“To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.” Luke 4:43
The Church recently celebrated National Vocation Awareness Week, “dedicated to promote vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and consecrated life through prayer and education, and to renew our prayers and support for those who are considering one of these particular vocations.”
I was reminded of a friend who laments the fact that there is no “lay vocation.”
She’s right – a true vocation, in the eyes of the Church, is defined by its attachment to a sacrament, and so marriage and the priesthood are both clearly defined as “vocations.”
However, that does not show us the full picture. Although there is no sacrament attached to the lay state – defined as those of us in the Church who are baptized but non-ordained (and don’t plan on entering religious life anytime soon) – that does not mean we are exempt from an active role within the leadership and mission of the Church.
To the contrary, the laity of the Church – which makes up the vast majority of the body of the Church – has been charged throughout history with a special role in bringing the Word of God to the secular world, from our family lives to our professional lives. Some would argue that this is the purpose for which we have been sent, and why God gives us life.
St. Paul and the Mystical Body of Christ
I first became aware of the idea of a “lay vocation” when I joined the Legion of Mary, the world’s largest lay apostolate. The Legion of Mary philosophy emphasizes that every single person, regardless of age, gender, race, technical skill (or any other shortcomings we may imagine for ourselves) is capable of being a great disciple and missionary for Christ. We do this in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, full dependence on the Blessed Mother, and a willingness to work for Christ. Once we open ourselves up to God, He will do the rest.
Indeed, we must fill this role, because we are a part of what is called “The Mystical Body of Christ;” we are Jesus’s hands and feet on this earth. The philosophy of the Mystical Body, and our place in it, is illustrated by St. Paul’s first encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus:
Jesus asks, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Paul, then Saul, responds, “Who are you, Lord?”
And Jesus responds, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:4-5)
Naturally, Paul was not literally persecuting Jesus, Who had already been crucified and resurrected. He was, however, viciously condemning and executing Christians living in witness to Christ. So, Paul suddenly learned the lesson that as he did to one of those Christians, he did to Jesus Himself. The converse of this is that whatever kindness or goodness we show to another, we show to Jesus. We are, without exception, a part of this Body of Christ.
St. Paul goes into great detail on the centrality of this philosophy about Christian living in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, which ends with, ““If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
The Church and the Laity
If then, we are a part of this Body, that means we have a role or purpose within the Body. Luckily for us, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has an entire section devoted to “The Lay Faithful,” which expounds on this calling with beautiful clarity. The matter is addressed in parts CCC 897-913, which you can read in its entirety here. It is not just a call to action, but an illuminating on the relationship between the human condition and the dire need for all humans to participate in God’s grace. It reminds us that we, as the lay faithful, are often God’s chosen instruments through which this grace can reach others, particularly with non-believers. Here are a few key points:
“Lay believers are in the front line of Church life; for them, the Church is the animating principle of human society. Therefore, they, in particular, ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church but of being the Church, that is to say… They are the Church.” (CCC 899)
“Since, like all the faithful, lay Christians are entrusted by God with the apostolate by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation, they have the right and duty… to work so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all men throughout the earth. This duty is the more pressing when it is only through them that men can hear the Gospel and know Christ. Their activity in ecclesial communities is so necessary that, for the most part, the apostolate of the pastors cannot be fully effective without it.” (CCC 900)
The CCC emphasizes that it is the perspective of our everyday life and action which is our strength and that in this way we are able to evangelize “in the ordinary circumstances of the world” (CCC 905).
“For all their works, prayers, and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit – indeed even the hardships of life if patiently borne – all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… And so, worshipping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to God, everywhere offering worship by the holiness of their lives.” ( CCC 901)
Finally, put most simply: “Thus, every person, through these gifts given to him, is at once the witness and the [emphasis mine] living instrument of the mission of the Church itself ‘according to the measure of Christ’s bestowal.’” ( CCC 913)
How Can I live My Lay Vocation?
What is particularly beautiful about the CCC’s phrasing is the emphasis on the “ordinariness” of life being a form of evangelization. We are able to achieve holiness by directing our activities and thoughts towards God, first and foremost. Further, this means that we are endowed, exactly as we are, with the gifts and talents God gave us, to live this vocation. To become a great disciple, one need not give up all possessions and enter the desert. We are called to serve and evangelize right where we are, with those we know.
A natural place to explore your lay vocation is within the Church you attend. Have you looked into the ministries provided – not just those with external-facing missions, but those which serve the needs of the Church itself? Ushers, lectors, money counters, singers, and others all offer their time to address the administrative needs of the church. I even have a friend who arrives at church early every Saturday morning to arrange that weekend’s altar flowers, and that is the time that she gives to the church.
Similarly, most churches have an active ministry life in the community, addressing needs like literacy, homelessness, crisis pregnancies, prison outreach, homebound visitation, new parishioner visitation, and so on. How are you feeling called?
God’s Plan for Your Life
What I really love is that, as mentioned, it is not solely inside the church that we are able to make a difference. I have found that once we are able to make that first leap into a ministry, often the fruit of the ministry echoes throughout our lives. We may become more patient, less judgmental, more willing to talk about our faith with others. We may find the courage to launch our own ministry or go on retreat to deepen our prayer life. There is a joy in finding our place in the Mystical Body of Christ.
God has already equipped us with what we need to serve Him, and His children, in this world. If you see yourself as an unlikely apostle, fear not – St. Paul himself was the most unlikely of missionaries, and yet God used him, and many others. All of the activities we engage in with our talents point us back to true friendship with Christ. Our ultimate end should be to open ourselves to God’s plan for our lives, the greatest gift He gives us, as we discover our place in the Mystical Body of Christ and His Church.
Where is God calling you today?