Holiness is Everybody’s Business
On October 11, 2008 Bishop Olmsted addressed the international lay organization Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) at their 40th Anniversary Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvannia, USA. He graciously allows The Sower to publish his talk.
Twenty Years ago, when John Paul II published his Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, “On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World,” he took the occasion to praise God for the graces of the Second Vatican Council. In paragraph two, he wrote, “In looking over the years following the Council, the Synod Father have been able to verify how the Holy Spirit continues to renew the youth of the Church and how He has inspired new aspirations towards holiness and the participation of so many lay faithful.”
One of the lay associations that began and flourished after Vatican II is, of course, Catholics United for the Faith, whom I have the privilege to address today. I am honored by your invitation, and I want to take his occasion to thank and to congratulate you on the way that you have supported the laity in fulfilling their irreplaceable mission in the Church today.
Temptations Facing the Laity
While I am indeed grateful for Catholics United for the Faith and for Vatican II’s summons of the laity to their active apostolate in the Church and the world, it might be helpful to recall what John Paul II went on to write in his Apostolic Exhortation about “temptations” faced by the laity after Vatican II (#2),
At the same time… the post-conciliar path of the lay faithful has not been without its difficulties and dangers. In particular, two temptations can be cited which they have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world.
Although John Paul II made these remarks some years ago, do we not still see these temptations today? If these temptations are not faced squarely, if the laity fail to engage in the battle within of conforming their daily lives with the truth and charity of the Gospel, holiness will not happen. Let’s look a little closer at the battle each temptation poses.
Temptation 1: To become too Ministry-focused
The first temptation is to become too “ministry-focused” and not engaged enough in doing the hard work of bearing witness to Christ in one’s profession, community and culture.
To illustrate the first temptation, we need only look at the over-use of the term “ministry” in connection with the laity. Prior to Vatican II, the word “minister” was limited almost exclusively to priests, bishops and deacons. But now, the laity have positions in which they are called extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, music ministers, youth ministers, hospitality ministers, grief ministers, funeral ministers, wedding ministers, family life ministers,” and on and on and on. To be sure these “ministers” do many worthwhile things in the Church; for these they deserve recognition and praise. However the things they do in these so-called “ministries” are not the primary work of the lay faithful.
In addition to causing confusion between the distinct mission of the laity and that of the clergy, this overuse of the term “ministry” when referring to the laity accentuates the “temptation” that John Paul II indicated: namely “the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world.”
The Witness of the Laity
What are the most pressing questions facing us as followers of Christ in 2008? Surely, these include threats to the identity of marriage and its legal status in society; a contraceptive mentality that harms both the unitive and procreative meanings of marriage, widespread divorce and the breakdown of the family; lethal threats to the most vulnerable among us through abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research; and harsh rhetoric rather than a welcoming attitude to strangers and immigrants among us.
The Church could survive with fewer “lay ministers” but the Church in 2008 cannot fulfill her mission in the world without the faithful witness of lay persons in key sectors of society, especially the faithful witness of lawyers, physicians, educators, businessmen and other professionals. We need professionals who are eager to have their Catholic faith guide their actions at home, at work and in the public square.
To fulfill her mission today, the Church needs, in a particular way, the witness of faithful married couples and their children. As John Paul II reminded us, the Church walks through history by means of the family. In a home where Christ is loved and adored, children learn the dignity of human life, the sanctity of marriage, and the need for forgiveness and love.
Several months ago, I received the following email message from some one with incurable cancer. Here is part of what he wrote:
“I was sitting in the back of church waiting for everyone to clear out. My aunt walked quietly up to me and said four simple words: "You keep fighting this." It was the kind of polite order that only an aunt can give you. But it was exactly the type of thing I like to hear. Why?
For one thing, her comment recognizes that I am involved in a fight. She knows that cancer is not like most other diseases or medical issues; it isn't something you tackle in one surgery or a bottle of pills. It's an interminable crusade that requires your full attention for weeks, months, and sometimes years of ongoing treatment.
Second, her comment implies that my efforts at fighting cancer have so far been worth it and should be continued. That's important to hear. Going through various rounds of treatment with little to show in terms of improvement is quite discouraging. And yet, if this battle is to be won, the fight must go on just as vigorously as it has been carried out so far. I feel like I have no time to waste on self-pity.”
People with cancer have a keen awareness of the spiritual battle that accompanies their physical battle. They have no time to waste on self-pity and no time to waste on self-indulgence. Right now, day by day, even hour by hour, they need courage for the battle with cancer and courage for the battle within.
Grateful for tough times
A spiritual sickness more lethal than cancer threatens our society today. A dictatorship of relativism justifies the most outrageous of acts. A prominent U.S. politician recently said “When life begins is irrelevant when it comes to a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.” What would the holy woman of the Old Testament named Judith say about such a remark? Do you remember this courageous woman of faith?
Judith lived in tough times. At an early age she became a widow. Shortly thereafter, her little country was invaded by the powerful army of Assyria.
The army laid siege to Bethulia, the city where Judith lived. For 34 days, they cut off the outside food and water supply. They stopped all movement in and out of the city. The city’s defenders, outnumbered more than 10 to 1, panicked. Everyone was exhausted, despairing and ready to surrender. Everyone except Judith, who stood up and spoke these words (8:25): “We should be grateful to the Lord for putting us to the test as He did our forefathers.” Soon thereafter, under the cover of darkness she slipped out of the beleagured city and walked to the edge of the enemy camp. At daylight, she entered the camp, making it seem that she was changing sides to save her own skin. But, strangely, she had come beautifully dressed and armed with a smile. In this way, she got herself invited to supper in the tent of Holofernes the army commander. In the course of the meal, she enticed him to down so much liquor that he collapsed in a drunken stupor. Using his own sword, then, she cut off his head.
The key to her success was this: Judith had great strength within, rooted in her lively faith. She was not a victim of her times. She lived her faith joyfully in good times and in bad. She believed, with Pope John Paul II, that there is no such thing as coincidence. Her times were part of God’s providence. She had a role to play and a mission to fulfill. It didn’t matter if it was difficult. As she said: “We should be grateful to the Lord for putting us to the test as He did our forefathers.”
We have much to learn from Judith about the lay apostolate in America today. She knew that spiritual warfare is everybody’s business. She also knew that serving God, even in difficult times, begins with a grateful heart, grateful even for being put to the test so as to demonstrate our trust in God.
The Teaching of Lumen Gentium
The Second Vatican Council, in its most important document, Lumen Gentium, The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (#31) speaks of the identity and mission of the laity as distinct from the clergy and religious, but nonetheless a participation in “the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ.”
What matters most is not the laity doing “Church services and tasks,” i.e. not doing “lay ministries” but rather laity engaged in the secular activities of society where clergy and religious cannot normally take part.
Lumen Gentium #31 continues,
Their secular character is proper and peculiar to the laity. Although those in Holy Orders may sometimes be engaged in secular activities, or even practice a secular profession, yet by reason of their particular vocation, they are principally and expressly ordained to the sacred ministry. At the same time, religious give outstanding and striking testimony that the world cannot be transfigured and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes. But 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. They live in the world, that is, they are engaged in each and every work and business of the earth and in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life which, as it were, constitute their very existence. There they are called by God that, being led by the spirit to the Gospel, they may contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, but fulfilling their own particular duties. Thus, especially by the witness of their life, resplendent in faith, hope and charity they must manifest Christ to others.
God allows temptations not to make us stumble but to strengthen our faith and deepen our reliance on Him. As you resist the temptation to engage in “churchy” activities at the expense of loving your spouse, caring for your children, forgiving your enemy, and living your profession as a vocation and mission from God, you are truly sharing in the priestly, prophetic and kingly mission of Christ in our world today.
Temptation 2: Separating Faith from Life
The second temptation, as we have seen, is “legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world.”
This temptation is closely linked with the previous one. It could be called the “Catholic But…” temptation, i.e. the all too common excuse that goes like this:
“I am a Catholic businessman but I don’t let the Church influence what I do at the office or in the boardroom.” However, Jesus says (Mt 7:21), “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
“I am a Catholic politician but I don’t let my Catholicism impact on how I vote or what legislation I promote; I don’t impose my Catholicism on others.” However, Jesus says (Mt 7:26-27), “Everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”
“I am a Catholic physician but I don’t let my faith mold my decisions regarding abortion, contraception, or other medical practices.” However, Jesus says Mt 5:37), “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”
“I am a Catholic talk show host but I don’t let the Church inhibit my right to say whatever I want on the air.” However, in the Letter of James, God says (2:17) “Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
“I am a teacher of theology at a Catholic University but I don’t let Magisterial teaching keep me from dissenting from moral or doctrinal points nor let it limit my own ‘pastoral solutions’.” However, Pope Benedict reminded Catholic educators at his meeting with them in Washington, DC earlier this year: “First and foremost every Catholic education institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”
Catholic laity in America will never fulfill their vital role in the world until they kick the “Catholic but...” out of their personal and professional lives. Intellectual honesty and personal integrity require us to expunge rationalization from our minds, to root out compromise from our hearts, and to say a determined YES to Jesus and His Gospel of Life.
Trust the truth
We shall not succeed in rebutting the “Catholic but…” until we trust the truth. Only when we trust the truth will we accept the truth with gratitude and put that truth into practice, even when it costs us dearly.
This second temptation is particularly seductive in an age that prizes comfort over sacrifice, personal pleasure over the needs of others. Flannery O’Connor articulated this difficulty quite candidly in a letter she wrote to Louise Abbot in 1959, “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe (Habit of Being, 354).”
The temptation to separate one’s faith from one’s life, to act as if faith were a purely private matter stands in direct contradiction to Jesus’ clear and unequivocal demand (Mk 8:34-36), “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
If you trust the truth, you give thanks for it even when it requires sacrifice. You know that the truth finds its fullness in a person, Jesus Christ, who is worthy of all our confidence and love.
After talking about the “temptations” and serious obstacles faced by the laity in the pursuit of holiness, I would like to conclude with the affirmation that holiness is indeed possible.
It is not impossible to be holy. It is possible to love the Lord with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength. “Nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37).” With full confidence in these words of God, Pope Benedict writes (Deus Caritas Est, 35), “There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to become discouraged. But precisely then we are helped by the knowledge that, in the end, we are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord.”
Yes, with humility and love, let us put our trust in the Lord.
To learn more about Catholics United for the Faith log onto www.cuf.org or call (740) 283-2484.
This article is originally found on pages 10-13 of the printed edition.