When my father lay dying, I remember that one of the losses I began to grieve was that he was the keeper of so many family stories. He was the one who could look at an old family photograph, identify all the people, and tell you something about each one. As I saw him lying there, no longer able to talk much, I thought of all the memories stored up in his mind, all the stories, all the people he once knew and had spoken of so vividly.
And it was not just the family stories he held; he was also a great historian and a great wellspring of the classics. He had read all of the “Great Books,” all of Shakespeare, all of Sacred Scripture, and so many other worthy writings. And he had memorized many lengthy quotes from each.
Such an encyclopedic mind! He was full of vivid thoughts and vivid memories. He was the keeper of our family story. And though I knew he would take it with him in his soul, I grieved that his magnificent mind was now closing to me. I regret that I did not more carefully retain all he told me over the years.
Thankfully, he wrote a family history that stays with us. All his many photos and family films, that we worked to preserve, stay with us. We, his sons, are moving much of this to the digital realm, but it took Dad’s living presence to really bring these things home.
The video below put me in this reflective mood. It depicts an old man who lies dying in a hospital bed. In various flashbacks we see his life, told almost as if from God’s perspective. We see his story, his good moments and his tragedies—and then he passes.
I remember a Bible verse my father jotted down on the frontispiece of a book he was reading at the time of his own father’s death:
But as for man, his days are like the grass, or as the flower that flourishes in the field. The wind blows, and he is gone, and his place never sees him again (Psalm 103:16).
Reading that as a young teenager, I realized for the first time that the Bible was very beautiful. And I was startled to think that the house in which I was sitting would one day “never see me again.” All the stories, all the memories would be gone with the proverbial winds.
The photo at the upper right is the last one I ever took of my father. He standing in front of our family home. I took the picture as he was leaving it for the last time. He moved into a retirement community for a brief time, but was not much longer for this world. There he is, standing in front of the place that would “never see him again.”
Yes, there is something very precious about our memories, our stories. They are meant to be shared, handed down. But there is something irreplaceable, something that dies with each person: a personal glimpse of history, a personal story, something that can never be fully shared with anyone but the Lord.
Only the Lord really knows our story, and he knows it better than we ourselves do:
O LORD, you search me and you know me.
You yourself know my resting and my rising;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You mark when I walk or lie down;
you know all my ways through and through.
Before ever a word is on my tongue,
you know it, O LORD, through and through …
For it was you who formed my inmost being,
knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I thank you who wonderfully made me;
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being fashioned in secret
and molded in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me yet unformed;
and all my days were recorded in your book,
before one of them came into being …
at the end I am still at your side … (Ps 139:varia)
Yes, the Lord knows. He knows all about us.
An old spiritual says, “Nobody knows the trouble I seen, nobody but Jesus.” For in the end, He is the keeper of every story: my father’s, mine, and yours. And whatever is lost in death will be restored a hundredfold, with understanding besides, in the great parousia. Not a story, not a word will be lost. We shall recover it all and tell the old, old stories once again.
Enjoy this poignant and moving video of a man’s life, told almost as if from the standpoint of God, the God who knows. Though the man seems to die alone, someone is remembering his story. Maybe it’s God who is doing the remembering.
A reader alerted me to an interesting and insightful analysis by Pope Leo XIII of three trends that both alarmed him and pointed to future problems. He wrote of these three concerns in 1893 in the Encyclical on the Holy Rosary entitled Laetitiae Sanctae (Of Holy Joy). The Pope enunciates these three areas of concern and then offers the mysteries of the Rosary as a necessary remedy. Lets look at how the Pope describes the problems and then consider too what he sees as a solution. His teaching is in bold, italic, black. My remarks are in plain text, red.
There are three influences which appear to Us to have the chief place in effecting this downgrade movement of society. These are–first, the distaste for a simple and laborious life; secondly, repugnance to suffering of any kind; thirdly, the forgetfulness of the future life. (# 4)
Problem 1 – The distaste for a simple and laborious life– We deplore….the growing contempt of those homely duties and virtues which make up the beauty of humble life. To this cause we may trace in the home, the readiness of children to withdraw themselves from the natural obligation of obedience to the parents, and their impatience of any form of treatment which is not of the indulgent and effeminate kind. In the workman, it evinces itself in a tendency to desert his trade, to shrink from toil, to become discontented with his lot, to fix his gaze on things that are above him, and to look forward with unthinking hopefulness to some future equalization of property. We may observe the same temper permeating the masses in the eagerness to exchange the life of the rural districts for the excitements and pleasures of the town….(#5)
One of the truths that sets us free is to simply realize and come to accept that life is hard. It involves trials, arduous work, and setbacks, along with some of the progress we can and do experience. Very few things of true values come to us without a significant cost. Simply put, life is hard. But, coming to accept this is a freeing thing for many of our resentments are minimized or removed by this acceptance. The fact is, many today expect that life should be peachy. And when it is not, there is resentment, anger, even threats of lawsuits. Many today think of happiness as a God-given right. Our Founding Fathers recognized the pursuit of happiness as a goal. But today many expect that happiness to be the norm and to be a sort of right. When it does not exist for them, there has been a failure of the system somehow. Many today expect to live lives where there is little danger, and where things come easily. This has been one of the factors that influenced the growth of government. For as insistence on a comfortable life grows and hard work seems unreasonable, we expect government to ease our burdens and provide increasing levels of comfort and happiness, and we are less willing to work hard for these things. Rather we see happiness and comfort as things to which we are entitled.
But unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments. And so, with often unrealistic expectations, people quickly grow resentful and even pout. It would seem that our ancestors who lived even as recently as 150 years ago had different notions. They looked for happiness alright, but largely expected to find that in heaven. Many of the old Catholic prayers bespeak a vision that this world was a place of travail, of exile, a valley of tears, where we sighed and longed to be with God. Most Catholics of those earlier times lived lives that were brutal and short. Most were peasants, and lived with far less creature comforts than we. There was no central air, electricity, running water, and medicines were few and far less effective. Entertainment was limited, houses were smaller, even tiny and transportation was far more limited.
We live so well compared to them. And though we are more comfortable, there is little evidence that we are happier. Indeed, we seem more resentful, because we expect more, a lot more. As the Pope notes, young people resent discipline and expect to be spoiled. The majority of parents seem willing to indulge them and shun giving correction since it raises tensions and causes difficulties.
The value of hard work and the satisfaction that comes from it seems lost on many today. Cardinal McCarrick used to counsel us priests that if we did not go to bed tired, something was wrong. We all need some rest and relaxation, sure, but hard work actually brings greater satisfaction to times of rest.
The fact is, high expectations of this world like we have today, breed discontent and resentments. For by it these unrealistic and high expectations, we really insist on living in a fantasy that this world is, or can be paradise. It cannot. A better strategy is to accept that life is difficult and, though it has its joys, it presents arduous difficulties to us that must be met with courage and acceptance. Though this is a hard truth it brings peace when it is accepted.
To the first error Pope Leo commend to our attention the Joyful mysteries and particularly a meditation on the implicit lessons of the home at Nazareth:
Let us take our stand in front of that earthly and divine home of holiness, the House of Nazareth. How much we have to learn from the daily life which was led within its walls! What an all-perfect model of domestic society! Here we behold simplicity and purity of conduct, perfect agreement and unbroken harmony, mutual respect and love….devotedness of service. Here is the patient industry which provides what is required for food and raiment; which does so “in the sweat of the brow,” which is contented with little….These are precious examples of goodness, of modesty, of humility, of hard-working endurance, of kindness to others, of diligence in the small duties of daily life, and of other virtues…., Then will each one begin to feel his work to be no longer lowly and irksome, but grateful and lightsome, and clothed with a certain joyousness by his sense of duty in discharging it conscientiously….home-life…loved and esteemed….(# 6).
Problem 2 – Repugnance to suffering of any kind– A second evil…. is to be found in repugnance to suffering and eagerness to escape whatever is hard or painful to endure. The greater number are thus robbed of that peace and freedom of mind which remains the reward of those who do what is right undismayed by the perils or troubles to be met with in doing so….By this passionate and unbridled desire of living a life of pleasure, the minds of men are weakened, and if they do not entirely succumb, they become demoralized and miserably cower and sink under the hardships of the battle of life. (# 7)
Yes, today more than ever, there is almost a complete intolerance to any sort of suffering. This has been fueled by the fact that we have been successful in eliminating a lot of suffering.
As noted, we have many creature comforts that protect us from the elements, medicines that alleviate physical pain and bodily discomforts, appliances and technology that provide unprecedented convenience and make a lot of manual labor all but unnecessary.
This, as we have also noted, leads to expectations which are ultimately unrealistic. Namely, that all suffering should be eliminated. There is almost an indignity expressed when one suggests that perhaps some things should be endured or that it is unreasonable to expect government, or doctors, or science to eliminate every evil or form of suffering.
Further, we seem to refuse the notion that accidents sometimes happen or that unfortunate circumstances will just occur. Instead we demand more laws that are often intrusive and oppressive, and we undertake huge lawsuits that often discourage the very risk taking that makes new inventions, medicines and medical techniques possible.
We often hold people responsible for things they can do little about. Sometimes economies just have cycles, climates too. Governments, laws and politicians cannot be expected to solve every problem or alleviate every burden. Sometimes accidents just happen.
Not a Padded room – While we can and should undertake to fix unnecessary hazards and seek to ease one another’s burdens, life isn’t a padded room. Suffering, sorrows, accidents, burdens and difficulties are part of life in this valley of tears. Acceptance of this truth leads to a kind of paradoxical serenity. Rejection of it and indulgence in unrealistic notions that all suffering is unreasonable leads to resentments and further unhappiness.
Here too, Pope Leo commend to us the rosary, in particular the sorrowful mysteries:
…If from our earliest years our minds have been trained to dwell upon the sorrowful mysteries of Our Lord’s life…we [may] see written in His example all the lessons that He Himself had taught us for the bearing of our burden of labor– and sorrow, and mark how the sufferings…He embraced with the greatest measure of generosity and good will. We behold Him overwhelmed with sadness, so that drops of blood ooze like sweat from His veins. We see Him bound like a malefactor, subjected to the judgment of the unrighteous, laden with insults, covered with shame, assailed with false accusations, torn with scourges, crowned with thorns, nailed to the cross, accounted unworthy to live….Here, too, we contemplate the grief of the most Holy Mother…”pierced” by the sword of sorrow…. (# 8 )
Then, be it that the “earth is accursed” and brings forth “thistles and thorns,”–be it that the soul is saddened with grief and the body with sickness; even so, there will be no evil which the envy of man or the rage of devils can invent, nor calamity which can fall upon the individual or the community, over which we shall not triumph by the patience of suffering….But by this patience, We do not mean that empty stoicism in the enduring of pain which was the ideal of some of the philosophers of old, but rather….It is the patience which is obtained by the help of His grace; which shirks not a trial because it is painful, but which accepts it and esteems it as a gain, however hard it may be to undergo. [Men and women of faith] re- echo, not with their lips, but with their life, the words of [the Apostle] St. Thomas: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John xi., 16). (# 9)
Yes, indeed, the cross is part of this life. But Christ has made it clear that the cross yields ultimately to glory if we carry it willingly and with faith.
Problem 3- Forgetfulness of the future life– The third evil for which a remedy is needed is one which is chiefly characteristic of the times in which we live. Men in former ages, although they loved the world, and loved it far too well, did not usually aggravate their sinful attachment to the things of earth by a contempt of the things of heaven. Even the right-thinking portion of the pagan world recognized that this life was not a home but a dwelling-place, not our destination, but a stage in the journey. But men of our day, albeit they have had the advantages of Christian instruction, pursue the false goods of this world in such wise that the thought of their true Fatherland of enduring happiness is not only set aside, but, to their shame be it said, banished and entirely erased from their memory, notwithstanding the warning of St. Paul, “We have not here a lasting city, but we seek one which is to come” (Heb. xiii., 4). (# 11)
I have become increasingly amazed at how little most modern people think of heaven. Even Church-going believers talk little of heaven, priest preach little on it. Our main preoccupation seems to be making this world a more comfortable and pleasant place. Even in our so-called spiritual life, our prayers bespeak a worldly preoccupation: Lord, fix my finances, fix my heath, get me a better job. Almost as though we were saying, “Make this world pleasant enough and I’ll just stay here.” It is not wrong to pray for better health etc. It is not wrong to work to make this world a better place. But in the end, our home is in heaven and we ought to be solicitous of it and eagerly seek its shores. It should be a frequent meditation, and to be with God forever, the deepest longing of our soul. Instead we fear getting “older” and hide death away in our culture. It ought to be that we can’t wait to see God. Sure, it would be nice to get a few things done that we’ve started, but as heaven and being with God draw closer, we ought to be happy that the years are ticking by faster. Each day is one day, closer to God!
Here too, our prosperity and creature comforts have mislead us into a love of this world that is unhealthy. A friend of the world is an enemy to God (James 4:4). We are distracted and too easily dismiss that this world is passing away. The fact is, we are going to die. Only a proper longing for heaven can correct the absurdity that an obsessional love for this world establishes in our soul.
Meditate on heaven often! Read the scriptures, such as Revelation 1, & 4-5, 20-21. Ask for a deeper longing from God.
Pope Leo commends the Glorious mysteries of the rosary to our attention as a medicine for this absurd attachment to this passing world and our forgetfulness of heaven:
These mysteries are the means by which, in the soul of a Christian, a most clear light is shed upon the good things, hidden to sense, but visible to faith, “which God has prepared for those who love Him.” From them we learn that death is not an annihilation which ends all things, but merely a migration and passage from life to life. By them we are taught that the path to Heaven lies open to all men, and as we behold Christ ascending thither, we recall the sweet words of His promise, “I go to prepare a place for you.” By them we are reminded that a time will come when “God will wipe away every tear from our eyes,” and that “neither mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow, shall be any more,” and that “We shall be always with the Lord,” and “like to the Lord, for we shall see Him as He is,” and “drink of the torrent of His delight,” as “fellow-citizens of the saints,” in the blessed companionship of our glorious Queen and Mother. Dwelling upon such a prospect, our hearts are kindled with desire, and we exclaim, in the words of a great saint, “How vile grows the earth when I look up to heaven!” Then, too, shall we feel the solace of the assurance “that this momentary and light affliction produces for us an eternal weight of glory beyond measure, exceedingly ” (2 Cor. iv., 17).
Here then are three diagnoses, and three remedies. It is interesting to see that the roots of them were already evident in 1893 and how they have come further to press upon us more than 100 years later. It is helpful to have a Doctor of Souls to help us name the demons that afflict us. For having named a demon, we have more power over it and learn its moves:
Demon, your name is “laziness” and “distaste” for hard work. By the joyful mysteries of the Lord’s Life, be gone.
Demon your name “refusal of any suffering” and an “resentment at the cross.” By the sorrowful mysteries of our Lord’s life, be gone.
Demon your name is “forgetfulness of heaven” and “obsession with the passing world.” By the glorious mysteries of Lord’s life and our Lady’s too, be gone.
As we continue to read the letter of St. Paul to Titus in the reading at daily Mass, we see some important teachings about the “domestic Church,” otherwise known as the family. The insights are important, for if the domestic church is not strong, neither will the parish, diocesan or universal Church be strong. And while there is a tendency today on blogs like this, to often focus on the disrepair that some notice of the parish or diocesan Church, it remains a fact that many of our families are in far greater disrepair.
In effect God gives a simple insight for Church renewal in the reading from today’s (Tuesday of Week 32) Mass. So let’s take a brief look at what the Holy Spirit says through St. Paul says about the family, and its relationship to the Church.
St. Paul does begin with the parish priest, saying that the bishop, the priest, must say what is consistent with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). Hence, it is the role of the clergy to set forth principles and to give, on a consistent and effective basis, the sound teachings of God revealed to us in the Scriptures, and the teachings and sacred Tradition of the Church.
There are many today who lament (often rightfully) the silence of many pulpits, and the ineffectiveness of the Clergy who are often content merely to speak in abstractions and generalities. This has often meant that many critical moral and social issues are going unaddressed. Frankly, too many of us clergy for play it safe. Yet in the world, the gospel is countercultural and the Church is a sign of contradiction. Thus playing it safe means that the gospel goes unproclaimed and the teachings of the Church are hidden from view.
But St. Paul makes it clear that the mouth of the priest is to speak, and to teach that which befits sound doctrine. He must give the teachings of the faith, and set forth principles which the people of God must then apply in their lives.
Therefore, the first step in having the domestic Church in good repair is for the parish church to be a place where sound doctrine is heard, is proclaimed with clarity and with charity, is articulated effectively and without ambiguity.
But this is only the beginning. For the Word of God cannot simply be proclaimed, it must be promulgated in the lives of those who hear. The Word of God cannot simply be announced, it must be applied. And the most essential place of this promulgation and application must take place is not only in the hearts and minds of individuals, but just as essentially, in the family.
It is not enough to say, as many do, “Father should say something from the pulpit.” For it also remains true, that the father of the domestic Church, the father of each family, must say something from the pulpit of his dinner table.
Therefore, in this letter to Titus, St. Paul goes on to describe how older men and women must be examples and models for younger people. Elders, and by extension mothers and fathers, must take their role of leadership.
And thus St. Paul directs:
Older women should be reverent in their behavior, not slanderers, not addicted to drink, teaching what is good, so that they may train younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good homemakers, under the control of their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited. (Titus 2:3-5)
Likewise regarding the older men, including Titus St. Paul says:
Older men should be temperate, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, love, and endurance….Urge the younger men, similarly, to control themselves, showing yourself as a model of good deeds in every respect, with integrity in your teaching, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be criticized, so that the opponent will be put to shame without anything bad to say about us. (Titus 2:2,6-8)
Elsewhere St. Paul develops thought just a bit more when he says: Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4).
And thus it remains clear, that what should begin in the pulpit of the parish church, cannot end there.
And yet, what St. Paul teaches here is often sadly lacking in many (not all) families today. The family should be self-correcting, but many are not and the difficulties caused by this overflow into schools, churches and the public square. Beyond the family, it is also a sad fact that, in the wider culture, many elders have developed a “none of my business” attitude when it comes to teaching and correcting younger people.
I remember some years ago, in the early 1990s when in the certain parish we were struggling with many hard issues related to youth. Some of the teen girls had become pregnant, and there were many young men becoming involved with crime and drugs. I remember going to one of the large women’s groups in the parish and asking that they would consider undertaking a vigorous program of mentoring for the younger girls and women. I received a fairly flat no. Some indicated fear, others said they did not understand young women today and wouldn’t know how to talk to them. Still others spoke of these things as being “none of their business.”
I got a similar reaction when I spoke to the men of that parish about mentoring the teen boys and younger men.
And thus we see that the necessary fraternal correction and mentoring of the young by elders has fallen on the hard times in many communities, parishes, and the family. While the problem may vary from place to place, the problem remains a fairly general one in American culture.
Part of the reason for this is, that in the years following the Second World War, a youth centered culture began to set up in this country. Prior to that time, and still today in many parts of the world, elders were generally revered as being those who possessed experience and wisdom. Through the mid 50s and picking up pace in the 1960s, respect for elders steeply declined. Children and teenagers gradually came to see their parents as out of touch, old-fashioned, and often just plain stupid.
Popular music, especially rock ‘n roll, exulted youthful rebellion and generally presented portraits of adults as being confused, boorish, hypocritical, and undeserving privilege, honor, or respect. The presence of an unpopular war and a nihilistic rejection of the past also fueled this. As the exultation of youth culture began to expand many teenagers felt quite righteous in their overthrow of the parental culture.
Now, at least two generations into this loss of respect for elders, even those who are elders do not sense that they have much to offer, or even that they should be in the position correct youth. Perhaps they fear the push-back that many young people feel entitled to give. Perhaps these elders feel humbled by the fact of their own sins. Or perhaps some of simply bought in the whole youth culture mentality and have themselves never really grown up.
Whatever the causes in any particular case, we have come to a place in our culture where fraternal correction of the young is increasingly eroding. This in turn has led to grave problems in our families, in the schools, and most other social settings. Most tragically, the domestic Church, the family, has been severely impacted. This has also led to intensifying problems in the wider family of the Church. For if the domestic church is not strong, the parish Church will not be strong.
Into all of this disorder and confusion comes a simple plan from God. The priest, who is at the head of the parish family, is to speak teach sound doctrine to his people. And from his pulpit the Word must go forth to the pulpit of the domestic Church we call the family. At the pulpit of the dining room table, and the pulpit of the living room elders, having received the Word of God from their pastors, must hand this on to their children and to all the youngsters in their care.
Many indeed are the sorrows and difficulties that emerge from our failure to live this simple plan.
Here’s a song of rebellion sung by some parents of the boomers who threw the revolution. Many of the boomers are soon to be as old as the elders they once scorned:
As an idealistic, optimistic, college student, I was introduced to the documents of Vatican II, specifically, the opening paragraph of Gadium et Spes. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.” This perfectly captured my desire to serve the Lord by serving the poor. I applied to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and asked to be assigned to Alaska because I wanted to work among people of a culture other than my own. The JVC was happy to oblige and before long I found myself standing outside my new home—on the banks of the Yukon River in Tanana, Alaska, in front of a bright yellow trailer that was capable of running water but did not have it at the moment or in the next two months.
Quickly, it became clear that I was seduced by the idea of poverty and completely unprepared for the reality. For example, I never imagined it involved a yellow trailer with the ugliest orange and yellow shag carpet I had ever seen. Poor is so much more than lack of money. I had never had to live in a community in which no one was untouched by the toll of alcoholism. From its effect on unborn children, to the destruction of family life to the social toll within the community, life was often bleak. What really, I asked myself, did it mean that the “griefs and anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted,…are the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ?”
We are not the Red Cross
Paragraph 22, of Gaudium et Spes suggests “Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us.” This was proven true for me during my year in the tundra. My JVC year in Tanana taught me what makes the charitable and social service ministry different from the Red Cross. Our vision is that of the Gospel that enables us to look at the world through God’s eyes.
I have been thinking about this because last Saturday, more than 100 volunteers in social ministry and Pro-life ministry came together for a day of formation. The reading of the day, took us back to Jesus’ suffering, reminding us that even as we glory in the grace of the Resurrection and the Easter season, it is never separated from Jesus’ suffering. These are volunteers who work on issues that seem unsolvable and with people whose suffering is overwhelming . Volunteers whose work puts them in the face of the riddles of poverty, abortion, war, bigotry, euthanasia and advocacy. They work with some people who come over and over for help but often refuse the option that will be most helpful. When they have been blessed to relieve the suffering on one person, they remember the ten people they could not help. What keeps them from despair? What keeps them optimistic and enthusiastic? For many people they remember the moment of choice—to give in to feeling of overwhelmed and walk away from the ministry and the mission, or to turn to Our Lord and the Gospel. “Through Christ and in Christ the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful.” The gift of Catholic Social Teaching is that it marries the Gospel to the existence of grief, despair and injustice. The Church does not choose to simply preach the vision of the world to come and advise people to endure the present and wait patiently for the coming of the kingdom. The Church has not offered simple answers to what are complex riddles wrapped in mystery. The Church proclaims the truth, that the riddles of this age are wrapped in the mystery of God’s plan for the building of the kingdom. What the Church has to offer is itself—a community linked, joined, bound to humankind by the deepest of bonds. The Church knows that it will be judged on its solidarity with the poor and most vulnerable.
It is the mature follower of Christ who when feeling overwhelmed can dig deep and find courage and strength to continue to enter into the mystery of suffering in the story of the Church, in our sacramental life and in service. To embrace the gift of being able to grieve with the broken hearted and be an instrument of hope, to embrace the mystery that, as Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church reflected “All the way to heaven is heaven!”
I had the great fortune of being in Rome for the past ten days, attending a colloquium and doing some lecturing on the mission and vocation of the laity. The events brought together theologians, canon lawyers, diocesan directors and ecumenists to reflect on the role of the laity in church and society since the Second Vatican Council. In my own preparation I came across a phrase from Hans Urs von Balthasar who described the mission of the laity as “turning the face of the church toward the world.” He went on to say that the laity reveal “the worldliness of the church.”
Is this a good thing?
My first thought was “Is this a good thing?” We often hear the church accused of being too worldly—too concerned about money and material things. On the other hand, we have been trained to think of the church as all about the sacred and the world as all about the secular. Certainly, while walking the streets of Rome you see the sacred and secular living side by side. The vocation of the laity is to move the church from the side into the middle! The laity take the church to places that priests cannot; to boardrooms and bedrooms to breakfast tables and backyards.
A Church committed to the World
Rather than separating the secular and sacred, rather than thinking of the church as a refuge from the world or as an alternate existence, the Council Fathers pledged that the hopes and fears of the world will be the very hopes and fears of the church. We Catholics see the world as full of great ways to experience the love of God and share the love of God. We don’t see the world has hopeless and sit waiting for the kingdom to come. We don’t see people who don’t realize they’ve been given the gift of faith and decide we should simply ignore them. We don’t think that nothing good can possibly come from the marketplace. What we do see is a world that is good and can be made great by the power of the Gospel.
What the Fathers at the Council did realize was that the church can’t do this without the laity. The particular mission of the laity is secular, not in opposition to the sacred but rather living the sacred in the midst of the secular and thereby making the ordinary holy. Don’t we see people whose lives can be transformed by the Gospel and do we decide to share it with them? Haven’t we all seen a situation at work that can be solved or made better with the application of Gospel principles even if we never mention that is where we learned them? Haven’t we found ourselves thinking if only my friend would talk to a priest, he or she would feel so much better and see a way through this situation? Do we offer to make the introduction to the priest?
As lay women and men we need to recognize the power we have to make holy the ordinary things of life by infusing them with the spirit of God. The Church is depending on us to take it to the world.
If you are interested in learning more, my friend and colleague, Aurelie Hagstrom, who is chairperson of the theology department at Providence College wrote a book called The Emerging Laity in which she explores the work of the Second Vatican Council in this area.