Naturalness, Secularity and Personal Apostolate

I do not pray that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from evil. Even as you sent me into the world, so I send them into the world (John 17: 15-19)

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As Pope John Paul II has taught (Christfideles Laici #14-17) echoing Vatican II, to live our vocation as lay people in the Church naturally means doing so with a lay mentality or secular outlook. The consecratio mundi rather than the contemptus mundi.

The role of the laity in the Church is to sanctify the temporal order from within. By their very vocation [lay Christians] seek the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all secular professions and occupations.. They are called there by God … to work for the sanctification of the world from within, like leaven by fulfilling their own duties (Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, n. 31).

So the mission of the laity in the Church is to sanctify secular structures, to act as salt, light and leaven, seeking to restore all things in Christ from within the very heart of civil society. By virtue of their Baptism, all Christians, including the laity, are called to participate in the Church’s mission to save all souls (cf. Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, n. 33). This evangelizing action of making Christ known to others is referred to as the apostolate.

What is particular to the layman is the secular character of his apostolate, which derives from his being an ordinary Christian immersed in professional, family and social occupations. This allows the Catholic layperson to do apostolate in places where the official apostolates of the Church cannot reach: the board room, the factory, the law firm, the business office, the university, the House of Commons, the stock exchange, the film studio, the media, the world of fashion, etc. If the Faith is going to permeate and influence the society, the culture and public policy it is crucial for the laity to assume their role. Furthermore, if they are truly going to be salt, light and leaven, they must live out their secular vocation as Christians with naturalness.

In an age of Faith, the Church has an impact on the culture through its ordained ministers. People go to Church and frequent the sacraments. They listen to the teaching of the priest and generally try to ensure that public morality respects the natural law. In such a society there are many Christian politicians who form a bulwark against attempts to undermine public morality. This was the situation that prevailed in the United States and Canada until the mid nineteen-sixties.

In a pluralistic society and secularized culture, however, it is all the more crucial for the laity to assume their role as leaven, salt and light in the heart of society; for in this kind of society and culture public morality has ceased to reflect the natural law and far fewer people listen to the Church’s teaching. This is the situation in which we now find ourselves. And it is precisely in this attempt to have a well formed laity assume their role that the battle for the Faith and for the Catholic Church is being fought and will be fought in the 21st Century. The arena or forum for that battle has shifted from the church building to the very heart of secular society. And it is the laity and those who can form the laity in this secular spirit and help them to live it with naturalness who will be at the forefront of the battle.

For many centuries the laity have been exposed to and encouraged to cultivate an adapted version of the religious spirituality which fails to equip them to live out their secular vocation as Christians with naturalness in the heart of society. It leads them to act as semi-religious. Those who wish to take their faith more seriously and provide a Christian witness in their environment wear a cross or scapular outside their shirt; they say God bless instead of goodbye; they equate holiness with devotions and acts of piety and see the rest of their day as filler, divorced from their effort to be holy; they see the world as a place of temptation and fail to love it passionately as something good coming from the hand of God, something that they have been called to sanctify and bring back to Christ.

How could this situation have come about? It was not always so. The First Christians lived a secular spirituality. As one example among many we can take this quote from the Letter to Diognetus, written towards the end of the Second Century:

Christians are not different from any other men, either by their property or their way of speaking or their customs. They do not live in cities of their own, nor do they speak a strange language nor do they live in a way different from other men. Truly, this doctrine has not been invented by them thanks to the talent and speculation of curious men. Nor do they profess, as others do, a human doctrine. But rather, living in Greek or barbarian cities, as fate has decreed for each one, and adapting themselves in matters of dress, food and way of life to the customs and practices of each country, they give witness to an admirable kind of conduct.

The Early Christians sought to be salt and light, leaven in society. Early on, however, monasticism developed. Inspired by God, certain men first fled alone to the desert and then established monasteries and cloisters. These religious were seen as the truly holy people. And so sanctity gradually became identified with the religious life. It was thought that the laity could be saved, but they could only aspire to a second class or mediocre kind of sanctity. Those who wanted to take their Faith seriously became religious or priests. The notion of the universal call to sanctity was lost.

As Russell Shaw has shown in his work, To Hunt, To Shoot, to Entertain, the religious life came to be seen as the normative model for all Catholics. For many centuries, preaching, spiritual direction and Confession of the lay faithful were all in the hands of the religious orders. For historical reasons, until the 16th Century the secular clergy did not receive sufficient preparation to assume these tasks. So the religious orders naturally passed on to the laity a religious spirituality adapted to the needs of the laity. It was, however, based on the contemptus mundi, which sees the world as a place of temptation. This outlook calls for Christians to set their sights on eternity and hold all the things of the world in scorn. The religious dedicates himself completely to God by renouncing the world and publicly professing the evangelical counsels in order to signify and proclaim in the Church the glory of the world to come. And he does this, of course, following a divine vocation, in the service of the Church in order to collaborate in the Church’s mission of sanctifying the world.

However, since the member of the religious order is the only one who can live this spirituality to the full, it was thought that the lay person could only aspire to a second-class kind of holiness. He could live this spirituality only to the limited extent that his lay condition (marriage, family, professional work, social life) would allow.

In this way of looking at things “the church building becomes the forum or setting of Christian life. Being a Christian means taking part in the liturgy, reciting the Rosary and other devotions and helping out in ecclesiastical matters in a sort of segregated world which is like the ante chamber of heaven while the ordinary world follows its own separate path.” (St. Josemaria Escriva, Conversations #113)

However, since the laity are not called to separate themselves from the world the way the religious do, their role in the sanctification of the world should not follow the model of the religious spirituality. As Vatican II has stated, the role of the laity is to bring the world to Christ, to sanctify temporal structures, to transform the world in Christ from within the very heart of the world.

The Incarnation means that all noble human realities can and must be divinized and sanctified. It pertains to the laity in a special way to so 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. (Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, n. 31).

As St. Josemaria Escriva, the Founder of Opus Dei taught, it is precisely by using temporal realities, circumstances and interests that the layman can and should seek and attain holiness. He can love God in and through the world. The world has been created good by God; it has been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, who assumed and redeemed all human realities. So all these can be directed to God. They become the prime matter of the layman’s sanctification. Not in spite of his work, conjugal life, etc., but in and through them.

In a pluralistic society and a secularized culture the priest can only reach people who come to him (i.e.; those who come to Mass or to Confession or go to consult him for spiritual direction). He cannot go into the heart of downtown and start preaching in the park and he would not be effective if he were to do so. The worker priest experiment in France and Catholic Action were attempts to overcome this difficulty. However, they could not be very effective because the priest always felt himself to be an intruder, a foreign element. And the lay person involved in Catholic Action was acting on a mandate from his priest in an official apostolate of the hierarchy; so he too felt he was infiltrating, embarked on a mission rather than present in his own place.

If he is going to be salt, light and leaven in the heart of civil society, the Catholic lay person must not be perceived by those in his milieu as a foreign element. He should not be seen as someone who has come in from another planet. Because in fact he has not. He belongs there, in the university, in the law firm, in the pub, in a family gathering as much as anyone. And he has every right to do apostolate with his colleagues, friends, neighbours and relatives, not because he receives a mandate from his bishop, but in virtue of his baptismal vocation.

Imagine a reunion of your extended family. Some cousins are divorced or on drugs. Others have stopped practicing. You, on the other hand, are practicing your Catholic Faith and try to take it seriously. Could anyone correctly maintain that you do not belong in that family reunion? Of course not. You have every right to be there, and to try to help your cousins, though always respecting their freedom. And you will not stop loving your family because of their problems. On the contrary, it is because you love them that you will try to help them.

The lay Christian is to take his place in the heart of civil society. That is where he belongs. He is not like the others. That expression already implies a difference. They are his peers, his equals. The street is his rightful place.

Since he belongs there; since it is his home, his milieu, he will naturally have an operative concern to build up the earthly city from within, passionately loving the world, the way he loves his family. Of course, he will bring a Christian perspective to all his endeavours, seeking to contribute to the Christian transformation of his society. But he will also strive to make a contribution to human progress, which is a way of living charity and serving his fellow men. Someone who is not concerned about human progress lacks a lay mentality. He is a poor example of what the modern lay Catholic apostle should be.

Those who lack this lay mentality may well belong to 10 confraternities, attend daily Mass and recite all 20 decades of the Rosary every day. They will know the latest episcopal appointment but not the latest ministerial appointment. Lacking this love for the world and this desire to contribute to human progress, they are often not competent in their work and have no interest in their job. In addition, they frequently fail to live many of the human virtues that are basic to both social intercourse and to professionalism in one’s work. These would include such virtues as order, cheerfulness, temperance, humility, affability, patience, loyalty, optimism, generosity, elegance, industriousness, good manners, etc.

Lay Christians who have this secular mentality will take their rightful place as citizens. After all, they have as much right as anyone to express their ideas about the best way to order the society and to shape the culture. And their proposals deserve as much of a hearing in the market place of ideas as those of anyone else. The Christian will, however, never fall into the trap of thinking that his proposals constitute the official Catholic position or that he is somehow representing the Church when he makes them. The Church has no official position on temporal issues such as politics, economics, social questions, etc. Her social doctrine sets out broad principles; but it is up to each layman to find the best way of implementing those principles in the precise circumstances of each time and place. And different Catholics may legitimately propose different solutions to a given social or political problem, and all these solutions may well be in conformity with the principles enunciated by the Magisterium.

Since the lay Christian does belong, he will avoid doing, saying or wearing anything that might suggest he has come from another planet. He will not place a holy water font in his office nor wear a visible cross or scapular or a T-shirt announcing 10 good reasons for being Catholic. He will not say God Bless whenever he takes leave of someone. People who do these things are courageous and devout and truly believe that by doing so they are giving an effective witness to their Faith. However, we would contend that this kind of external witness in a university or professional milieu is not effective. It is once again an imitation of the religious spirituality, which is public. By doing this Christians marginalize themselves and they de facto withdraw themselves from that battle to evangelize the society and the culture from within, which is the specific role of the laity. With the best of intentions they abandon that secularity proper to their condition as lay persons.

Public witness is proper to priests and members of religious orders who are called by God to sanctify themselves in that way. One might say that they are called to imitate the public life of Christ. However, this is not the way of the lay person, who is called to imitate Christ’s Hidden Life. We recall that when Christ began his public life the people of Nazareth were astounded. He had lived among them for 30 years with such naturalness that they had never suspected that he was the Messiah. He was undoubtedly an exemplary and virtuous figure in Nazareth; but since his time had not yet come, he never did anything out of the ordinary. The same may be said of The Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. They were the two greatest saints in the history of the Church and yet they achieved great holiness by sanctifying their daily duties without any show or fanfare.

When the lay person imitates the priest or religious by giving a public, external witness to his Faith, he is undoubtedly showing courage. After all, he risks ridicule and will be marginalized by his peers. And yet, even though it takes courage to give this public witness, the bottom line is that the lay person who does this is unwittingly escaping from the more difficult task of doing a far more effective though less spectacular apostolate. He may succeed in engaging some people in dialogue about the Faith, but never as one more among his colleagues.

So the layman will live his Faith in his daily life with naturalness and secularity, but without external signs. These can put people off. If he enters a new environment and comes on strong from the beginning through the use of external signs (“here is where I stand, so watch out”) he will turn off many people whom he might otherwise have been able to help.

In his book, Search and Rescue, Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid gives a good example of the effectiveness of naturalness. He says that he does a great deal of traveling and this often gives him the opportunity to engage in apostolic conversations with the person sitting beside him. When he is asked his profession by his fellow passenger he says that he is a writer. And when he is asked what he writes about the subject of the Faith quickly comes up. This often leads to interesting and fruitful conversations. On the other hand, when he is tired and does not wish to engage in conversation he follows a different plan. When asked what he does, he reaches slowly into his briefcase, pulls out his Bible, leans towards his neighbour with an intense gaze, and says with a smile “I’m glad you asked. I’m a Catholic Evangelist.” This almost always has the effect of ending the conversation.

It is preferable that his colleagues to come to know the Christian over time and be impressed with his professional competence and the way he lives the virtues in daily life. As they come to know him they will learn that he is a practicing Catholic who takes his faith seriously. People should encounter Christ in us and through us. Our aim should never be to intimidate anyone into an encounter with Christ, since by its very nature intimidation is incompatible with that encounter.

There is a deeply rooted prejudice to the effect that people who take their faith seriously do so as a sort of escape because they cannot succeed in the real world. A successful professional who also takes his faith seriously is seen as a rare exception. Christians have to overcome that prejudice, not by externals (since this will only reinforce the prejudice that men of faith are strange) but by living their faith with naturalness.

How will the Christian who has this lay mentality stand out? He will be the friendliest person, always cheerful, serene, optimistic and in a good mood. He will be the one who is most sensitive to the needs of others, with a great spirit of service, generous, patient and understanding with everyone. He will be one who works hard and well, is temperate and sober in his conduct, one who lives a refined and exquisite chastity which is noticed. He will be loyal to his employer, to his friends and to everyone, never speaking badly about anyone who is not present. He is someone who is not vain and does not boast. He will be known as a man of character, one who is principled, standing up for what he believes in without being belligerent, abrasive or aggressive, but without compromising. And it is precisely the good example that the Christian gives in living these virtues that will lead others to be attracted to the Faith.

So, anything that makes it look like he comes from another planet is inappropriate and a lack of naturalness for the Christian. He fits right into his milieu, but he does not partake in conduct he considers inappropriate. He is in the world, but he is not worldly. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed in the newness of your mind (Romans 12: 2). If his colleagues go out to a pub on Friday night after work he can join them, but he leaves after he has had a beer or two. We have testimonies from the first centuries showing that the Early Christians lived in the heart of society but did not attend the games in the forum or take part in the orgies or other forms of immoral behaviour. All of this is not secrecy. By acting in this way the Christian is not hiding anything. He is simply living out his Christian vocation with naturalness and a secular outlook.

Naturalness, secularity and lay mentality are shown not only by the Christian’s presence in the heart of civil society but by his attempts to influence his milieu for the good – to restore all things in Christ. He works so that the laws respect the sanctity of human life and the natural law. He works to create an environment conducive to raising a family. And this does not only mean an environment clean of pornography but a society that is not imbued with hedonism and a contraceptive mentality. He strives to create a more Christian society where Christian values are taught and lived.

And the way he goes about this will be determined by his own formation. That formation will be received from the Church. But the specific solutions he envisions to help create this kind of society will be his own. And he will often arrive at these solutions by integrating his professional formation with his spiritual and doctrinal formation.

He doesn’t throw up hands and abdicate his responsibility. Some families withdraw from the battle. They move out to the country, form a sort of bunker or ghetto and home school their children. This is understandable and at times it is the only possibility open to parents. But it is not the best way if it can be avoided. It is preferable, for example, for these parents to start a school with other like minded parents. In other words, it is far more effective for Christians not to limit themselves to moving in a protected orbit, but rather to get out there and engage in the battle to imbue the culture with those values they hold so dear.

So the apostolate of the lay Christian is most effective when it takes the form of a personal apostolate of friendship and confidence with his peers. The Christian will be involved in his milieu and will do apostolate with all those with whom he works or studies, even though they may be far from the Faith or of another faith. In all cases, he will only be able to help them if they are impressed by his example. Some people point to their involvement in institutional apostolates to justify their lack of personal apostolate. However, helping out in a soup kitchen, though indeed praiseworthy, is not a valid excuse to escape from the more challenging and more secular task of doing apostolate in one’s own difficult milieu.

Part of the good example that he gives is that he is not superficial. He seeks to raise the level of conversations without always turning them to a religious subject and always avoids preaching or lecturing to his colleagues. If he prays about professional, political, economic and social issues and brings his doctrinal formation to bear on them he will be able to offer his colleagues a more profound reflection on these issues. If they see that he has a well thought out approach to these questions and has resolved them in his own mind they will be more likely to confide in him.

Part of lay mentality is to always respect the freedom of others. As we mentioned above, the Church has no dogmas on temporal issues. It has no official position on social, economic or political questions. There is no Catholic solution to free trade, campaign finance reform or term limits. The Christian will avoid sectarianism and respect those who hold different opinions while continuing to defend his own. If he thinks someone wrong he always acts with great charity towards that person.

Just as it would be wrong for the Christian to announce where he stands on the day he meets someone, it would be equally wrong if his colleagues did not come to know about his Faith little by little over a period of time.

It is true that you have to live among the people of your time, in accordance with their mentality and customs, but always ready to give a reason for your hope in Jesus Christ. It should never happen that, simply because we have no need to adapt ourselves, being always among our peers, that we cannot be distinguished as disciples of Christ. How much sentimentalism, fear and cowardice there is in certain desires to adapt oneself to one’s environment. (Saint Josemaria Escriva, Letter, January 9, 1959, n. 25).

The Christian never hides his Faith. Although he never uses the excuse of his Faith to avoid legitimate professional obligations there are times when it will simply come out. If the group wants to meet on Sunday morning he may have to say that he goes to Mass on Sunday morning. If he tries to hide his Faith he will end up leading a double life. Anyone who comes to know him well has to learn that he is a man of Faith. Do I want to be the nice guy, well liked by all? Or do I want to do apostolate? If we do apostolate we will not be well liked by all.

When the defence of truth is at stake, how can one desire neither to displease God nor to clash with one’s surroundings? These two things are opposed: it is either one or the other! The sacrifice has to be a holocaust where everything is burned up, even the thought: “what will they say?”, even what we call our reputation. (Saint Josemaria Escriva, Furrow, n. 34).

If the Christian is struggling for sanctity, trying to give good example, speaking with his colleagues or classmates, his conduct will be a moral slap in the face to some and they will react with hostility. In these situations, the Christian is called to overcome vanity and human respects and persevere in spite of opposition. He learns how to face inappropriate remarks, conversations and situations with a supernatural naturalness. He will be so convinced of his way with such a self confidence, based not on any merits of his own but on his Faith in God, that he can handle these things dispassionately without doing anything strange.

He who truly strives to be a good Christian will inevitably meet with difficulties and clash with the paganized environment that is so prevalent today. The same thing happened to Our Lord, and the disciple is not greater than his master. We are in the world but we are not worldly. We are in the world, we live in the world, in order to sanctify it and guide it back to God. Thus we can never adopt the false naturalness of someone who hides his Christianity when the circumstances around him are not favourable; nor can we camouflage ourselves by adopting habits or customs contrary to our Christian vocation. We shun any kind of fanaticism (which can never arise when charity abounds) but neither do we feel inhibited by the clamour of those who behave as enemies of the Cross of Christ, which many still regard as foolishness or a scandal. Don’t be afraid of clashing with the paganized morality that so often surrounds you. Show clearly that you are Christian, by your lives, your spirit of service, your hard work, your understanding, your zeal for souls, your cheerfulness. (Alvaro del Portillo, Letter, February 1, 1991).

Anthony Schratz

February 15, 2003

One thought on “Naturalness, Secularity and Personal Apostolate

  1. We are called to be salt and light everywhere in Pagandom, and expose the false teachers even in the church like Saint Peter requested 2nd Saint Peter 2.

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