In my last article, I discussed the idea of the lay vocation: that all are called to serve God using their talents in ordinary living, and in doing so, fulfill the mission of their life. After all, the Church’s mission cannot be carried out solely by the clergy and consecrated religious folk. Luckily for us, many lay people have gone before as an example of how to live one’s life according to God’s plan. We know these people as our friends, the saints.
What can we learn, practically, from those who have lived out their vocation as laypeople, yet fully energized in the body of the Church? Can the example of those who lived long ago have relevance for our lives today? And why does it matter whether we strive to become saints, anyway, especially in a secular world which rejects holiness?
One wonderful truth about the saints is their great diversity. They are truly representative of the global Catholic Church, and of the Mystical Body of Christ. We have saints who are parents, doctors, soldiers, teachers, writers, philosophers, children and adults of all races. One commonality they do share is that they have all formed their daily personal and professional lives in such a way so as to become witnesses to God.
Because of this great diversity, it is not difficult to identify those whose virtue and character can resonate for us, in the modern world, even if they lived long ago.
Four lay saints
Take, for example, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a young Italian man who turned away from a comfortable life in order to serve the poor. He was an intellectual and student, an anti-Fascist activist, a mountain climber, a jokester and of course, quite handsome. But his thoughts were always with the poor he served.
At Frassati’s death at the young age of 24, hundreds of people flooded the streets during his funeral procession. The rich people of his family’s circle were surprised by all the poor people paying homage to him. But the poor people were also surprised to find that their friend Pier was the heir of a wealthy, influential family.
St. Martin de Porres is another example of a layman living a life close to Christ. Being of both mixed race and illegitimate birth, St. Martin was forbidden from officially joining a religious order in his native Peru, even though this was his one greatest desire. Instead, he was allowed to live in poverty with the Dominicans as a volunteer. He was allowed to perform menial tasks like cleaning and cutting hair. And yet, miracles surround his life, particularly related to healing and caring for the sick. Despite living with ridicule and mocking over his heritage, St. Martin lived a life of enduring charity and mercy toward others.
The parents of St. Therese, Sts. Zelie and Louis Martin, were the first married couple to be canonized together. They were canonized specifically for the heroic virtue of their marriage.
Before they met, Zelie and Louis each thought they were meant for consecrated religious life. After both had been rejected by their desired religious orders, they finally met one another. They fell in love and began to build a family. They lived, by their own admission, for their children, yet were also business people and community leaders. In addition to having great faith, the Martins were practical people of the world, practicing their virtue in the public square and raising the family which ultimately produced five Catholic nuns.
Finding other lay saints
There are so many examples of lay saints. If you’d like further reading, check out Dorothy Day, St. Gianna Molla, Frank Duff, Sts. Francisco and Jacinta Marto, St. Maria Goretti – the list goes on and on. Note that some of these people have already been canonized and others are on their way. Frank Duff and Dorothy Day, for instance, are both designated “Servant of God,” the first step in the canonization process. This means we have the opportunity to study their lives even more deeply, a reminder that the path to sainthood is not precise, straight and predictable. God calls us each in many ways. And in each saint, we can find proof that it is not only possible, but necessary for lay people to use the circumstances of their daily lives to strive toward holiness and help lead others to Christ.
Be an instrument of peace
During the time I was finding my way back to the Catholic faith (the faith of my childhood), there was one prayer in particular which drew me in. It is the prayer of Saint Francis, and it begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
It’s clear that we as lay people, making up the vast majority of the body of the Church, must have some definite purpose in its mission. To put it simply, God charges us to be his instruments of peace here in the material world.
Our purpose in life
That may seem like a tall order, and yes, it can seem scary to turn one’s entire life over to God, not knowing what comes next. Pope Emeritus Benedict addressed this beautifully at the beginning of his pontificate in 2005. In a homily he stated, “It is really so: the purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men.”
In reverence to his predecessor, Benedict then went on to recall Pope Saint John Paul II’s famous “open wide the doors to Christ” speech:
“Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom?…If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.”
Living the mission
We must open wide the doors to Christ, who gifted us with life, and who asks us to be his hands, feet, eyes and ears on this earth, bringing our fellow travelers as close to the Truth as we can. He needs us for this mission! We will never find paradise here on earth, but we can journey together as God’s children, helping and learning from one another. It is our place to lead others to God, and you have already been equipped with all the talent and ability you need to witness to Christ in your life, and be an example to others who are seeking. Take heart from those who have gone before us. Imagine a world where more people live out the call to be an “instrument of peace.” The world needs it now more than ever.