October 31, 2014


The vocation of the laity

If you are a lay man or woman reading this, how is your vocation to evangelize going?

The Catholic Church in the United States will celebrate National Vocation Awareness Week from Nov. 2-8. When we see or hear that word “vocation,” it’s understandable why our first thought might be about vocations to the priesthood or religious life. And those vocations are vitally important.

However, all baptized Catholics have a vocation, a calling from God himself, to evangelize. Pope Francis made that clear when he wrote in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), “All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization” (#120).

This does not mean, though, that the vocation of the laity is just to become more active in our parishes. The number of people who are now involved in lay ecclesial ministries has skyrocketed since the days when priests and sisters did most of the work. These people have their own vocations, as do the parishioners who regularly serve as lectors, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, and members of numerous committees.

However, the proper vocation of the laity is not in the Church but in the world.

The tendency of some Catholics to confine their religion to their parishes has come to be known as “lay clericalism.” That comes from something that Pope Francis said while he was still Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires: “We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own thing. And the laity—not all of them but many—ask us on their knees to clericalize them because it is more comfortable to be an altar boy than the protagonist of a lay path.”

Russell Shaw is a layman who has been preaching against lay clericalism for years, in articles in Our Sunday Visitor, America, other Catholic periodicals, and in his strangely-titled book To Hunt, to Shoot, to Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity. That quotation from Cardinal Bergoglio was in an article that Shaw wrote for America.

Pope Francis has retained his view about lay clericalism after he became pope. That’s reflected in “Evangelii Gaudium,” where he wrote that the greater involvement of the laity in lay ministries “is not reflected in a greater penetration of Christian values in the social, political and economic sectors. It often remains tied to tasks within the Church, without a real commitment to applying the Gospel to the transformation of society.”

Where should the laity be doing this? According to Shaw, one of Pope Francis’s predecessors, St. John Paul II, enunciated the answer to that question in his apostolic exhortation “Christifideles Laici.” He identified eight areas: promoting the dignity of the person, fostering respect for the right to life, defending freedom of conscience and religious freedom, protecting and encouraging marriage and family life, engaging in works of charity, participating in public life, placing the individual at the center of socioeconomic life, and the evangelization of culture.

The whole idea is that the laity, not priests and religious, are living in the world, in our secular society, and it’s our task to evangelize it to the extent we can do so. It has long been said that we must not leave our religious faith at the church door on weekends, but we must live our faith in the many parts of our secular society. That’s the proper vocation of the laity.

“Lumen Gentium” (“The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”) of the Second Vatican Council made that clear when it said, “By reason of their special vocation, it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (#31).

We definitely don’t want to discourage those who are contributing so many of their services to the Church because this is undoubtedly part of their calling. We’re just saying that it’s not sufficient, and it’s not the true lay vocation. That vocation is to evangelize our secular culture in ways that only lay people can do.

And we all know how badly our culture needs our evangelization.

—John F. Fink

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