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Every Christian is called to live for God. This call is
answered by fidelity to God’s will, moment by moment, until our life on earth
How do the lay faithful, who are the vast majority of the
people of God, answer this call? To begin with, are they aware that every
follower of Christ is called to holiness of life? What is the specific apostolic
role peculiar to the lay faithful, as distinct from priests and consecrated or
The Apostolate for Family Consecration has coined the
phrase “Responsibility of the Present Moment.” It has identified five
dimensions in which this responsibility is to be lived each day: sacramental
life, prayer and formation in Catholic doctrine, family and community life, work
and active apostolate or evangelization.
Our reflection on the above points will help us articulate
better how the lay faithful can discharge some of their major responsibilities
at the present moment in the Church and in the world.
1. Universal Call to Holiness
In order that the lay faithful may carry out generously
their responsibilities assumed by virtue of Baptism, it is first of all
necessary that they be convinced that every Christian is called to be holy.
Holiness is the perfection of charity. “All the faithful of Christ of whatever
rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the
perfection of charity” (Lumen Gentium,
40). “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3), St. Paul
tells the Thessalonians. The Romans are “called to be saints” (Rom 1:7). The
Corinthians are “called to take their place among the saints everywhere” (l
Cor 1:2). The Ephesians are chosen “to be holy and spotless and to live
through love in his (God’s) presence” (Eph 1:4). Indeed the early Christians
were often called saints by St. Paul (cf. Rom 8:27; 15:26; 1 Cor 6:2; 16:15; 2
Cor 8:4; Eph 4:12; Phil 1:2; Col 1:4; 1 Tim 5:10).
Jesus preached perfection to all his followers. “You
therefore are to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt
5:48). Through Baptism and Confirmation, the Holy Spirit is given to the
disciples of Christ so that they can love God with their whole heart, soul, mind
and strength (cf. Mk 12:30) and their neighbor as themselves after the example
of Christ (cf. Jn 13:34; 15:17).
This universal call to holiness is lived by each Christian
according to the person’s vocation in the Church and in the world. The Second
Vatican Council spells out how clerics (bishops, priests and deacons) religious
or other consecrated persons and the lay faithful respectively answer this call.
The lay faithful become holy by living with great faith and charity their
vocation in the family, in the place of work, in politics and cultural life and
in all the areas of life where they are called to be witnesses of Christ. The
Council expressly mentions married couples who are faithfully welcoming children
and educating them, laborers who carry out their hard toil lovingly and the
suffering and persecuted who join their pains with those of the Lord Jesus.
“All of Christ’s faithful, therefore, whatever be the
conditions, duties, and circumstances of their lives, will grow in holiness day
by day through these very situations, if they accept all of them with faith from
the hand of their heavenly Father, and if they cooperate with the divine will by
showing every man through their earthly activities the love with which God has
loved the world” (Lumen Gentium,
Holiness is therefore not a special calling reserved to
priests and religious. No Christian is ordinary. Every baptized person is
specially called in Christ. St. Peter tells Christians: “You are a chosen
race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the
praises of God who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet
Examples of lay faithful who have been raised to the honors
of the altar by the Church are boys who showed great love of God such as Saint
Dominic Savio and John Berchmans; girls who gave their lives to defend their
chastity such as St. Maria Goretti and, in the early Church, St. Agnes; model
wives such as St. Monica (who prayed for her erring son Augustine), St.
Felicitas (who gave her life in Carthage rather than deny her faith), Blessed
Victoire in Madagascar (who remained faithful to an unloving husband), and
Blessed Gianni Berretta-Mola (who as a pregnant mother preferred her child’s
life to her own). We should not forget model statesman such as St. Thomas More
(who gave his life rather than support Henry VIII in his wrongful divorce and
remarriage and his rebellion against the Pope) and St. Charles Lwanga who gave
his life to defend the Catholic faith
and the virtue of chastity of his younger Christian co-servants of the king in
Uganda. Young men have as models: Blessed Isidore Bakanja who at the age of 24
gave his life in the Dem. Republic of the Congo because he refused to stop
teaching catechism and praying the Rosary, and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frasatti who
also died at the age of 24 as a model medical doctor. The Cause of Beatification
of the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is well on the way.
Everyone is therefore called to be holy. To be holy, it is
especially necessary that we discharge with utmost love of God whatever is the
will of God for us at any particular moment. To illustrate this, a group of boys
in the seminary during recreation was asked: If God revealed to you that you
would die in the next five minutes, what would you do? One boy replied: I would
go to the chapel and pray. No. Wrong. Another replied: I would start the Rosary.
Wrong again! A third answered: I would just continue with our recreation.
Correct, because this is the will of God for him at that moment, as made
manifest through his Seminary regulations.
Holiness consists in doing as perfectly as possible what
God wants of us at any moment. The saints do in an extraordinary way the most
ordinary things: cooking, cleaning the house, looking after the baby, working in
an office, nursing, farming, piloting an airplane, preaching, speaking in
parliament or in a political rally and teaching in a school. A person in the
state of grace grows in merit by all such acts, in proportion to the love of God
with which these acts are accomplished. Our Lord therefore meant it when he gave
us the injunction: “You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father
is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
2. Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful
The lay faithful are those Christians who through Baptism
are made one body with Christ, are thus established among the People of God and
are given a share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ.
Thus equipped, they are sent to seek the kingdom of God by
engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God. The
lay faithful share with clerics and religious the incorporation into Christ by
Baptism and Confirmation and the nourishment given by the Holy Eucharist. But
specific to the lay faithful is the mission to evangelize the secular order,
temporal affairs, or the arenas of earthly life such as marriage and the family,
the arts and the professions, science and culture, politics and government, work
and leisure, the means of social communication and national and international
The Second Vatican Council is very clear on the role
specific to the lay faithful. “Laymen should also know that it is generally
the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine
law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city. From priests they may look for
spiritual light and nourishment. Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are
always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated,
they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their
mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to
the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive
role” (Gaudium et Spes, 43).
The lay faithful should resolutely resist the temptation of
thinking that it is enough for them to attend Mass on Sunday, but that the
evangelization of society is the job of priests and religious. Jesus prayed for
his followers, not that they be taken out of the world, but that they be
protected from the devil. Christians are not of the world. They do not identify
with the spirit of the world when this contradicts the spirit of Christ. But
they remain in the world. They do not run away from it. Rather, they strive to
win the world for Christ. Jesus prayed to his Eternal Father: “I am not asking
you to remove them from the world, but to protect them from the evil one. They
do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. Consecrate them
in the truth” (Jn 17:15-17).
The lay faithful should therefore with courage strive to
carry out their mission in the world and bring hope to society. “This will be
possible,” says Pope John Paul II, “if the lay faithful will know how to
overcome in themselves the separation of the Gospel from life, to again take up
in their daily activities in family, work and society, an integrated approach to
life that is fully brought about by the inspiration and strength of the
Gospel” (Christifideles Laici, 34).
The lay faithful carry out their apostolate as individuals
but also as members of approved ecclesial movements and associations. We can
mention, for example, various orders of Knights such as the Knights of Columbus,
Catholic action groups, marriage enrichment associations such as the Marriage
Encounter Movement, Couples for Christ and the Apostolate for Family
Consecration, St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Legion of Mary, Catholic
women’s organizations, and associations for Catholic professionals such as
doctors, lawyers, teachers and nurses. These movements or associations fulfill
an important role because they provide support for individual Christians and
families; they offer programs of formation; and they stimulate generosity and
channel initiatives in both Christian witness in professional life and in the
3. Living Out the Lay Person’s Responsibility
How in the concrete do the lay faithful live out their call
to holiness of life? How do they carry out their specific mission and thereby
grow in holiness? As I said above the Apostolate for Family Consecration has
coined the beautiful phrase: “responsibility of the present moment.” How do
the lay faithful discharge this responsibility?
The lay faithful are neither monks nor nuns, nor are they
supposed to live the monastic way of life in the world. They are neither priests
called to celebrate the sacred mysteries, to preach and to gather the people of
God together, nor are they religious brothers and sisters called to take vows of
celibacy, poverty and obedience and follow Christ in Church-approved institutes.
And yet the lay faithful are called to follow Christ, to be his witnesses in the
world and to attain perfection of charity or holiness no less than that of
clerics, monks and nuns, brothers or sisters.
The Apostolate for Family Consecration has identified five
dimensions to the concept of “responsibility of the present moment.” I call
these five dimensions five interconnected and necessary paths to holiness for
the lay faithful. You can also call them five aspects of the same integrated
These five essentials for a mature lay following of Christ
• dynamic sacramental life • prayer and growth in
knowledge of our Catholic faith •
healthy family and community life • work done with a Christian spirit •
generous engagement in the active apostolate.
The rest of this presentation will now focus on each of
these five dimensions.
4. Dynamic Sacramental Life
The sacraments are major celebrations of the pilgrim Church
on earth. They give us a share in that new life which Jesus merited for us by
his suffering, death and resurrection. They nourish that life. They restore it
when it is lost by mortal sin. They give the followers of Christ the graces that
they need to live generously and dynamically their various vocations in the one
mission of the Church. And they prepare Christians at the end of their earthly
pilgrimage to meet the Lord. The Christian life is not possible without the
Baptism opens to us the doors of the Church. It makes us
members of the Body of Christ. It equips us to begin the new life in Christ. By
this sacrament we become, as St. Peter says, “a chosen race, a royal
priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God
who called us out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet 2:9).
Baptism gives us the capacity for Christian worship and makes us able to receive
the other sacraments.
Confirmation strengthens the graces of Baptism, gives us a
more abundant outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and equips us more
fully to spread the faith.
The Holy Eucharist as sacrifice is “the fount and apex of
the whole Christian life” (Lumen Gentium,
11), the center of Christian worship and a reference point for the apostolate.
Through the sacrament of his Body and Blood Christ nourishes us, sanctifies us,
unites us in his Church and gives us strength to fight the Christian battle of
life. All Christians are to remember that “it is not against human enemies
that we have to struggle, but against the Sovereignties and the Powers who
originate the darkness in this world” (Eph 6:12). To withstand and defeat the
devil and his agents, we absolutely need the strength which the Holy Eucharist
The sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation is an expression
of God’s merciful design to give us back the state of grace if we have had the
terrible misfortune of falling into mortal sin. But most people who receive this
sacrament have no mortal sin. They receive grace to overcome lesser human
failings, to know themselves better, and to pursue holiness of life with greater
The sacrament of Anointing of the Sick helps the infirm to
recover if it is God’s will, forgives sins and prepares the dying for the
coming encounter with God.
Holy Orders and Matrimony are sacraments that equip people
for specific vocations in the Church and in the world. Holy Orders gives special
graces to deacons, priests and bishops to serve Christ the priest, prophet and
king in his Church. Matrimony gives spouses the graces they need to become holy
as husbands and wives and as parents.
No Christian can afford to ignore the place of the
sacraments in the effort to respond to Christian responsibilities of the present
moment. Special faith and attention are required with regard to the Holy
Eucharist and Penance, because these are the two sacraments which are received
5. Growth in Prayer and in Catholic Doctrine
The living of the sacramental life has to be nourished and
accompanied by prayer and by growth in knowledge of the Catholic
The sacraments are already prayer of a very high order.
They constitute the main part of the public prayer of the Church. But the lay
faithful who are able should also pray part or all of the “Prayer of the
Hours,” or the official prayer of the Church for the various times of the day.
For clerics and religious this is obligatory.
For all Christians, personal prayer is necessary. It can
take such forms as short ejaculatory prayers, prayers on rising and on going to
bed, prayer before and after meals or other activities and prayer after
reflecting on sacred readings from the Bible or Church documents. Specially to
be recommended is personal prayer of the heart protracted for a certain period
of time, for example for thirty minutes, each day. This helps greatly so that
the Christian’s activities can all be carried out for God and be done in ever
greater union with Christ. In this year of the Holy Spirit, we should pay
special attention to the Divine Spirit Who configures us to Christ.
Prayer has to be nourished by good and sound doctrine. The
Catholic faith is founded on Holy Scripture and the Sacred Tradition of the
Church. It is explained and handed on by the teaching authority of the Church,
or the Magisterium, which is vested in the Pope and the Bishops in union with
him. Consequently to know our faith today here are some sure guides: Sacred
Scripture, the teachings of the Fathers of the Church (those great early Church
teachers such as Saints Ambrose, Augustine, Ephraem and Leo), the Documents of
the Councils of Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II, documents of the Popes and more
particularly of Pope John Paul II who has given abundant teaching on most
aspects of Christian life in our time, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
In this connection, I would like to say a word on
apparitions, since many people are attracted by them especially as this century
and millennium are drawing to an end. Our Lord Jesus, the Most Blessed Virgin
Mary and the Saints, can appear to anyone, as Divine Providence decides. And God
can send visions, or thoughts and locutions to anyone. If such are genuine, they
are called private revelations. Public revelation was concluded with the death
of the last of the Apostles. That is about 1900 years ago. If a private
revelation is genuine, it will always be a confirmation of what is already in
public revelation. Only public revelation becomes an object of divine or
Catholic faith. Only such does the Church demand that we all believe. The Church
never imposes belief in a private revelation, even when such a private
revelation is approved by the Church as coming from heaven, like Lourdes and
It is very difficult to know in practice if a reported
apparition is really from God, or if it is only the fruit of a person’s
over-fertile, pious imagination or the deceit of the devil. And even in a
genuine private revelation, the seer can make mistakes in recounting or
interpreting some details. This has happened even to Saints.
In practice, it means that we should test a reported
apparition by such questions as: does it agree entirely with revealed and
defined Catholic faith? Does it lead us to the center of our faith which is
where Holy Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Pope and the Bishops are? Does it
lead us to obey the Pope and our Bishops?
It is therefore a mistake if a Christian now makes a
reported apparition a central event in Christian life, or a test of those who
are fervent Christians. It is a negative sign when some Christians follow
reported “seers” or “visionaries” and feed daily on their writings and
utterances, while neglecting to read the Gospels, the Catechism
of the Catholic Church and the documents of the Pope. It is a very negative
sign when some people disobey or ignore the Pope and the Bishops in union with
him, all in the name of a vision or apparition. For Christ has told his
Apostles: “Anyone who listens to you listens to me; anyone who rejects you
rejects me, and those who reject me reject the one who sent me” (Lk 10:16).
6. Family and Community Life
Family and community life plays a major role in the
formation of each individual and in the way that individuals discharge the
responsibilities of life and strive to become holy.
The family launches us into life. From the family the child
learns the basic virtues of acceptance and love of others, a sense of justice
and sharing, self control and willingness to make sacrifice, gratitude for
favors received, and consideration for others. If the family is spiritually
bankrupt, all the members, and especially the children, suffer as a result. If
the child never really knew what it is to be loved by father and mother, how can
we expect such a child to love others and to be considerate towards them? If the
parents are often quarreling, if one parent divorces or deserts the other,
should we be surprised if the child becomes unbalanced, or closed-in, or
violent? If there is no common prayer in the family, if the parents rarely go to
Mass together with their children and if the parents often speak evil of priests
and the Church, who would expect the children to want to become priests,
brothers or sisters?
All this shows us how very positive it is for both parents
and children when a family lives the Catholic faith with love and authenticity,
when the family opens itself out to help other families with doctrinal teaching
and when the hungry, the poor, the sick, the old and the orphan are shown
Christian solidarity. The prayers of many parents for and with their children
have been the providential means that led to some children embracing the
priestly or the consecrated states of life. The Bishops of America, North,
Central and South, gathered in Synod in Rome last autumn, placed high hopes on
good families: “We hold in esteem all the families who are faithful to their
Christian calling and who raise their children in the spirit of the Gospel” (Message,
What has been said about natural families of father, mother
and children, can with proper adjustments, be applied to other forms of
community life such as communities of monks, nuns, brothers, sisters, and
members of other forms of consecrated or apostolic life, and communities of
priests. Other residential institutions should also help to build up its
members. Our nature as human beings is a social one. We all need other human
beings in order to become all that we are called to become, in order to realize
our full potential. It is indeed possible to become holy in spite of our family
or community. But it is much less difficult when our family or community
facilitates the discharge of our responsibilities and our pursuit of holiness.
7. Christian Attitude Towards Work
Our daily work is an important area in which we carry out
our responsibilities of the present moment and grow in holiness. Not only is our
work not a grey area outside our Christian life of union with God, but it is
very much an essential part of it. A Christian should therefore have the
attitude of a follower of Christ towards work.
By our daily work we cooperate with God the Creator in
making the world a better place for humanity. By work we show love and
solidarity towards our fellow human beings. And by work we earn a livelihood so
that we can discharge our responsibilities to our relatives, to society and to
A Christian at work therefore should be diligent, efficient
and honest. Our work is part of our offering to God. When we come to Mass, we do
not come empty-handed. We come to offer Christ to God the Father. But we also
come to offer ourselves, with all our hopes and fears, work and projects, joys
and sorrows. Our work is part of our daily sacrifice to God. So St. Paul tells
the Colossians: “Whatever your work is, put your heart into it as it were for
the Lord and not for men, knowing that the Lord will repay you by making you his
heirs” (Col 3:23).
Therefore work in the home, in the factory, in the office,
on the farm, in the school or in the hospital—all is to be offered up as acts
of love of God and neighbor. “By their daily work itself,” says Vatican II,
“laborers can achieve greater apostolic sanctity” (Lumen Gentium, 41).
8. Active Evangelization
Active evangelization by the lay faithful is the fifth
dimension of responsibility of the present moment. The lay faithful who are
fervent and regular in sacramental life, who pray and who are backed up by a
healthy family or community, are expected to go further and positively share the
Good News of Christ with others. This can happen in many ways. The riches of our
faith can be shared through catechesis and the spread of Catholic literature.
Children can be taught prayers and be helped to prepare themselves for First
Confession and First Communion. Young people could be helped to prepare for
marriage. People in irregular marriage situations or who have kept away from the
Church or the sacraments can be persuaded to meet a priest, or to return to
confess their sins and take part in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Law makers and
politicians can be helped to realize better their responsibilities in defending
the unborn child and the family and in working for justice and peace. Operators
of the TV and publishers of magazines and newspapers can be led to see the good
they can do through good programs and the harm that portrayal of violence and
sex without reference to the laws of God can bring on society.
The lay faithful have to learn to resist the temptation to
say that all this is the work of priests and religious women and men. These
indeed have their own responsibility. But so have the lay faithful. None can
fully supply for the apostolate proper to the other. All are called to
evangelize for Christ. “Woe to me if I preach not the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16),
says St. Paul. The Second Vatican Council in its document on the lay apostolate
spells this out in detail. So does Pope John Paul II in his Post-synodal
Exhortation, Christifideles Laici. The
1997 Synod for America appeals to all the faithful: “In an age tainted by
materialism and yet yearning for faith, we urge you to share the Gospel with
others: those who have abandoned the faith, those who in their longing are still
searching for God, and those who have yet to hear the Good News of the Lord
Jesus” (Message, 30).
The lay faithful must not allow themselves to be
discouraged by excuses. If you think you have no time to evangelize, the answer
is that we can somehow carve out time for anything we consider very important.
If you say that you are not a theologian, the reply is that even if you do not
have a doctorate in the sacred sciences, there are plenty of Catholic books and
other material for learning more about our faith, such as the many tapes and
television programs of the Apostolate for Family Consecration which will equip
you sufficiently. If you fear that other people may laugh at you, or mock you,
or that you do not want to be disturbed from your comfortable brand of
Christianity, then my work is to remind you that Jesus said: “If anyone wants
to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every
day and follow me” (Lk 9:23).
My dear brothers and sisters, the Christian vocation is a
high one. It is a demanding call. And it is a most fulfilling mission. May the
Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Apostles and Mother of the Church, obtain for all
of us, and especially for the lay faithful, the grace to respond to this call
with generosity that is increasing, persevering and contagious.