Page last updated at 03:31 CST6CDT, Wednesday, 03 September 2014 PH
On November 18, 2015, the Catholic world will celebrate the game-changing document of the Second Vatican Council entitled in Latin Apostolicam Actuositatem (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity). With this document, the Fathers of the Council, in complete union with the Pope, declared solemnly that "the apostolate of the laity derives from their Christian vocation and the Church can never be without it." This means that every baptized person has the obligation to spread the doctrine of Christ and bring other souls to heaven without having to belong to any organization mandated by the bishops. As Msgr. Fernando Ocariz wrote in an article entitled "The lay faithful and the new evangelization, "the evangelizing capacity and responsibility (the munus propheticum) of the lay faithful is not delegated by the hierarchy, but comes directly from Jesus Christ, through Baptism and Confirmation."
Those of us who reached adulthood before the Second Vatican Council will surely remember that the very word "apostolate" evoked such associations as the Student Catholic Action (SCA), Legion of Mary, Knights of Columbus and other apostolic associations "mandated" by the Bishops. There was little or no consciousness among the ordinary faithful that every baptized person is called to be a saint and, therefore, to spread the doctrine of Christ to those around him or her without having to belong to any organization. Having come from an environment with this "mandated" mentality, it came as a surprise to me when in 1959, I met professors and students at Harvard University who spoke to me about what St. Josemaria Escriva, Founder of Opus Dei, had been preaching since October 2, 1928: that every baptized person was called to seek sanctity and to "be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect," and that the other side of the coin of sanctity was to do an abundant work of a personal apostolate of friendship and confidence. Indeed, St. Josemaria Escriva could be called the "precursor of the Second Vatican Council" whose most earthshaking reminder to the laity is the "universal calling to sanctity." I must admit that in 1959, it sounded new to me, especially in the secular environment of Harvard, a university that was called "Godless" by some of my religion teachers at De La Salle College and where, they said, "I could lose my faith."
What impressed me was the reference in the writings of St. Josemaria to the lives of the early Christians. He pointed out that those who were first converted by the Apostles and disciples of Christ did not leave their respective pagan environments. There were no monks, nuns, or other religious persons who embraced vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. The first Christians lived with their pagan families, friends and fellow workers. It was precisely through these intimate dealings that they had with the paganized environment that, through the example of their virtuous lives as practising Christians, they were able to convert more and more individuals and spread Christianity to more and more territories. They were the first ones to realize fully the import of these words from the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity: "The laity derive the right and duty to the apostolate from their union with Christ the head, incorporated into Christ's Mystical Body through Baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation, they are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord Himself. They are consecrated for the royal priesthood and the holy people...not only that they may offer spiritual sacrifices in everything they do but also that they may witness to Christ throughout the world. The sacraments, however, especially the most holy Eucharist, communicate and nourish that chastity which is the soul of the entire apostolate."
I was fortunate my spiritual mentor at Harvard, a Numerary priest of Opus Dei, immediately introduced me to the habit of spiritual reading. One of the first books he recommended that I read for fifteen minutes a day was the classic book of spirituality by a Benedictine monk, Dom Chautard, entitled "The Soul of the Apostolate". From the very beginning I was immunized from the "heresy of activism", also called "Americanism" in the days of St. Pius X. Those of us who were in touch with the means of formation provided by Opus Dei, mostly graduate and undergraduate students at Harvard University, did not have to wait for the Second Vatican Council to be told about the authentic spirituality of the laity, as contained in Apostolicam Actuositatem: "Since Christ, sent by the Father, is the source and origin of the whole apostolate of the Church, the success of the lay apostolate depends upon the laity's living union with Christ, in keeping with the Lord's words, 'He who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit, for without me you can do nothing...This life of intimate union with Christ in the Church is nourished by spiritual aids which are common to all the faithful, especially active participation in the sacred liturgy..." This truth is very much in keeping with the secular adage that "he who wants to change the world must first start with himself." Nemo dat quod no habet (one cannot give what he does not have). For comments, my email address is email@example.com.