As a child I was under the impression that a person had to first reach adulthood in order to live the Catholic faith fully or be capable of reaping the benefits of the faith in a holistic or integrated way. An unexpected class assignment, however, introduced me to Apostolicam Actuositatem (the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, hereafter referred to as APAC), and I was convinced otherwise.
One of two documents promulgated by the Second Vatican Council on Nov. 18, 1965 — the other being the dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum which we previously examined — Apostolicam Actuositatem consists of six lengthy chapters including passages addressed specifically to teenagers and young people.
Article 12, for example, states: “Young persons exert very important influence on modern society.” Then in article 33 the Council Fathers teach: “Younger people should feel that this call [the invitation of Christ and the impulse of the Holy Spirit] has been directed to them in particular, and they should respond to it eagerly.” I knew these words were meant for teenagers like me!
Another surprise came in my junior year of high school when I was nominated by my classmates to run for president of the nearly 1,000-member student body. I took up the challenge, articulated my campaign goals and went on to win the election. With new responsibilities that included addressing the entire school on a regular basis, my fear of public speaking became the newest challenge to overcome.
In retrospect I realize it was during this time as a shy, young teenager that I was preparing remotely to fulfill God’s will by pursuing a vocation to the holy priesthood. But first I had to fulfill God’s plan of exercising my lay apostolate “in the world like a kind of leaven” (APAC, 2). It came to me like an epiphany, as I read the words of this document, that even as a teenager, “by its very nature [my] Christian vocation [was] also a vocation to the apostolate” and, as this Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity then states when referring to the mystical body of Christ, “no part of the structure of a living body is merely passive” (APAC, 2). These words spoke powerfully to my heart, reminding me that even as a teenager, I had something valuable to offer Christ and the Church. The words of the Second Vatican Council gave me permission to stand up and be counted as a member of the mystical body of Christ.
A few years earlier this document was assigned by my teacher, Brother Gosse, which was the first time I read and reread this Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, along with other documents of Vatican II. Although there were several things that I did not understand, I recall the deep influence this decree had on my young mind and heart. It was as if the Council Fathers were speaking directly to me and somehow I knew that I could serve Christ in a meaningful way, whether as a lay Catholic, young or old, or as an ordained priest.
I also came to the realization that the best of what I could offer the Church was something that I already possessed which was myself. I even had the benefit of the Sacraments, being “incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body through baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through confirmation” which I had received at age 12 (APAC, 3).
These words from this document resounded often in my mind: “the laity should hold in high esteem and, according to their ability, aid the works of charity and projects for social assistance” (APAC, 8). Another compelling passage read: “Schools, colleges, and other Catholic educational institutions also have the duty to develop a Catholic sense and apostolic activity in young people” (APAC, 30). Without delay, one of my priorities as the student council president was to use the energy of youth to rally other like-minded young people to do fundraising activities and social events that would have valuable benefit among the people in our school community, parish and diocese, especially the poor, disabled and elderly in the city where I lived.
Organizing events that benefited Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Saturday mornings were often spent collecting returnable soda cans and bottles, the proceeds of which was used to purchase food or Christmas gifts for the poor. It seemed that works of a charitable nature were endless and the resources were only as limited as the imagination. Hosting concerts at the local nursing home on the weekend, sorting used clothing for the less fortunate after school, collecting canned goods for the Christmas hampers, coloring pictures with the sick children at the children’s hospital, bringing children from the local orphanage to the movies or bowling, driving the elderly to Mass or to their doctor’s appointment — these were some of the things that made being a young lay Catholic such a celebratory event. Joined with the endless energy of youthful enthusiasm, it seemed that almost anything was possible in those days!
How then does one thoroughly share in the apostolate of Jesus Christ? The decree tells us, “the apostolate is carried on through faith, hope, and charity which the Holy Spirit diffuses in the hearts of all members of the Church” (APAC, 3) and as we cooperate with the promptings of the Holy Spirit we become “good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (APAC, 3).
The Council Fathers caution that the apostolate is not meant for lone rangers. In article 4 we read: “[The apostolate should be done by the laity] in communion with their brothers and sisters in Christ, especially with their pastors … [who] must make a judgment about the true nature and proper use of these gifts, not in order to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to what is good” (APAC, 3).
As young Catholics we enjoyed the support of our pastor and other priests for the most part who not only encouraged us by their blessing but gladly offered the use of parish facilities for our special projects as well. It was also the priests who helped us understand the relationship between charitable outreach and the importance of the sacraments. As the Council Fathers explain, “the sacraments … especially the most holy Eucharist, communicate and nourish that charity which is the soul of the entire apostolate” (APAC, 3). The support and participation of the priests not only affirmed the supernatural value of our lay apostolate but gave us the courage to pursue our rightful vocation as young members of the People of God “consecrated into a royal priesthood and a holy people in order [that we] may offer spiritual sacrifices through everything [we did] and … witness to Christ throughout the world” (APAC, 3).
Somehow we learned by word and example that as functioning members of the body of Christ, we were not and could not be freelance agents. Even when we acted alone, we were joined together as energetic participants in the work of God with other members of the People of God, each using his or her gifts for a good and worthy purpose.
The document ends with the same hope-filled message that the Church has for young Catholics, again addressing them as follows: “Younger people should feel that this call has been directed to them in particular, and they should respond to it eagerly … May they always abound in the works of God, knowing that they will not labor in vain” (APAC, 33).
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. To read his previous columns on Vatican II please visit http://www.catholicspirit.com/columnists/fr-john-hillier/