Posted tagged ‘vocation’

The Vocation of the Laity

August 15, 2014

I, with my prince, were invited back to the local vocations club to speak on the vocation of the laity. Some who couldn’t make it expressed an interest in what we had to say, so I’m posting our script here. We ad-libbed quite a bit, but this is the gist of it…


A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Luke (11:27-28).

While Jesus was speaking,
a woman from the crowd called out and said to him,
“Blessed is the womb that carried you
and the breasts at which you nursed.”
He replied,
“Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God
and observe it.”

It’s fitting that we’re talking about the vocation of the laity today, on the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. She is our model. As her Son said, she was blessed because she heard the Word of God and observed it–with great love, very personally, in what was mostly a very ordinary, day-to-day sort of life–like ours. That was her vocation.

If I were to ask you, “What’s your vocation?” what would you say? If you’re like most people, you’d give me a funny look for even asking such a question, as if vocations had nothing to do with you. And that’s one of the problems we as a church face today. The Catechism says point blank that the vocation of the laity is so necessary that, for the most part, the ministry of the pastors cannot be fully effective without it! (CCC 900) But if you don’t even know that you have a vocation, how are you going to fulfill it?! We as laity have a sacred calling (the word “vocation” means “a calling”). We have a critical mission to carry out as members of the Body of Christ–as Jesus’ hands and feet and heart–in the midst of our everyday lives. And the ministry of our priests and Religious cannot be fully effective without us.

Just as a quick example of this, some of you may’ve heard of a movement to have priests go to work in factories so they would bridge the gap to reach “ordinary working class people”. Sisters were urged to stop wearing their habits, so people would find them approachable–and thus find God approachable. But the laity are the Catholics who are called to bridge the gap, who are called to make God approachable in daily secular society. We meet people where they are every day, just like the Blessed Virgin Mary did when she visited Elizabeth with Jesus in her womb. If we are living our vocation, our calling, we are bringing Jesus to people, much the way Mary did, just by being who we are–people who listen to God, love Him, and do whatever He tells us. And as Mary pointed Elizabeth to God, exclaiming that her soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, so we are meant to point people to God, in the midst of the world. We are the ones God is calling to consecrate the world to God!

We as laity are on the front lines, with a special obligation to transform society from within, to participate in God’s ongoing work of renewing all of creation. We are called to be the yeast in the midst of the world that makes the world rise–with our personal holiness and courageous morality and with our work to meet people’s physical and spiritual needs, including leading them to Jesus in His Church. If the yeast doesn’t do its job, the bread becomes a doorstop. That’s happening in our society today. By and large, the laity, the yeast, is being a lump like the rest of the world, not making a difference.

So what does it look like for the laity to be leaven, to be salt and light in the midst of the world?

First, it means personally growing in holiness.

Our primary vocation, as men and women created in the Image and Likeness of God, is to “be holy, as our God is holy” (cf. Leviticus 11:44, 1 Peter 1:16). That sounds pretty abstract, but it really means that we’re supposed to learn what’s good, and then do it as best we can (which often takes some sacrifice—we human beings don’t always have the best instincts about what’s good; we often go after what we like, and assume that that’s good, when that isn’t always the case!). For example: I need to learn what sin is, and then avoid it… which the world doesn’t make easy. This is why one of the first things anyone needs to do in his vocation is to learn what’s right and what’s wrong… and then strive to do good and avoid evil. If a fireman were confused about the difference between water and gasoline, or if he were confused about whether he was supposed to put out fires or start fires, that would make a big difference in whether he did good, or not!

The tricky part here is that there’s a lot of misinformation floating around. As I mentioned the last time I was here, I got very confused when I was trying to get to know God because different books, different people said opposite things. That’s one reason God gave us the Church, so we would have a reliable authority to ask–so who is God, anyway?! What does He want of us? The Church gives us the Bible, the Catechism, and the teachings of the Magisterium. Whatever other sources we use, we need to make sure they agree with the true teachings of the Church.

Sad to say, some of the misinformation can come from Catholics! In this day and age, as much as we’d like to take the word of a speaker or writer or TV personality or friend who happens to be Catholic, we can’t always be sure that the person in question isn’t mistaken… even if they’re a priest or religious brother or sister! In this area, we’ve been blessed with some wonderful, solid priests and deacons, so we’re in better shape than some others; but if a priest or religious–or even a bishop–writes a book or gives advice which goes against what the Catechism says, then we cannot follow that book or that advice, no matter how wonderful a person that priest (or bishop) may be. Some priests or religious sisters went through a bad formation program; others might simply not know any better. We don’t need to assume that mistaken priests or religious are deliberately trying to mess things up; just remember that they’re human, too, and we still need to double-check what they (or any other people) say by checking the Catechism. By the way: if you don’t have a Catechism yet, please get one! (St. Vincent’s probably has some cheap ones downstairs, in fact!) And just to be fair: what we’re telling you today is in the Catechism, and in other Papal documents (CCC 897-913, and “Decree On The Apostolate Of The Laity” by Venerable Pope Paul VI, November 18, 1965)!

So, growing in holiness requires study. It also requires prayer. We get to know God–as we get to know anybody–by spending time with Him, listening to Him and talking with Him. In addition to time set aside for prayer, we need to train ourselves to be aware, at least at some level, of God’s Presence all the time. If you’re alone in a room & another person walks in, especially if it’s someone you love, it makes a difference to you, even if you don’t interact with them. God ‘s here. That needs to make a difference in me.

The sacraments are also essential. The vocation of the laity is a supernatural life. We need supernatural power to live this supernatural life. Regular Confession helps us see our areas of weakness and gives us supernatural power to overcome them. Holy Communion is supernatural food to nourish our souls and draws us closer to Jesus. Baptism and Confirmation provide us with supernatural gifts, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that help us recognize the right thing to do and give us the guts to do it. Married couples need to draw on the graces of their sacrament of Holy Matrimony, and the seriously ill have the graces of the Anointing of the Sick.

One point to mention, especially with regard to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: part of the call to holiness involves what’s called active participation in the Mass. Many people, when they hear this, think of being some sort of volunteer with the various duties (like being an usher, reader, etc.)… but those—while good—aren’t the main type of active participation. We participate actively in Mass when we truly worship—when we’re present with our minds and hearts, as well as with our bodies. The Mass is an absolute treasure trove of graces which can speed us to holiness (and ultimately to Heaven), but it only works well when we engage our minds and hearts, and lift them to God. As a teacher, I know what a burden it is to try to teach a class where all of the students are sleepy, silent, or otherwise disengaged (think of a math class early in the morning, or near the end of the day; it’s amazing how long 40 minutes can be, when that happens!). The same is true when a Church is full of disengaged, sluggish people for Mass; not even God can do much with us if we don’t choose to meet him! And again: this doesn’t mean that we need to whoop, holler, and break out the banjos! It can be full-voiced (as when we pray the Creed, or other parts of the Mass, together), and it can also be absolutely silent (as when we make our quiet thanksgiving after receiving Holy Communion, or when we silently lift our hearts to God at the consecration of the Holy Eucharist). When we truly participate—with our minds and our hearts—then the graces which God intends for us will flow to us, and empower us to grow in holiness.

All of this prepares us for action in our daily lives. We do what we’ve always done, but in quite a different way and for quite a different reason. We’re not living for ourselves anymore, or even for a boss. We’re doing what we do for God, for love of Him. When people asked St. John the Baptist how to reform their lives, he didn’t tell them to quit their jobs and do something radically different. He told tax collectors to stop cheating people. He told soldiers to stop bullying people, to stop falsely accusing people and to be content with their pay. In other words, he told them to go right on with their jobs, but to do them right! That alone would make such a difference in our society! How often have I heard someone lament, “If only people would do their jobs, it would make things so much easier!”

This requires sacrifice. Sometimes the sacrifices are small. Sometimes they’re heroic.

By “heroic”, we don’t mean that you have to be a super-hero to make that type of sacrifice, nor do you have to have reached some unbelievable level of holiness to do it; it just means that the sacrifice can be… a real sacrifice, sometimes. You’ll feel it. For example: I used to teach in in another state, and I had over $20,000 in a retirement account there (since the school paid for 1/2 of it); when Princess and I moved here in 2000, I left the retirement account where it was to grow interest. But in 2002, I found out that the teacher retirement service was investing in companies which promoted abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and other evils which Pope St. John Paul II called “the Culture of Death”; this meant that those companies would get the benefit of using my money (for those evil purposes) for the rest of my life! I called the retirement services, and they told me that, if I withdrew the money before retirement age, I would lose that half of the money which the school had contributed–over $10,000. My princess and I are not rich, by any stretch, and losing $10,000 wasn’t a small thing(!); but we knew what we had to do. We pulled the money out, and we invested the remaining $10,000 in a mutual fund which specifically avoids investments in things which violate Catholic teaching. Once you know what’s right, and once you know that you need to do what’s right, the rest is simple. Not easy, but simple.

Another example involves my prior membership in the teacher’s union. I taught in the public schools for 10 years (and I enjoyed parts of that experience very much), and every public teacher I know was simply handed a teachers’ union membership application along with the papers for insurance, background check, and so on… with the expectation that you would sign all of them. It was in 2002 (the same time I found out about the bad investments with my retirement money) when I discovered that every major public teachers’ union in the United States is strongly in favor of abortion on demand, without any restrictions—and that they want taxpayer-funded, school-based clinics for that purpose! (I can give you the reference, if you have a hard time believing me—I don’t blame you, since I could hardly believe it, myself! But they don’t even try to hide it in their documents!) Worse, they were using the $700/year union dues of every public school teacher in this state (and those dues were mandatory—we couldn’t avoid paying them) to promote these things! My money was going toward evil causes again… and this time, it was far worse! It took about 6 months, several arguments (by letter) with a union lawyer, and help from another lawyer who helped me free of charge, before I was able to file as a legal religious objector, and get my dues diverted to a charity (which turned out to be my high school, where we set up a fund for needy students to buy calculators and other supplies). I made plenty of people angry and confused with me, in the process… but again: if it’s right, we have to do it, even if it hurts. We can offer that hurt up to God, and He’ll use that for great additional good, in fact. (More on that, in a moment.)

One other example involves choosing our charities, and even our places of shopping, very carefully, and avoiding the ones which contribute to the “Culture of Death”… even if it causes us inconvenience. We avoid donating to Komen “Race for the Cure” because of their support for Planned Parenthood and abortion; and even though I’m a cancer survivor, myself (so far), we avoid donating to the “Relay for Life”, because of the American Cancer Society’s support for killing embryonic children for research (and for grants to Planned Parenthood). And though we’re not technically obligated to do so, we avoid shopping at any store which has a pharmacy (including Wal-Mart–which was a big inconvenience!)… since pharmacies in our state now offer the abortion-causing “Plan B” pill over the counter, without even a prescription! We’ve found alternatives, and God provided… especially since I’m allergic to most antibiotics on the market, anyway! (Note: if you have need of a pharmacy, please do NOT stop getting your prescriptions filled, even at these places! God doesn’t require the impossible of us; shopping for cucumbers at a different store is one thing, but don’t endanger your health over this! It’s not a moral obligation, in cases of true need!)

In addition to doing what we’ve always done, but doing it right, St. John the Baptist told the crowds in general that anyone who had more than enough should give their excess to the needy. In the encyclical Prince mentioned, Pope Paul VI emphasized that we as laity need to seek out human needs–and needy people–and put our gifts to work for them. This does include donating money, but it’s a whole lot more than that. Jesus said that what we do to the least of His brothers, we do to Him. When we see human misery, we are witnessing the misery of Jesus. What can we do about it? In the short term, we can meet the immediate need, providing food, clothing, shelter, a listening ear. But we also need to look for long-term answers. What caused this misery? What could have prevented it? The breakdown of families causes all sorts of misery: poverty, psychological problems, medical problems, educational problems. What can we do to build up family life, to help marriages thrive–starting with our own?

For those who are called to it, marriage is an additional piece of their vocation—and the main task there is to get our spouses to Heaven, and to be “signposts” to Heaven for them, and to be a living image of what God’s love is like (as Princess covered in her last vocations talk). Marriage is also the place where one of the most powerful evangelizations takes place: the cooperation with God to bring children—immortal souls—from nothingness into being, the cooperation with God to bring those children to the Catholic Faith which can save them, and the cooperation with God to give those children the tools they need (and to point them toward the right tools when we don’t have them) to cling to that Faith until death. It’s an awesome responsibility—to bring an immortal soul out of nothing, and to have such influence over whether that free soul chooses to go to Heaven or to hell for all eternity. These two things—getting one’s spouse to Heaven, and bringing up children for Heaven—are the two purposes of marriage.

When we act immorally in our marriages—whether by using contraception, neglecting to train our children in discipline and holiness, disrespecting our spouses (in public or in private, even in the name of “humor”), or what-have-you—we can become roadblocks instead of signposts! On the other hand, when we model holiness in our marriage (and individually), and when we honor marriage in our interactions with the world (by talking positively about Godly marriage, by refusing to join conversations or trends which denigrate marriage, parents, fathers, or mothers, etc.) we become “leaven” which “makes the entire batch of dough” (i.e. our family first, and then society as a whole) “rise” closer to Heavenly things, we become “salt” which helps to fight corruption and decay, and we become “light” which lets others see the Truth in a dark and lost world. By approaching marriage as God intends, we Catholics can strengthen other marriages by our very example, even if we’re not aware of it.

There’s another, very powerful, aspect of vocation which is almost never mentioned, nowadays; very few people want to talk about it… and that’s a shame, since it’s one of the most powerful tools—I’ll even say, “one of the most powerful weapons”—that we have against the Devil and his efforts to drag us away from God. This vocation is most commonly called “redemptive suffering”.

I know… the idea of “suffering for a career” doesn’t sound attractive to most people; but it’s not quite like that. We’re never called to suffer for its own sake, or to enjoy pain; pain is an evil which is the result of the fall of Adam and Eve… the result of original sin and its consequences. Redemptive suffering is taking something which we’re going to experience anyway—physical pains, emotional anguish, and the burdens and trials of daily life—and it “redeems” it. Let me explain.

We know that Jesus suffered for us, so that we might be freed from sin, and from the price of sin (which is eternal death and damnation), if only we have faith in Him and do as He asks (through the Church He established for that very purpose!). But we’re not supposed to sit around; we’re supposed to grow in holiness… and Jesus showed us that one of the clearest and most powerful ways to grow in holiness is to suffer in union with Him.

There are at least two main ways in which this new idea of redemptive suffering can help us. First, redemptive suffering gives suffering meaning. Since the worst part of suffering is the apparent pointlessness of it (we almost always find it easier to suffer if we know that some good is being accomplished by it—think of a mother risking the danger of an attacking dog in order to save her child), we can be empowered by the knowledge that we’re releasing incredible power on those who need it—maybe someone on the other side of the world whom we don’t even know.

The second way this helps us is in an indirect but powerful way. Let me ask you this: why, exactly, do people sin? There are lots of reasons, of course… but when you think about it, doesn’t it seem to be true that most people sin in order to escape some sort of suffering? Thieves steal either to avoid the suffering of poverty or to avoid the selfish suffering of being unsatisfied. People often lie in order to avoid unpleasant consequences, or to avoid the lack of some pleasure which they want. And when people say hurtful things, they’re usually trying to build themselves up at someone else’s expense… because if they are on the “pecking order”, as they say, then they feel that they need to “peck” at someone else to avoid getting “pecked” themselves [he grew up with chickens!].

When we take our suffering and “offer it up” (anyone remember that saying?), we take that suffering and–in the words of a priest friend of mine–allow God to “turn it into spiritual gold coins”, which we can ask Him to spend on those in need–family, friends, and even people we don’t know. This grace (the “gold coins”) is, in fact, exactly what’s needed to “till the soil” and open the hearts of many people to the message of the Gospel in the first place.

That brings us to the last mission that Jesus and the Church have especially entrusted to us as laity. From our place in the midst of the culture, we are in a unique position to meet spiritual needs, both by our example and by our active intervention. We all know people who are away from the Church for one reason or another. We meet them where they are in ways a priest never could. We also know people in the Church who need support and encouragement in living out their faith. The growth in personal holiness we talked about earlier helps tremendously with this. The holier we are–the more we are becoming more and more like Jesus–the more attractive God will be to those around us. But we also need to be prepared to talk about our faith, to help people find godly answers to their needs and questions and to encourage them to draw nearer to God. And we need to be able to extend God’s invitation. For a friend who hasn’t been to Mass for a while, maybe that would be an invitation to join you in going to Confession & Mass. If they’re not ready for that, perhaps they’d be open to coming with you to Adoration, or to hear a Catholic speaker. For a non-Catholic, you could offer to go to an introductory RCIA session with them, assuring them that there’s no commitment until they’re so sure they want to become Catholic that they couldn’t imagine being anything else. It’s been said that the number 1 reason people don’t become Catholic is that no one ever asked.

To sum up, we as lay people are called to transform the world from within, becoming more and more like Christ, doing what we do for supernatural motives and with supernatural power.

To quote Father Ronald Knox,
“The Church needs, needs enormously today,
laymen and fathers of families
who are really on fire with the love of God–
nothing less than that.”

Your Purpose In Life

November 7, 2003

I’ve been thinking more about vocations and calling and such, and it got me thinking about Jesus’ & Mary’s vocations. We only hear about the high points, but if you read between the lines, there were an awful lot of ordinary times in their lives. Mary was a wife, mother, widow. At a young age, she was raising a little boy, cooking, cleaning and being a helpmate to her husband, very ordinary things, done for the love of God, done because she knew that’s what God wanted of her.

Jesus Himself spent most of His life in obscurity. Sure, the shepherds and wise men came to see Him as a baby, and Herod wanted to kill Him, but then He was a refugee in Egypt, and then just another little boy growing up in hicksville (“can anything good come from Nazareth?”). Even when He had grown to adulthood He stayed home, working in the family’s carpenter shop. All through His 20’s, He lived a very ordinary, daily sort of life. It was only the last three years we really hear about, when it was time for Him to start His public ministry, to go off preaching and teaching and healing. But God used those 30 years in which Jesus was a “nobody.” They were part of the purpose of His Incarnation too. We can’t relate to teaching multitudes or healing people, but we can relate to doing a hard day’s work and going to bed tired. I think that’s part of the reason we don’t hear much about “the hidden years.” If we knew the details, only those who lived the same sort of life would identify with it. This way we can all think of Jesus living like we do, understanding our pleasures and troubles, feeling like we aren’t really making a difference in the world.

Looked at with vocations in mind, I think there are depths I haven’t explored in the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry too (see Matthew 3:13 & following and Luke 4 & following). First He was Baptized. He committed Himself publicly to God and received God’s blessing. But then the Holy Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. Wouldn’t you think that once Jesus had publicly committed Himself to God’s service that the Spirit would have led Him to the temple to preach? But instead He’s driven into the wilderness to fast and pray and be tempted. And those temptations take on a new significance when thought of in terms of vocations too. Jesus was tempted to use His powers to turn stones into bread to meet His own needs. We’re tempted to use our skills to provide only for ourselves, to just make money and enjoy it. Then the devil took Jesus to the tiptop of the temple and told Him to throw Himself down–after all, God would make sure He didn’t get hurt. We’re tempted to be presumptuous, since God said He’d take care of us–to not work at all or to just wait for our vocation to fall into our laps without our having taken the time and energy to discern and search for it. Or we might jump into an occupation without bothering to prepare for it, expecting God to make up for what we don’t want to be bothered with (there were probably safer, slower ways of getting down from the top of the temple). Finally, the devil told Jesus He could have all the kingdoms in the world in return for obeying evil. Boy does that one hit home today! If you want to “get ahead” in today’s work world (and sometimes, sadly, even in religious circles), it’s just expected that you’ll step on other people on your way up the ladder, cut a few corners here & there, lie to keep the boss from looking bad–you certainly won’t take God or your conscience seriously! On a more subtle level, there are times when we can see a good outcome, but think that the only way to get there is by doing something sinful. When I took an acting class, I was given a part to play in which I was supposed to use foul language. I wanted a good grade. That’s a good end, and there’s nothing wrong with my wanting it. But in order to get one, I’d have to swear (I refused). There was nothing wrong with Jesus’ wanting to rule the kingdoms of the world, either. In the end, He will rule them. But not by honoring the devil.

Only after wandering and suffering and being tempted in this trackless wilderness was Jesus prepared to actually start His public ministry. That reminds me a lot of the process of vocational discernment!

May we follow Jesus’ example by giving God’s answers to these temptations (it helps if we study the Bible, as Jesus did, so we know what God’s answers are–Jesus responded to each of these temptations by quoting Scripture!).

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