When you think of an active Catholic, what comes to mind? Probably someone who, at least, attends weekly Mass, maybe prays a little each day, and does some reading on spiritual matters now and then.
Yes, but what is a really active Catholic? Why, someone who also does one or another or a combination of the following: acts as a lector and/or an extraordinary minister of Communion, serves at Mass, sings in the choir, teaches Sunday School, works with the RCIA, belongs to the Knights of Columbus, sits on the parish council, helps with funeral lunches, etc.
Is that description correct? Yes, of course. Parishes could not function without the investment of time and talent of a whole host of parishioners. And we rightly describe the really active parish as one in which many ministries and parish activities are up and running and involve a great many people.
But the vast majority of Catholics do not and cannot take on the roles I have described. Many work long hours, maybe have two jobs, don’t have a lot of free time, and have to expend a great deal of energy on being good spouses and parents.
Not being able to devote more time to the parish can make some Catholics feel like second-class citizens in the Church.
Can one be a really active Catholic without involvement in parish ministries and activities? Certainly, one can.
Many Catholics don’t know that there is a whole category of non-parish activities that come under the heading of the “lay apostolate.”
What is a “lay apostle”? It is any Christian who brings his or her faith to bear upon their ordinary, everyday lives. A good spouse or parent who works hard at their family vocation is a lay apostle. A janitor in the local public school system who is an exemplary Christian, a doctor who seeks to bring Christian ethics to his or her job, a nurse who brings Christ’s love to sick patients, a good Christian lawyer who follows high ethical standards, a social worker who sees Christ in the needy, a cleaning lady in a motel who offers her work up to God, a Catholic politician who brings his or her faith to the political process – all these are lay apostles. They may only go to the parish on Sunday mornings, but they practice their faith 24/7.
What I have just described makes it possible for everyone who is baptized to be a really active Catholic.
What I am saying here comes from Vatican II and a whole host of Church documents since then. Pope John Paul II issued in 1988 a landmark document called “The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People.” The document promoted lay ministry and lay activity “within the Church,” and called all Catholics to take responsibility for the life of the Church.
But it emphasized even more strongly the vocation of all Catholics to be lay apostles “in the world.” Every Pope since Vatican II has emphasized and promoted the lay apostolate, calling all Catholics to do their part in bringing Christ into the “secular” arenas within which they live and work.
So, if you are a Catholic who cannot do much more than go to Mass on Sundays – but put your Christian heart and soul into your “secular” activities, then you are a really active Catholic.
If you would like to read up on this matter, I highly recommend Ministry or Apostolate? What Should the Catholic Laity be Doing? by Russell Shaw (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2002). This short book brings clarity to a complex subject and is eminently readable.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.