On December 11, 2013, Time magazine honored him as “Person of the Year.” The following week, he was depicted on the front cover of The New Yorker magazine as a “snow angel.” Then there are the “bumper sticker” headlines that seek to capture his “off-the-cuff” remarks but neglect to highlight the substance of his message. Could it be that the secular media is determined to persuade the public that Pope Francis is making sweeping changes in the life of the Church like never before? Is it possible that there exists an agenda to manipulate the pope’s personal style for unholy purposes?
There exists a curious absence in popular reports on Pope Francis to other popes who likewise echoed the evangelical call to action articulated by the Second Vatican Council. Pastoral outreach to the poor and vulnerable, as exemplified by Pope Francis, was similarly present in the words and actions of his predecessors, both before and after the Council, although their styles were clearly different.
Many laity likewise prioritized the goals of the Council, and worked hard even before the Council in their outreach to the poor and disadvantaged, with differing degrees of intensity.
What makes Apostolicam Actuositatem (the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, hereafter referred to as APAC) unique is its insistence that all lay Catholics are called by virtue of their state in life to prioritize their outreach to the poor and less fortunate and to “persevere in charity.” Didn’t the Council Fathers make reference to this only one year before when Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution, Lumen Gentium, article 14, referred to this outreach “in charity” in the context of our “salvation?” This, I believe, is what Pope Francis seeks to communicate.
Article 13 explains that the laity “… need the kind of fraternal charity which will lead them to share in the living conditions, labors, sorrows, and hope of their brothers and sisters which will gradually and imperceptibly dispose the hearts of all around for the saving work of grace.” Later in article 31 we read that “the faithful may learn from childhood to have compassion for their brothers and sisters and to be generous in helping those in need.” With Pope Francis, as well as, members of the clergy and consecrated religious, the laity are called to remain vigilant in their Christian outreach and, as the opening paragraph of this document states, “modern conditions demand that their apostolate be thoroughly broadened and intensified” (APAC, 1).
I recall as a lay person being challenged by the words of this decree in at least two ways. Long before I became an ordained priest, I felt compelled from deep within my soul to actively “take up the renewal of the temporal order as [my] own special obligation” (APAC, 7). Secondly, daily Mass and a regular prayer life nourished my spiritual life and complemented the active apostolate in which I helped renew the temporal order.
In my final year of high school I volunteered at an institution for developmentally-delayed children and young adults. I soon discovered several residents who had been baptized as infants but had never received the sacraments of confirmation or first holy Communion. Recently, I came across a photo I had taken that day so long ago of the young people with the archbishop who had just confirmed them. I recall how persistent I was as a 16-year-old unwilling to take “no” for an answer when told that the disabled were not qualified to receive the sacraments.
In my first year of college, my faith was again tested when our local newspaper published an article depicting unmentionable blasphemy being directed toward the priesthood, with an accompanying photo of a tabernacle in a Catholic church being desecrated. Consistent with the challenge in Apostolicam Actuositatem (article 18), that “the faithful should exercise their apostolate by way of united effort,” I helped organize a contingency of lay Catholics of different ages to march from our local cathedral to the headquarters of the telegram office where we placed thousands of newspapers on the front steps as a way to publicly demonstrate our outrage for the personal affront and injustice leveled against the Catholic community. Again, I was activating my responsibility as a member of the Catholic laity to penetrate the temporal order with a peaceful solution to a horrific blasphemy.
Years later, I was again challenged by the circumstances of a wildcat strike that occurred at a government-run facility where I was employed as a child therapist. The origin of the strike related to an incident of physical abuse that I witnessed being perpetrated upon a five-year-old child by a male employee. When the unionized employees walked out in support of the male worker, I was the only employee who remained in a building with more than 100 innocent, severely mentally deficient children.
Later, when the workers returned, they gave me the “cold shoulder treatment” in protest to my having not joined them on the picket line. This meant, for example, that during staff breaks when I sat at a lunch table everyone present would stand and leave me sitting alone. I did not for a moment regret my decision to report the horrifying physical abuse or secondly, to remain with the children who needed appropriate supervision.
Somehow, in the midst of this painful event I could not imagine, as a Catholic, any better way I could respond to the challenge of Apostolicam Actuositatem. As the decree requests: “This most sacred Council … earnestly entreats … that all the laity give a glad, generous, and prompt response to the voice of Christ … and to the impulse of the Holy Spirit” (APAC, 33). My youth and limited experience gladly welcomed the participation of Christ and the Holy Spirit in my moment of need!
These few examples suffice to point to the kind of Christian witness called for in Apostolicam Actuositatem. Within the document is a sense of support and challenge for lay Catholics to activate their faith whenever and wherever God calls them.
In fact, it is more often than not the case that we are exactly where God wants us to be, i.e. at home, at work, at school, at the market, when we are summoned to activate our Catholic faith. As the decree points out, “the faithful are called to engage in the apostolate as individuals in the varying circumstances of their life” (APAC, 18). The question we ought to ask is whether we are doing all that God asks of us in the space that we occupy in this world.
Although there are circumstances such as teaching Christian doctrine or performing liturgical actions, when “the laity are fully subject to higher ecclesiastical direction in the performance of such work” (APAC, 24), the decree clearly indicates that in most circumstances lay Catholics enjoy tremendous freedom by virtue of sharing in the common priesthood of the baptized. “In the Church,” the document states, “there are many apostolic undertakings which are established by the free choice of the laity and regulated by their prudent judgment” (APAC, 24).
How wonderfully fulfilling it is when Catholics come together, activate their faith, and refuse to be afraid to disclose their precious Catholic identity, for the good of one’s neighbor and for the greater honor and glory of God!
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.