is dominantly lay. Furthermore, my instincts tell me that in years to come it will make a substantial contribution for the good of the Church in this country.
So much for general considerations. As for the specific expedients that the lay man or woman can follow to further the cause of Christ in the world today, these are probably as multiple and various as the lay men and women themselves. But I would like to mention a definite way in which, it seems to me, we lay people can contribute importantly toward the fulfillment of our apostolic duties, and which has to do with the attitude we assume with respect to the material goods of this world. I would like to emphasize a note which was sounded in the Vatican II document on the laity. The document calls our attention to poverty, not as an intrinsically evil affliction that must be avoided at all costs, but as something to be desired; not as an obstacle to God, but as potentially a way to God. At first glance this might seem like an odd attitude to be recommending to the laity, but upon reflection it can be seen to be the only correct one. Who more than those Catholics who are in the world and daily dealing with the goods of the world must have the proper Christian attitude toward both?
What does it really mean to be a pilgrim church? It means to have a lively awareness that we do not have here a lasting home. One of the central implications of our faithfulness to Christ, according to Apostolicam Actuositatem, is that we are “free from the slavery of riches,” and “in search of the goods that last forever.” To speak of the slavery of riches is correctly to identify the debilitating psychological effects that follow upon an obsession with material goods. Pope John Paul II has spoken often and eloquently about the disease of consumerism and how it can ravage the spirit. And Mother Theresa, with her characteristic perspicacity, has called attention to the peculiar kind of poverty which besets our country, a deep- set spiritual poverty which goes hand-in-hand with, and is fueled by, our mindless commitment to the things of this world. We American Catholics have a special opportunity, and duty, to do what we can to counter the disease of consumerism, to offer a Christian alternative to the pervasive and insidious divertissement which is materialism. Are there any among us who dare to resurrect and foster the esteem which is properly due to evangelical poverty? Are we, like Christ, prepared to claim that the poor in spirit are blessed?