St. John Paul II to Laity: Be Saints in the World

COMMENTARY: Christifideles Laici at 30: More Relevant Today Than Ever

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I said to my teenage son the other day: “What on earth are you doing? How can you possibly be listening to Adventures in Odyssey on audio and playing video games at the same time?”

Now, from my research as a multimedia professor, I know that it’s cognitively possible to do two things at once, but as a parent, I want to say to my son, “Come on, what are you really doing? What’s your purpose in life? What are your duties and responsibilities as a lay Catholic faithful right now? Have you offered the time you might be spending on video games to Our Lord for all our intentions?”

If you think my reaction extreme — my response, not so much my son’s simultaneous multiple-media intake — then you should get to know what Pope St. John Paul II said 30 years ago in Christifideles Laici. For the 30th anniversary of this post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the vocation and mission of the laity, it’s a good time to ask ourselves if anything from those words of counsel is still relevant today.

If you give it a chance, this 100-page document can be a treasure trove of inspiration for Catholic laity living in the modern world. Bishop Josef Clemens, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, wrote: “Christifideles Laici represents for our dicastery a kind of ‘Magna Carta’ or ‘handbook’ for the lay apostolate.”

The document covers a wide range of issues, but if I had to put its message into practical terms, it’s this: We’re called to be saints in the world! There’s a greater plan and purpose, a specific, customized mission, for each one of us that is more than merely surviving and taking care of ourselves. That mission could be pointedly clear, or it could be gracefully hidden in the mystery of daily living. Do we succumb to a seeming monotony of surviving day to day, or do we embrace the mission of the day and the hour?

Jesus did not come to give us survival strategies for coping with life. He came to save us. That’s a huge difference — the difference between life or death, joy or despair.

Catholics are familiar with the phrase “universal call to holiness,” which conveys that religious and laity alike are called to be sons and daughters of God, but this is a relatively modern understanding. Some in the Church once thought that unless you were a priest or religious, you could not be holy. But be assured: This universal call is not some new-fangled notion. Christifideles Laici cites St. Francis de Sales’ seminal work on holiness, Introduction to the Devout Life:

“Devotion must be exercised in different ways by the gentleman, the workman, the servant, the prince, the widow, the maid and the married woman. Not only this, but the practice of devotion must also be adapted to the strength, the employment and the duties of each one in particular. ... It is an error, or rather a heresy, to try to banish the devout life from the regiment of soldiers, the shop of the mechanic, the court of princes or the home of married folk.”

So how do you practice holiness when you’re stuck in the rat race, putting out fires at work and dealing with complex family issues at home? What has my presence at Mass or my reception of the sacraments got to do with my life when I’m not doing something explicitly devotional? In a word: everything. It’s the integrated life we’re after. We’re not practicing holiness only when we’re in church. For the laity, practicing sanctity is radically simple — not necessarily easy, but simple. It comprises the offering of our entire lives and selves to God (Colossians 3:17).

We could, for example, at the start of every hour or every project we undertake, offer that hour or project to Our Lord for someone we love or someone in need. The trick is to be aware enough to remember to do so. We need to choose to be present to the moment.

How? If you’re a student, you might begin by praying for an intention or for someone in need, then dive into your research and write your paper with attention and focus as an offering for that intention or need. The same goes for adults, whether attending to work in the office or duties at home.

Our purpose, our manifest destiny right now, is to do that next thing and do it well, whether at work or play, or in rest or at prayer. Our Lord is so merciful in making it so simple for us, his children, to offer all that we do to him. Since many of us communicate via computer today, praying before going online is a very good practice. The choices we make online matter, the entertainment channels we subscribe to matter, the games we play matter, which trending videos we click on matter, and what we post on social media matters. Each of these choices is sanctifiable, and each of these choices allows us to give witness as lay faithful.

But let’s not forget the usual channels of holiness. However we spend our day, our decisions and actions require that we go back to Our Lord to draw the strength and receive the graces necessary to make prudent decisions and to carry out our daily tasks. Hence, continuation of daily devotionals and reception of the sacraments is pivotal.

Make no mistake: This interplay between prayer and work is everyday sainthood. We are called to do the best we can and to be the best version of ourselves throughout the day. This is true even on bad days because it is meritorious to offer up even the bad to Our Father.

The failures, the falls, the plans that flop — even difficulties in our relationships, coupled with misunderstandings and miscommunications — all these we can choose to give to Jesus, even as we’ve done the best we can with them. He accepts and brings good out of everything we give to him (Romans 8:28).

This is true even when we fail and fall multiple times a day, “for a righteous man falls seven times and rises again” (Proverbs 24:16). And that’s the point: We get back up again each time, taking Our Lord’s hand if we need help getting up, but always with the intention of getting back up. We make the effort to begin anew, to go right back to offering up that effort to Our Lord.

Sometimes, too, the work that we’re doing may not seem to amount to much, if at all. Yet that is when we see only the back of the tapestry. We can look forward to one day seeing the front of the tapestry that God is weaving (and our part in it) as we stand before our Father.

Even in this life, others may find our work inspiring and the basis for the kind stories that parents tell to motivate their kids. Is it pride to know our work is appreciated? Not if our goal is to become saints! We must first find the courage to desire holiness. The courage that comes from a determined effort and will is not wasted — the fruit of such efforts is true peace and true joy, a nobility that allows us to live authentically free.

We must want very much to be a patron saint of what we’re passionate about, what we’re called to.

As is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible. What an impact it would make if every lay faithful on earth right now were to ask Our Lord everyday: “What do you want of me today Lord?” This daily Fiat Voluntas Tua (“Your will be done, Lord”) and the daily leaning on him is actively living holiness in the world. Can you imagine every Catholic going to Mass and saying Jesus: “What do you want to say to me Lord? Speak. I am listening as best I can. Please help me hear and then to do your will, Jesus. I trust in you.” Trust God even to the point of seeming “foolishness.”

So is the message of Christifideles Laici still relevant today? Yes, and all the more because of the urgency of our times.

We may not know when the end times are going to be, but we can say this for certain: We are 30 years closer to the end times than when Christifideles Laici was proclaimed, and we are closer to the end of our own earthly lives.

In this urgency, we must choose now. Do we go about our lives as avatars in some cosmic video game, oblivious to our mission, or do we choose to offer our works and days to Jesus in a total surrender to his love and mercy?

Eugene Gan, Ph.D., is faculty associate of the Veritas Center and professor of interactive media, communications and fine art at Franciscan University of

Steubenville. He is the author of Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media, a guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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