Laity: Bringing Christ’s Light to the World
At the Easter Vigil and other Masses of Easter the light taken from the paschal candle spreads out and illuminates the whole church. We pray that this "flame divided but undimmed," glowing "to the honor of God," will "continue bravely burning to dispel the darkness of this night."
It is the world that needs this light, the world which has places yet in darkness, places where evil prevails. The renewal of the temporal order, the Second Vatican Council stressed, is the "distinctive task" of the laity (Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, #7).
The Front Lines
Vatican II had also talked about laypeople as integral to the body of Christ, the People of God. Laypeople are not to be seen as the lowest rung on some ecclesiastical ladder but as the front lines of the Church in the world. These frontline positions come with no special uniforms or designations, but in our ordinary roles as Christians—with family and friends, in our jobs and professions, as citizens and members of organizations, in our volunteer activities and our play.
Greg Pierce, co-head of ACTA Publications, is fond of quoting Cardinal John Henry Newman’s quip that, without the laity, "the Church would look rather foolish."
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (#31) was very clear about the importance of the secular vocation: "[Laity] live in the world, in each and every one of the world’s occupations and callings and in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life....There they are called by God to contribute to the sanctification of the world from within, like leaven, in the spirit of the gospel, by fulfilling their own particular duties. Thus, especially by the witness of their life, resplendent in faith, hope and charity, they manifest Christ to others."
That clarity got lost in the wake of Vatican II and the struggle to renew the Church, including expanded roles for laypeople. Despite the present fracas over the intentions and implications of the January 1998 Vatican Instruction, which would restrict the roles the non-ordained faithful can take in the Church, there is no disagreement about the laity’s worldly role in theory—but it is minimized in practice.
In addition, the lay secular role naturally gets overlooked because of its hidden nature, its very ordinariness and its diversity of activities.
So in 1977 a group of lay and religious Catholic leaders wrote "The Chicago Declaration of Christian Concern" to scold Church leaders for forgetting to encourage and arouse lay responsibility for the world. Out of that effort came the National Center for the Laity (NCL).
On its 20th anniversary NCL should be commended for fighting the good fight to keep lay issues front and center in the Church.
NCL’s January 16-18 anniversary conference tried to be future-oriented, focusing on "Challenges Facing 21st-Century Christians."
Some areas the conference singled out as offering challenges for Christians involve labor and management and unions, medicine and health care, the law and politics, the arts, family and life-style issues. If the Church belongs on Wall Street and in the marketplace, it is primarily laypeople who will take it there.
Laity are in the world but should not be of the world. They must be willing to be different from the culture in order to transform the culture, said Father Bryan Massingale, one of the conference speakers. Now a theology teacher at St. Francis Seminary and Marquette University in Milwaukee, he recalled being inspired by a fellow teenager, who witnessed to his Christian values and refused to go along with the crowd who were swearing, putting down others and making off-color jokes about women.
To be different, however, demands that we become discerners and critics of our culture, stressed another conference speaker, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, editor of Commonweal.
Where does this culture support gospel values? Where does it ignore or deny them? Where do we need to take the light of Christ?
Fuel for the Fire
And where does the flame of our candle draw its power? In Acts 1:8 Jesus promises his followers the Holy Spirit so that "you will be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth." That’s something to think about in this pre-millennium year spent studying the Spirit.
Books on spirituality often advise seeking God in "silence, solitude and simplicity," but most laypeople have to find God somehow in "noise, crowds and complexity," realizes Pierce. Many ACTA books he publishes have specific advice on spirituality related to different professions.
In some cities and parishes work-related discussion groups are springing up. Some start from reflection on the Scriptures; some start from the problems real people encounter any place and every place work and faith interface. These groups may be ecumenical, as well. Father Massingale’s hero in his formative years was a non-Catholic Christian.
Fuel comes, too, in simply reflecting on our baptismal calling. Steinfels pointed out, "If you are baptized, you don’t need permission" to live out your lay role. Easter celebrates every Christian’s Baptism; we all are given a candle to spread the light. B.B.