Discovering Mission in a Lay Context

The topic, “Discovering Mission in a Lay Context” is timely especially because more than ever lay women and men are sharing in various ways in the charisms of religious orders. All of the baptized are challenged to discover creative ways to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others.  In order to approach the chosen theme in an orderly manner, this reflection is divided into three parts.

First, I will offer a brief comment on the question “who are the laity?” The goal is to “see”, to explore, in light of Sacred Scripture and our tradition some key ideas about the primary vocation of the lay women and men in the church and the world.

This will set the context for the second part, where I will consider how we might nurture the spiritual dimension of the lay vocation in light of contemporary challenges. This requires us to “judge”, to discern the signs of the times, and discover how God calls lay people to live out their vocation.

Finally, in the third part, I will highlight some practical ways that laity and religious can mutually support one another in living out the call to be “missionary disciples” today. Through this mutual sharing of spiritual gifts, charism can be carried forward together for the building of the Church and society.[1]   I will conclude with a brief reflection on the Icon of the Descent of The Spirit that in visual form pulls together the themes developed here.

  1. Who are the Laity?

When Saint John Henry Newman got into a heated argument with his bishop about the role of the laity in the Church, he wrote about it later in his diary.  This is how he remembered the conversation.  His bishop asked, “at one point something like, ’Who are the Laity?’”  The gist of Newman’s response is “that the Church would look foolish without them” though he probably responded more tactfully because he added, “—not those words.”[2]

If you and I meandered over to Santa Marta and asked Pope Francis “who are the laity”, his response probably would be that they are “missionary disciples” along with all the baptize.  Specifically, in Evangelii Gaudium, he states,

In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (cf. Mt 28:19). All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients…. Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization . . . . Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are “disciples” and “missionaries”, but rather that we are always “missionary disciples”.”

(Evangelii Gaudium, 120)

In the past, there have been times when some have watered down the radical nature of Christian discipleship for lay women and men.  For example, key biblical passages on discipleship like the encounter of Jesus with the rich young man (Mk 10:17-31, Mt 19:16-30, Lk 18:18-30) have been interpreted in a narrow way with almost exclusive reference to vocations to the ministerial priesthood and religious life. Yet a careful examination of discipleship passages in the New Testament, especially the so called “hard sayings of Jesus,” reveal that often these were directed to the crowds and not necessarily to a particular group of persons.[3]

The word “laikos” is not even found in the New Testament, rather the Greek substantive is used to describe an entire people consecrated to God through baptism (see 1 Peter 2:9). It is clear that Jesus instituted a structured community (Matt 16-18) and St. Paul described different roles within the body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12, Rom 12), but the New Testament as a whole precludes a specific spiritual path exclusively for the laity.

The call to discipleship, the call to follow Jesus, is the underlying factor of every Christian vocation.[4]  We follow Jesus Christ, though, not as mere individuals, as a “community of disciples”, to quote Saint John Paul II, in an oft overlooked passage in his first encyclical letter, Redemptor homini:

Therefore, if we wish to keep in mind this community of the People of God, which is so vast and so extremely differentiated, we must see first and foremost Christ saying in a way to each of the community:  “Follow me.”  It is the community of the disciples, each of whom in a different way – at times very consciously and consistently, at other times not very consciously and very consistently – is following Christ.[5]

To summarize briefly this first point, we are all part of a community of disciples. We are all called to be a “missionary disciple”.

  1. How are the Laity called to nurture the spiritual dimension of their vocation and mission?

This brings me to my second point:  “how” can laity best incarnate gospel values in the world in which we live, a world that is at times hostile or indifferent to the Good News of Jesus Christ?  The Letter to Diognetus (c.150–200 A.D.) captures perfectly the tension we face:

Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by either country, speech or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they use no peculiar language, they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. … They reside in their own countries, but only as aliens [one translation says: like foreigners with a permesso di soggiorno!]; they take part in everything as citizens and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their home, and every home a foreign land.

(Epistola Diognetus V, 1–5 passim)

This anonymous letter exhorts Christians to fully embrace their responsibilities in the world, ‘‘for God has appointed them to so great a post’’ (V, 9). They are to become for the world what the soul is to the body. Just as the soul animates the body, so Christians are called to bring the life of Christ to the world.

When we reflect on this beautiful passage in the context of the teaching of Lumen Gentium on the laity, a number of themes emerge.  First of all, not only the laity but the entire church is meant to be a “sacrament of salvation” in the world. The Second Vatican Council embraced what Yves Congar would call a “total ecclesiology” where the equality and fundamental unity of all is respected.[6]  Through baptism, we are all part of the people of God and we have all been called, gifted and sent.

At the same time, Lumen Gentium does suggest that there is a distinguishing mark of the lay vocation and mission, namely its secular character.  This brings me to my second point.  The so called “secular character” is not simply an anthropological or sociological reality, but a profoundly theological one.  It is the existential situation in which lay people live out their baptism and respond to God’s call, namely as primarily in the midst of the world—in the context of family life, work, civic responsibilities. These concrete situations of everyday life present opportunities for growth in holiness (Lumen Gentium 41) and are the specific way that lay women and men participate in the one mission of Christ.

The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, encourages all Christians— laity, priests and religious— to see religious and temporal activities as one vital synthesis and to guard against a split between faith and life. Specifically, regarding the laity, the Council Fathers caution that those who neglect family, work and responsibilities in society place their salvation in jeopardy (GS 43). Family life and faith are to be united, and work, far from separating one from Christ, is a path for living out one’s baptism. (Apostolicam Actuaositatem 4). This emphasis on the integration of faith and life is one of the key contributions of the Second Vatican Council to the spiritual dimension of lay mission.

In a more poetic way, Teilhard de Chardin expressed the same point:

God, in all that is most living and incarnate in Him, is not far away from us, altogether apart from the world we see, touch, hear, smell and taste about us. Rather He awaits us every instant in our action, in the work of the moment … There is a sense in which he is at the tip of my pen, my spade, my brush, my needle — of my heart and of my thought.   By pressing the stroke, the line, or the stitch…to its ultimate natural finish, I shall lay hold of that last end towards which my innermost will tends.[7]

If the primary call of the laity is to embrace family, work and political responsibilities, then what are the distinguishing characteristics of the spiritual dimension of their mission?  Teilhard de Chardin brings us to the heart of the matter.  Centuries earlier, Teresa of Avila expressed it in a different way by simply saying, “God walks among the pots and pans”.[8] (Foundations. 5,8).  When you understand the context, you see that she means finding God through seeking his will in the tasks of everyday life.

We must have the courage to ask lay people: what are your pots and pans? Can you find God there?  It is in seeking and finding God’s will in the daily tasks that the laity are called to live out their vocation.  Sometimes we are trying to get through the day, the week, the family chore, so we can get on to what really matters.  We tolerate the drudgery tasks, we accept that we have to do them, but we try to get them off our list as quickly as possible.  The point is that these are exactly what we should be doing, as one writer says, “giving loving and leisurely attention to the everyday geographical details of … life” and work.[9]

This is probably one of the most difficult, yet most important spiritual truth for lay people to grasp.  Too often in the past, family and work responsibilities have been seen as an obstacle to developing a strong spirituality.  The reality is, however, that all time and space have a sacred dimension because they are shot through with God’s presence.  Salvation is worked out precisely in and through relationships at home, at work, in the political and social sphere.

At the same time, traditional building blocks of Christian spirituality remain important to establish a firm foundation for lay missionary disciples. Just like Christians in the early church and throughout the centuries, the laity today nourish their spiritual lives through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which is the font and summit of the Christian life. The celebration of the Eucharist flows into a eucharistic way of life, a life lived in thanksgiving, praise of God and self-giving love to God and to others. This eucharistic way of life finds nourishment in prayer grounded in meditation of Sacred Scripture. The task before us is to find creative ways to assist laity in rediscovering the centrality of the sacraments, Sacred Scripture and prayer in our fragmented and frenetic society where the link between faith and life is under constant threat.

Finally, our experience of globalization and our call to engage seriously in environmental stewardship encourage us to a spiritual path that challenges every aspect of our lifestyle.  With Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reminds us that any authentic spiritual path will includes an “ecological conversion”.[10]  This implies a greater simplicity of life and concern for those on the peripheries.  Like the early Christians, the laity today are called not to abandon the world, but to transform it in light of the kingdom of God. This means incarnating the Gospel in concrete ways by supporting whatever promotes the dignity of the human person and courageously resisting all that is contrary to Gospel values.

  1. Charisms carried forward: best practices for the mutual sharing of spiritual gifts between religious Congregations and Laity

In this third and final part, I will highlight some practical ways that laity and religious can mutually support one another in living out the call to be “missionary disciples” today.  Through this mutual sharing of spiritual gifts, charisms can be carried forward together for the building of the Church and society.

First, Recognize and nurture the primary vocation of the laity.

Lay women and men are not called to be pseudo-religious.  Each of us has our vocation. It is important for members of religious congregations to ask:  how are we helping lay people to live out their vocation and mission?  Is their contact with my congregation helping them live out their vocation at home, in their families, at work, in embracing their civic responsibilities?  There is a danger that a lay person can become so absorbed with their association with a religious order that they neglect their primary vocation.

Second, recognize that your spirituality, your charism, can and does nourish lay people, especially if they are working in your institutions: in your hospitals, schools, or other ministries.

This is, I think, the most exciting part of this mutual interdependence among religious and laity.  Together, religious and laity, can share spiritual gifts and can carry a charism forward together.

After all, charisms, in the word of one commentator, are the “great gospel ideas”[11], the inspired ways of discipleship that have stood the test of time and have proven fruitful, that have inspired generations of Christians to recognise and to love their God, and to undertake the mission of the Church.  They have given them a story to join, a community of mission to which to belong, a work to do, a way to pray, face of God to see.  They have been built around inspired and inspirational people, indeed saints.  They have grown into rich and wise schools of spirituality.  These charisms are treasures of the Church; they are the Spirit alive in the Church.[12]

Lay people can benefit from sharing in these spiritual gifts.  It is truly a movement of the Holy Spirit that lay people feel drawn to associate with religious orders. This sharing of spiritual gifts does not happen automatically.  It takes a lot of forward thinking, strategic planning and flexibility with the help of the Holy Spirit. As the Jesuit Michael Buckley notes, “Stability and change are not opposed; they are coordinate.  You can only change what remains the same; as Gilson remarked many years ago, the only way you can keep the same fence is if you paint it often! Change is a necessity if the same thing is to continue.”[13]  I once read that a good symbol of both adaptability and stability are the skyscrapers in San Francisco that are built on roller skates: structures that promote change and not inertia are the best ones for those who wish to follow Jesus today. Strong, rigid buildings are the first to fall in an earthquake, but buildings that can sway manage to flow back into position undamaged.  The challenge is to “move with the times”, while simultaneously maintaining your own specific charism.[14]

In the small group sessions, I will ask you to share about your experience of sharing spiritual gifts with laity.  I did want to also give you a few examples before moving to the conclusion.  First,  Sr. Jayne Helmlinger, a Sister of St. Joseph of Orange, California, speaks about her experience of sharing her charism with those who work in the Sisters’ health care institutions through taking them on a spiritual pilgrimage to see “the original convent, the place where Jesuit Jean-Pierre Medaille called them to service, and the place where sisters were guillotined in the French Revolution”.  In an interview, she said, “I love to connect people to our mission: ‘I don’t care what religion you come from; here is ours, and it’s all about the healing ministry of Jesus.” She continues, “People from all faith traditions loved it and were able to connect the mission of St. Joseph Health to whatever their tradition was. You just saw people blossom in their own spirituality.”[15]  What I think is particularly significant in Sr. Jayne’s words is the last line:  through deep contact with the Sisters of St. Joseph charism, lay people blossomed in their own spirituality.

A second example comes from the sharing of spiritual gifts in Catholic Schools. In his excellent paper on this topic that I quoted earlier, Michael Green notes that the best spiritual families inspire people who are teaching in their schools to go deeper and join them intuitively. He says, (and I quote him here):

They provide ways of incarnating Christ-life into time, place, mission and the hearts of people.  As a founding charism moves over time to become a spiritual tradition, it develops a wealth of accumulated wisdom and resources into which others can tap, to learn from those who have walked and are walking the same spiritual path.  It gives people a story to enter, a group to which to belong, a mission or work to share with others.  It provides them with a literature to read, songs to sing, an accessible language and symbols to use, and saints from whom to draw inspiration.  These are pegs onto which our faith hats can be hung.  While not ends in themselves, they do often provide powerful means to receive and to promote the gospel of Jesus – a do-able discipleship.  [he continues]

In the context of a Catholic school community, the potential benefits of belonging corporately to such a spiritual tradition or movement are immense.  If it is one that suits that school community and its present realities, one that is attractive to its members, then it can provide a graced way to give compelling life to the gospel.  First, it will give people a means of deepening their personal and their communal spirituality, a way of quenching their God-thirst, a path to meeting Jesus.  Second, it will give a treasure chest of resources, solid formation programmes, literature, symbols and rituals, strategies for ministry, extra-parochial and extra-diocesan links, and collected wisdom, from which the principal and staff can draw.   It becomes the glue that binds the community and gives it focus in its mission.[16]

Conclusion: waiting in the upper Rome together for the coming of the SpiritI would like to conclude by reflecting with you on the Icon of the Descent of the Spirit.  Icons are windows into the divine. This Icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit can take us to a liminal space where we can discover what it means to be missionary disciples together in our world.  Today, we need to stand together with Mary, that first lay woman (in the words of Yves Congar) and with the whole Church, we need to implore the Father to send us again the gift of the Spirit.  As St. Bonaventure says, “The Holy Spirit,” goes “to where He is loved, where He is invited, where He is awaited.”[17]   It is important to remember though, that we are gathered in the cenacle, it is not just to enjoy one another’s company. We are gathered to be sent on mission.

Getting too comfortable in the upper room (or anywhere) is one of the biggest obstacles for communicating our faith to others.  In another context,  Saint John Henry Newman warn about the dangers of getting too comfortable:  “Nothing is so likely to corrupt our hearts, and to seduce us from God, as to surround ourselves with comforts,—to have things our own way,—to be the centre of a sort of world, whether of things animate or inanimate, which minister to us….”[18]

The task before us is challenging and without the Holy Spirit, we cannot go on, but with Mary, our Mother, teaching us docility to God’s call and the help of the Holy Spirit, we will be missionary disciples together, also in these days that are paradoxically both difficult and full of hope.

This icon of the descent of the Spirit, along with the icon of the Holy Trinity, is venerated in the Orthodox Church on Pentecost Sunday.  The icon portrays in visual form some of the themes that we have been examining today.  I have chosen a 20th century icon.  At first glance, this icon is a bit puzzling for there is a sense of tranquility which is in stark contrast with the Pentecost story itself.  And yet, we have the rays above, symbolizing the presence of the Spirit.

Community as a gift of the Holy Spirit

The icon reminds us that we need Christian community: the Spirit comes when the disciples are gathered in prayer.  But notice, in this icon the disciples are not chatting with one another, they are together in community, but they are all listening.   What does this say about community?  One thing it says is that community is first of all a gift of the Spirit, it is not built upon mutual compatibility, shared affection or common interest, but upon having been given a heart set aflame by the same divine fire.  It is God who brings us together in community and who makes us one.

Unity not uniformity

The icon emphasizes another point: that unity does not require uniformity.  We can thank God for the diversity of vocations, even for the diverse ways of living out your charism.  This is depicted beautifully in this icon by the unique manner of each evangelist.  Their hair, eyes, gestures, even the way they cross their legs and feet are quite different!  You really see their individual characteristics.  But notice the beautiful harmony.  No color dominates, yet each figure is distinct.  We need to create spaces that allows the gifts of each person to flourish, whether they are religious or lay.[19]

We know from tradition that the Holy Spirit at Pentecost descended not only on the twelve, but on all who were there. This is emphasized by the openness at the bottom of the row of apostles. As Leonid Ouspensky notes, “the rows of the apostles are not closed at the bottom.  They are open for us.  The Church is not restricted either by the apostolic circle, or by the apostleship in general, or by the hierarchy.  … The unclosed structure of the icon at the top and bottom is this very openness of the Church:  at the top the communion with the Uncreated Trinitarian Being through the Holy Spirit, and on the bottom, the communion with the whole world through us.”  We continue those rows of apostles and shall continue them until the end of the ages…”[20]

Called to Mission

This community of love is not fashioned to sit around and enjoy one another’s company.  There is a mission involved.  When the Spirit draws people into community, he sends them out into the world so that all people can share in the redemption accomplished by Jesus.

How is this mission portrayed in the icon?  Notice the fellow with a crown on his head in the middle of the icon. He has a veil in his hand, symbol of someone waiting to hear the good news.   He is the personification of the people waiting to hear the good news.  He waits to hear the Good News from those in the circle.

Cultivating a Marian attitude

A final point about the icon. Note that the Blessed Virgin Mary is seated among the apostles.  This Marian presence reminds us of the importance of cultivating a “Marian culture”. This is a corrective to excessively institutional views of the Church and of harsh striving for success in the world.  The Marian dimension shows us what the Church is to be.

Invoking the Holy Spirit     

So to conclude, as we reflect on how to “discover mission in a lay context” with specific reference to the spiritual dimension, let’s have the courage to wait together in the cenacle, after the pattern of Mary and the Apostles  The Spirit will come, with all the graces and charisms needed for the upbuilding of the church and for our mission in the world.  It is only in and through the working of the Holy Spirit that we can become missionary disciples:

Without the Holy Spirit God is far away.
Christ stays in the past,
The Gospel is simply an organization,
Authority is a matter of propaganda,
The Liturgy is no more than an evolution,
Christian loving a slave mentality

But in the Holy Spirit
The cosmos is resurrected and grows with the
birth pangs of the kingdom.
The Risen Christ is there,
The Gospel is the power of life,
The Church shows forth the life of the Trinity
Authority is a liberating science,
Mission is a Pentecost,

The Liturgy is both renewal and anticipation,

Human action is deified.[21]

[1] I chose to develop this topic in three parts, using the formula “see, judge, act”.  It seems appropriate to use this methodology that was developed by the Belgian Cardinal Joseph Cardijn (1882-1967), when as a young priest, he encouraged young working-class Catholics to connect their faith with social action.   Quite simply he encouraged them to “see”, to observe what was going on. Then he encouraged them to “judge” or to evaluate or discern what was going on in light of gospel values and finally to act in constructive ways that would engender transformation.  See Joseph Cardijn, Laymen Into Action (London, Geoffrey Chapman, Ltd, 1964).

[2] See the Memorandum of 22 May 1859 in The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, ed. Charles Stephen Dessain, et. al. (Oxford,1978-84), vol.  XIX, p. 141. See especially the Introductory Note, pp. xiii-xvi.  This passage is often quoted without Newman’s tactful addition, “—[he adds] not those words.”

[3]  Carlo Maria Martini, “La spiritualità laicale nella prospettiva biblica e teologica,” in La Spiritualità dei laici (Roma: Editrice A.V.E., 1982),  pp. 23-24.  See also Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Gospel as Norm and Test of all Spirituality in the Church,” Concilium 9 (November 1965),  p. 10.  See Alexandre Faivre, The Emergence of the Laity in the Early Church.  Translated by David Smith  (Mahwah:  Paulist Press, 1990), p. 5.  Faivre somewhat modifies his views of the French edition, Les laïcs aux origens de l’Eglise (Paris: Centurion, 1984) in “Naissance d’un laïcat chrétien: Les enjeux chrétien d’un mot in Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie 33 (1986): 391-429.

[4]   See especially my article “Lay Spirituality,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, second edition, (Detroit: Gale; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), vol. 8, pp. 412-19.  This the main source for the first two parts of this conference.

[5]   John Paul II,  Encyclical Letter Redemptor hominis, March 4, 1991, n.21 as quoted in Avery Dulles, A Church to Believe In:  Discipleship and the Dynamics of Freedom (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 7 [emphasis mine].

[6] See Yves Congar, Lay People in the Church, Translated by Donald Attwater (London, 1965, Second Revised Edition).

[7] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,  Le Milieu Divin as quoted in Thomas Corbishley, The Spirituality of Teilhard de Chardin (London:  Collins The Fontana Library, 1974), p. 111.  Cf. also  Ursula King,  Christ in All Things (London: SCM Press, 1997).

[8] Teresa  of Avila, The Book of Her Foundations, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. III, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez,  (Washington, DC: ICS, 1985), chapter 5, 8, pp. 119-120.

[9] Eugene H. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant. An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Michigan\Cambridge:  William B. Eerdmans 1992), p. 152.

[10] See Francis, Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si, On Care for our Common Home,  See also the “Youth manifesto Manifesto of Youth at WYD 2019 for the care of the common home Ecological Conversion in Action”

[11] The phrase is Claude Maréchal’s, the then Assumptionist Superior General, who delivered an excellent paper on this topic at the 56th Conference of Superiors General, in Rome, in 1999:  Toward an effective partnership between religious and laity in fulfilment of charism and responsibility for mission, As quoted in Michael Green’s Paper “Lay Spirituality and Charism” 13 (July 2009)”:

[12] See Green, “Lay Spirituality and Charism”, p. 9.

[13] Michael Buckley, “The Charism of Religious Life,” Review for Religious 1986, p.  659.

[14] See Michael Casey, A Guide to Living in the Truth. Saint Benedict’s Teaching on Humility, pp. 53-54.

[15] See:

[16] Green, “Lay Spirituality and Charism”

[17] St. Bonaventure, Sermon for the IV Sunday after Easter, 2.  As quoted by Raniero Cantalamessa in his second Advent address to the Roman Curia.

[18]  John Henry Newman “The Duty of Self Denial” in Parochial and Plain Sermons VII, 7, p. 98.

[19] See Henri Nouwen, Praying with Icons.  This book, which I read many years ago (and which I no longer own) is the inspiration for what is written here.

[20] Leonid Ouspensky, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly  31 (Nov. 4, 1987), pp. 330-331.

[21] Patriarch Ignatius, Metropolitan of Latakia addressing the Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1968.

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