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How to be a Christian in a Non-Christian World: Is there a Lay Theology?

It happened again, and as usual we had become upset and angry. An immigrant just asked us for the upteenth time, “Marcos, usted es un sacerdote y Luisa una monja?” (Mark, are you a priest and Louise a nun?)

“No! No!” We say for the upteenth time. “Somos laicos.” We are lay people. And if they insist, we say in frustration, “No! Somos laicos tontos y estupidos.”

A priest or sister might run Casa Juan Diego better than lay people. No matter what they say, all the good people have not left the active ministry. As a matter of fact, priests and sisters have been instrumental in bringing Casa Juan Diego to where it is today–and that includes our chief shepherds.

But the point is: Lay people can and should be doing this work. Why should anyone think that to be committed, one must be a priest or sister? Why should it seem unusual for lay people to try to live the Gospel?

There are deeper questions: What kind of theology is required for Christians in the world? What can sustain us in the day to day living of the beatitudes? Is commitment to the transformation of our world according to the Gospel only for the few? How can theology possibly apply in an everyday, boring job, an everyday, boring existence? Where is the theology which can address the questions of, for example, Generation X, on the absurdity of life?

Sanctuary Movement

Christian spirituality has taken a new direction of late. It has headed for the sanctuary. There is much interest on the part of lay people to be Eucharistic ministers, lectors, greeters or parish employees.

Sacristies are bulging with people wanting to be at the altar.

Some cynics denigrate this move to the sanctuary, but maybe it has a positive side. The one hour of being on the altar is symbolic of the other ll2 waking hours where they take the same Christ to their communities and work sites. Possibly people are discouraged with what they see happening in the world and in their jobs, and flee to the sanctuary to make some sense out of life. Sometimes it is hard to imagine how to make sense on a practical level of a job that has no meaning and is boredom personified.

The other move to the sanctuary is initiated by those who want to be priests. Almost everyone wants to be ordained: married men and women, old men and women, single men and women. The only people who don’t seem to want to be ordained are young men! We wish there were more of them. We hear good things from young priests.

We are not sure what all this projection on to the priestly role means, but again, it is not necessarily negative unless it becomes a fixation. It may mean that people are looking for a deeper expression of their faith, a deeper understanding of what it means to be a Catholic, a role in which they can find a fulfillment which they have not yet found in their lay state. The desire to be a priest may be a message to a person that they are called to serve their brothers and sisters more and in a better way.

Or it may come from the American rugged individualism. You see what you want and go after it: the “Go getter” mentality that Peter Maurin talks about instead of the more Latin American “go giver” mentality.

There is also an attempt to carry the rights movements into the sanctuary. There is talk about a “right” to the priesthood, a “right” to the Eucharist, a “right” to run the Church on the model of American democracy. (Could you imagine the Church being run like the U.S. government? Heaven help us all! Imagine a bishop with the recent China connection in the White House–he would be Pope for sure.)

On the contrary, as followers of Christ, our only rights have to do with the right to service.

When it’s all said and done, where we really belong is in washing the feet. We must be with Jesus–with Him in the whole paschal mystery and in the mystery of his presence in the poor (Matthew 25).

Where to Turn

The search is difficult for lay people as they seek help in making sense out of their “worldly” existence.

They turn to Catholic publications on the far right and find they just can’t be against immigrants because Pat Buchanan made it a policy to be enraged with them.

They turn to the left, but find they don’t want to be enraged with Church leadership. It just takes too much energy. They have this sneaking suspicion that there is more.

Before Vatican II many hoped that the gathering of bishops would lead people to a more profound spirituality and away from the “sin” mentality that dominated, for example, in going to confession. People focused on a list of sins in their examination of conscience instead of focusing on the Lord, conversion and growth in holiness–at least some.

After the Council we got rid of the sin mentality and our lists, but unfortunately, we are also totally bereft of the call to the Gospel living and sanctity. Both went out with the bath water.

Larry Chapp, writing in Communio (Summer 1996) expresses what happened:

“Unfortunately, this mandate of the Council (the universal call to holiness) was swallowed up in the post-conciliar rift between progressives who saw lay involvement in the Church as largely a grasping after many of the old clerical prerogatives, and conservatives who resented such moves and sought refuge in the discarded clericalist

Chapp emphasizes that “we must begin in earnest the task of implementing the Central insight of the Council: that the Church, through the various charisms and missions of her members, must leaven the world with the presence of Christ.”

Fortunately, we still have the Vatican II documents that are so strong on a theology for the Christian in the world and are filled with fantastic insights. And we have the Catechism of the Catholic Church with its profound approach to an examination of conscience, which leads us directly to the heart of the New Testament. The Catechism recommends, not a list of do’s and don’ts, but biblical passages such as Matthew 5-7, Romans 12-15, I Cor. 12-13, Galatians 5, Ephesians 4-6. Meditation on these texts will change your life!

As Hans Urs von Balthasar pointed out, “Once and for all, the fatal wound is dealt to the mentality that holds that one can be Catholic, too, alongside one’s status as a good citizen, guaranteeing one’s own private salvation by the keeping of some religious obligations while otherwise leaving the concern for Christianity to the specialists, the clergy” (Explorations in Theology, Vol. III, Creator Spirit, Ignatius Press, 1993).

The lack of profound theological study and prayer of Christians living in the world is a serious problem, even with those who work for the Church, where they thought they would find spirituality and prayer. Robert Wicks, a therapist who works with people in ministry says,

“When I started seeing persons in therapy who are engaged in full-time ministry, I thought as a realist that I would find out from them that prayer in silence and solitude each day would be a rarity. Much to my surprise the situation was even worse. Prayer for most of them–even though they claimed that God was at the center of their lives and hopes–was not a rarity, it was an oddity!”

The document which emerged from the Synod of Bishops on the laity, Christifideles Laici (The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People) begins with the startling question from the Gospel, addressed to all of us, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” In Matthew 20, the people respond, “Because no one has hired us.” The Lord tells them, “You too go into the vineyard.” Christifideles Laici tell us, “It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle in the midst of the pressing needs of today’s world.”

Where can the lay person begin, when “no one has hired us” to transform the world in Christ?” Each Christian must make a decision to proclaim their yes to God as did the first Church member, Mother Mary.

Mary did not say, “Well, maybe,” or “Later,” as St. Augustine responded initially until St. Monica prayed him to conversion.

The “yes” of many Catholics is limited to demanding that clerical leaders or religious women say “yes”–and if Church leaders say yes to Jesus, all will be OK.

What is Discipleship?

Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose theology was influenced very much by the woman mystic and physician, Adrienne von Speyr, insists that “no one can become a disciple of Christ who is not called to the task by Christ himself.” He reminds us that “the great prophets of the Scriptures receive their sense of mission when they stand alone before God and that the “mother of the Lord is chosen in terrifying loneliness.” According to Balthasar, God may eventually “bring those together who have a sense of mission, “But each must have first stood alone before God,” and “each will face God alone in death” (The Moment of Christian Witness, Ignatius Press, 1994).

Each human being has a mission, is “sent” by God with a specific task. Each disciple is sent, as Jesus was “sent,” and our mission or vocation is a participation in his mission.

This is not to denigrate community. The living out of one’s vocation is done in community. The whole work of Casa Juan Diego subsists in community–it would be nothing without community. Casa Juan Diego is not a committee, but a living reality.

Already in 1935, shortly after her conversion, Dorothy Day wrote in the Catholic Worker about this working together in the Body of Christ: “There is a general reluctance among rank and file Catholics to assume the position of leaders in Catholic Action… It means that they have lost the sense of what the words collectivism, personalism and individualism mean. Without realizing it, they have gone collective and want to work in a body, organize, go in for mass production of members of this or the other group, and try to achieve things collectively. Or they are individualists and think they can better conditions by looking after themselves first and devil take the hindmost. We are urging our readers to be neither collectivist nor individualist, but personalist. This consciousness of oneself as a member of the Mystical Body of Christ will lead to great things.”

Chapp, in reflecting on the mission of individual Christians, puts the emphasis on the “responsibility of each and every human being to respond to the kerygmatic force of the gospel and to make Christ present to the world through engraced ethical/spiritual living.”

As Balthasar puts it, Christians can only “adequately answer God’s universal engagement with the world in the love of Jesus Christ for them by lending their own love, in the concretissimum of the encounter with their brother, that universal breadth of Being which consciously or not, explicitly or not–the metaphysical act possesses and is” (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol.V).

Some of the Workers at Casa Juan Diego have been disturbed that some widely published recent converts to Catholicism do not talk about commitment to the poor or to living out the beatitudes, to giving up all and following Jesus. Instead they seem to emphasize a romantic, even triumphalistic vision of the Church. Much more inspiring to our Workers is the radical vision of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in following the Lord and serving Him in the poor as loyal members of the Church.

But many ask, how can I know the will of God for me? What is my mission? God has not spoken to me in the burning bush, as he did to Moses. I believe he wants to send me forth as a laborer, but how and where? How can I become a saint?

Christifideles Laici spells out what is required in a good process of discernment of vocation, emphasizing that it is a gradual process, with particularly significant and decisive moments: “A receptive listening to the Word of God and the Church, fervent and constant prayer, recourse to a wise and loving spiritual guide, and a faithful discernment of the gifts and talents given by God, as well as the diverse social and historic situations in which one lives.” The document also reminds us that the Lord will give us the grace to do what he asks of us, quoting St. Leo the Great: “The one who confers the dignity will give the strength.”

Interestingly enough, in many cases, this mission will be found very close to home. Almost as, according to statistics, the majority of auto accidents take place close to home. Opportunities for service, for the washing of the feet present themselves frequently in the family, at work, or in the neighborhood, with, for example, sick family members or an ill neighbor.

Opportunities for creating a new heaven and a new earth (Dorothy Day) present themselves in many jobs. Business executives have the opportunity to modify laissez-faire capitalism, depending on their personal God and not just the invisible hand of the market. They can correct a situation in which those who give up all for Jesus are not the Christian or Catholic economists or CEO’s, but the poor laborers in the global market whose lives are a living death, where slavery has been restored.

In U. S. society in 1997, it may often mean going a bit further afield from one’s family and neighborhood as well, to search out those in need who may not be visible in suburban neighborhoods. One must face the question–is my upper middle class lifestyle a part of God’s call for me? Comparing our lives to the call to Christian living by a great saint such as St. John Chrysostom of the early Church often brings great challenge. St. John considered the beatitudes the constitution of Christianity, and he preached from biblical texts to change the lives of those in his congregation, whose lives he still considered more pagan than Christian in many ways. He is quoted in the beautiful section on “Love for the Poor” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs” (2446).

The Vatican Council has made it clear that the lay person does not live in two worlds, one as a citizen and one as a believer: “The layman at one and the same time a believer and a citizen of the world, has only a single conscience, a Christian conscience; it is by this he must be guided continually in both domains. (Apostolate of the Laity).

To Whom Shall we Go?

We were disappointed recently when one of the major medical research directors of Houston told us in response to questions about medical ethics that he left those questions to the priests and theologians. He said they were the ones to decide about ethics and morality; he could only proceed with his research. This director has professional expertise in abundance, but we hope that, as a Catholic, he will also study theology, in order to put together his expert knowledge in his field with theological principles so that his daily work is not separate from his Christian life, but rather informed by it.

The days of old where we brushed everything off with “Let’s ask Father,” are gone. As Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World) tells us,

“Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission.”

Gaudium et Spes points out that “The artificial contrast between professional and social activity, on the one hand, and religious life, on the other hand,” is one of “the more serious errors of our age.” Ad Gentes reminds us that “All the members of the living Christ, into whom they have been incorporated and to whom they have been configured are obliged to cooperate in the extension and development of his Body, in order to bring it as soon as possible to its perfected fullness. For this reason, all the sons of the Church must have a vital awareness of their responsibility vis-a-vis the totality of the world and must cultivate in themselves a truly Catholic spirit.” And what it this truly Catholic spirit? Ad Gentes replies: The “authentic spirit of the Church must walk the same road which Christ walked: a road of poverty and obedience, of service and self-sacrifice to the death.”


Ultimately, whether one is a lay person or a priest, being a Christian means being willing to surrender one’s life for Christ’s sake. Balthasar reminds us that while Jesus Christ sent his followers out into the world and entrusted them with a commission of universal significance for all times, places and civilizations, he “prophesied no other fate for his disciples and followers than his own: persecution, failure and suffering to the point of death.” The follower of Jesus, the one who puts Jesus first, “chooses the Cross as the place where he will not eventually but most certainly die.”

Balthasar speaks along the same lines as did Dorothy Day, when she said that it is only what we do in and for Christ that is of lasting value. He emphasizes that “it is from the meeting with the dying God that a life based on belief bears the fruit of love, that the Christian love of one’s neighbor is rather the result or outcome of self sacrifice, just as God the Father made the redemption of mankind the outcome of his forsaken Son’s self-sacrifice.”

As Peter Maurin put it,

“On the Cross of Calvary Christ gave His life to redeem the world. The life of Christ was a life of sacrifice. We cannot imitate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary by trying to get all we can. We can only imitate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary by trying to give all we can.”

Returning always to the idea that all are called to live the Gospel, Dorothy Day and Balthasar both emphasize that it is by no means true that only a few radically-minded Christians need to base their faith on the death of Christ, while, as Balthasar puts it, “the majority may remain content to let just a little of the transfiguring supernatural light illumine their natural lives. For Christians there is no question of such an attitude” (The Moment of Christian Witness).

We must be prepared to die, as Christ did, in small or big ways. Scripture tells us, “Unless the seed fall into the ground and die….” Balthasar reflects on this: “The power to regain life completely is contained in the capacity for its total self-surrender.

“The glory that manifests itself on Easter is already present in the veiled glory of Good Friday, just as the column of God in the desert could appear dark at one moment and shining the next.

“The truth that provides the yardstick for faith is God’s willingness to die for the world he loves, for mankind and for me as an individual. This love became manifest in the dark night of Christ’s crucifixion. Every source of grace–faith, love, and hope–springs from this night. Everything that I am, I am solely by virtue of Christ’s death, which opens up to me the possibility of fulfillment in God. I blossom on the grace of God who died for me. I sink my roots deep into the nourishing soil of his flesh and blood.”

Balthasar, whose theological works sing of the glory of God, tells us that, “In the final instance love is its own reward, which does not mean to say that the promise of the greatest imaginable joy could ever exclude the deepest suffering: darkness and light are correlatives in Jesus Christ’s epiphany of love… The wounds are transfigured, the Spirit is pentecostal and the Church is bathed in the light of Easter, which the Word has earned for it. But all the transfiguration and transparency of Christian existence stream from the darkness of death; even at the crucifixion Christ ceases to be bound by the limits of finite time, just as little as he is bound by it during his descent into hell. Consequently, his action is not to be considered as belonging to the past (the reenactment of his death in the Eucharist should warn us against making this mistake).”

This passionate understanding of our faith should do something to change our boring lives and give us the inspiration of a Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Adrienne von Speyr or Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Our world has too much suffering, violence and injustice. Despair or living for the present moment are temptations in the face of what seem to be insurmountable problems. If we remember that God has loved and called each one of us to a special mission in this world, we will not despair or write off life as absurd. We will no longer stand here idle, but will put our hands to the work.

Our daily existence can be transformed when we focus on its center, dying and rising with the living Word of God, awaiting his return on the day we hope and pray that He will say to us, “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you took me in.”

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVII, No. 3, May-June 1997.