The vocation of the laity is not an opt-out for the life-altering call to “preach the Gospel at all times” — with our bodies, with our words, with our lives. This is a misguided notion lay people too often believe: because our mission fields are not centered on sacramental altars and we make different vows, we’re excused from the precept to live Christ’s radical life in our own spaces. That we are any less responsible for Christianity’s flourishing.
Several years ago, Pope Francis wrote a letter to the Pontifical Council for the Laity correcting laypeople of this notion. He explained that we are not “second class members,” but are disciples of Christ who, by force of their baptism and their nature “are called to animate every space, every activity, every human relation according to the spirit of the Gospel.”
For generations, the breath of the Church has rested on the pulse of the laypeople. We can see it in the earliest Christians who, opening up their homes to become secret churches for private Masses, kept Christianity alive, a powerful whisper, under Roman rule. We see it in the thousands of early Detroit immigrants, who, through nearly empty wallets sourced the very spires our prayers echo, stained glass windows that draw our eyes to prayer today. In the wake of tragedy or celebration, sacramental distinction, or the monotony of banding together on a Lenten Friday, parishes have been the Christian lifeline throughout history. Historically, they were homes away from home for immigrants, respites for those on the margins, a source of community for all. It was through our parishes, that people came to know Christ.
Today, it’s much easier to compartmentalize parish life. Our parish is where we go to Mass, stay for a few hellos and a couple of donuts, and drive out of the parking lot without it crossing our minds until the next Sunday. But this sort of parish attachment is not what is going to bring us face to face to Christ. This will not empower us in our role to “animate” every space “according to the “spirit of the Gospel.” By virtue of their vocations, our priests and religious have certain limitations to the missionary roles and forms of service they can take on. The spreading of the faith cannot bear on the shoulders of one man for a parish, one monastery for a city. It is the role of the laity, as Pope Francis explains, to bring “the light, hope and love received from Christ in those places that otherwise might remain unknown to the action of God and abandoned to the misery of the human condition.” No one, he continued, could carry out this work better than laypeople “‘to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city.’”
Where are those spaces of our parishes that would, without laity help, “otherwise remain unknown?” The lone visitor in the quiet of a corner pew waiting week after week for a welcome. The lapsed Catholic neighbor discerning coming back to the Church. What are those indispensable ministries of our Church that demand lay participation to survive? Perhaps that parish soup kitchen is not operating as smoothly without our help as we think. Maybe the mom’s bible study we’ve been avoiding is full of the people who will make you feel more spiritually connected in a city that’s isolated you. And the bulletin we scan with invitations for “the uber gun-ho Catholics” to volunteer, commiserate, study the Bible are actually a love letter, an invitation penned from Christ with a need for his Church.
Our parishes need our animating force to thrive. It’s time to get to work.