Humans classify things. We always have. We have done so before modern science and the understanding of genus, species, and so on. Even Adam cataloged the animals in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:19). A lot of good has come from differentiating between the different kinds of plants, animals, rocks, minerals, elements – you name it – but perhaps there is an overemphasis on the “what” when it comes to people.
In focusing on the what, we often forget the who, or we downplay the who to a subjective culmination of our individual lifelong quests for self-discovery. Yet, in Christianity, God calls us by name (Jn. 10:3). He even said to Jeremiah the prophet, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jer. 1:5). It seems that our God cares about who we are at least as much as He cares about what we are.
Like the what, the who involves certain categorizations. There are His children outside the Church, whom He loves very much and searches for them like a shepherd searches for the lost sheep (Lk 15:4-7). There are the “separated brethren” (a term found in Vatican II’s Unitatis redintegratio) of other Christian communities. Then, there are the Catholic lay faithful and the clergy (divided into deacons, priests, and bishops).
I once heard a priest say “when I hear of the 99 percent, I do not think about the occupy movement and classes; I think of the laity, who play a vital role in the co-responsibility of the mission of the Church.” It is easy for people to sit back and say “the priest will talk about Jesus with others. I’ll do my part in loving God and my neighbor, but evangelization is for those who have a special calling.”
Yet, whether you’re a priest, bishop, deacon, or a member of the laity, you do have a special calling in the Church’s mission. The laity are more than just the “unordained” (despite even Church documents giving that impression). The Catechism elaborates, and the elaboration is more helpful than the juxtaposition with the clergy. It states that the laity are:
“the faithful, who by Baptism are incorporated into Christ and integrated into the People of God, are made sharers in their particular way in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly office of Christ, and have their own part to play in the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world.” (CCC, 897)
While we are living in the ordinary, sometimes mundane, world of the daily grind, we have a unique role. In discerning our vocation – the state of life to which God has called us – we have to consider the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We have to choose to remove ourselves from the world to a more cloistered environment, a pastoral one or to stay in the world and deliberately reorder the temporal institutions and social structures to serve the common good and foster an environment that brings others into a relationship with Jesus Christ.
We become a member of the laity upon baptism, but it is by no means a passive default vocation that lets you off the hook. When I look at my life and what I do, I realize that I come across people that have never even spoken to a priest, monk, nun, or deacon (let alone a bishop!). It is up to me in those situations to be the face of Christ, so that those who see me come to a place where they come to know the Father (Matt 5:16). That is the role of the laity.
Lawmakers can make laws that do not contradict God’s will. Doctors can truly seek to heal those who are hurting. Artists can show goodness, truth, and beauty in their work, reflecting the handiwork of Our Lord. Whether you’re a mortgage broker, a teacher, or a stock trader, there are ways that you can use your influence to build a more just world. In that way, when we pray “Thy kingdom come”, we can mean it.
I enjoy a lot about Henry David Thoreau and his writing, but he took the wrong approach when he wrote in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Indeed, when we follow God’s will and live deliberately, we truly live, whether that be as a layperson or religious. We truly live because we are restoring that which God originally intended for the world: a place where God and humankind live in communion, in unity.
April 25, 2021, is the 58th Annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Let us keep in mind that whether God is calling you to be a priest, religious, deacon, or layperson, there are no default vocations. We only truly live when we are living according to the plan that God has for each of us as individuals. If God is calling you to be a priest, it should be an absolute humbling honor to be able to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. If He is calling you to be a layperson, it can be the greatest adventure you can ever make, by going out to sanctify the world in the way that He calls you.
Stephen Muff, Esq, MPA is a Catholic Christian who lives in Northern California with his wife and two daughters. He serves on his parish council and is participating in a three-year faith formation program for the laity. He is licensed to practice law in Washington State and DC and currently works in-house for a financial technology company.