Growing in Love of the Lay Life: Evangelizing Martyrs

The Catholic laity are asked to give witness to Christ by way of obedience to objective truth. It takes a mind formed by love itself, Christ, to have the courage to preach the Gospel of Life.

The nature of priesthood invites a man to remain with Christ in his love for His Bride, the Church. The priesthood, then, renders a man available to the spousal mystery of Christ in and through the priest’s service to the Bishop’s mission. 1 This availability is ordered toward self-gift, especially as this donation is embodied in the Eucharistic mystery. The priest is eager to be an agent of communion between the laity and God by recounting Christ’s longing to save the Church by way of the Cross.  Hence, both sacramentally and through his own interior communion with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the priest facilitates the laity’s reception of the mystery of Christ’s love, and their formation in bearing the fruit of such love, in the work of evangelizing and transforming culture. The priest stands ready to serve the laity’s essential mission of imbuing the culture with the mystery of the Eucharist, especially in the laity’s loving commitments to family, education, government, health care, business, and the arts.

The greatest failure of the post-Vatican II church is the failure to call forth and to form a laity engaged in the world politically, economically, culturally and socially, on faith’s terms rather than on the world’s terms. If … we paid less attention to ministries … and more on mission … then we might recapture the sense of what should be genuinely new as a result of the Council. 2

Do our seminaries sponsor sufficiently sustained thinking on the secular character of the laity? Do seminarians learn how to “listen to the Bride” in her need to preserve the communion she has with Christ, and her vocation to evangelizing all cultures and societies?

The Bride says: “Help me evangelize; help me instantiate the Eucharist in culture.”  At worst, she may want to seek partial consolation by being “present” at worship for comfort, or escape her mission by naming herself Catholic, while only remaining a citizen of the American popular culture. To counteract these tendencies, a priest is charged to call the Church to her dignity, giving his life in service of her capacity to attain it. Like any spouse, he is called to suffer the conversion of his spouse.  He is called to suffer in service to her; he is not called to cause suffering.

A vital part of the priest’s call to serve the spouse of Christ is to assist in re-establishing the interior life, within the laity, as the condition for strengthening the bonds between their secular character, and their summons to evangelize. Establishing this condition, will give the parishes what the Catechism of the Catholic Church §1708 describes as “life in the Spirit.”

Recent years in church ministry have seen efforts to accommodate the Gospel to the culture. This pastoral approach has failed. We know this because more and more laity are staying away from the Eucharist; 3 they no longer worship. We do not measure our fidelity to the Catholic faith by being “do-gooders,” and “running races for the cure,” or “helping out in soup kitchens.” Fidelity to Catholicism is expressed when the laity grasp the connection between what is given in the Eucharist, and what they give while embedded in culture. Have they received the sacred gift from the Eucharist, or have they simply chosen to be “ethical”? No one needs Christ to be simply ethical. Reason can reach truth, albeit with needed purification and virtue development. It is not sufficient to simply think ethically; he or she must possess a Catholic mind. A Catholic mind is one that thinks in prayer; it is a mind that gives birth to actions which flow from a deep participation in the gift of Christ’s own body and blood. A Catholic reasons by way of a liturgical mind, one imbued with the Paschal Mystery; it is a mind bearing its fruit in commitments to witnessing the Christ.

Objective Truth
Why is such a mind necessary to the lay life? In its daily expression, the life of the lay person asks Catholics to give witness to Christ by way of obedience to objective truth. Rejected today as impossible to know, truth still summons the Catholic to obedience, despite the reign of subjectivism and relativism that informs politics and cultural mores. In such a culture, it takes a mind formed by love itself, Christ, to have the courage to preach the Gospel of Life.

For various reasons, the council has not yet been effectively received as a call for the church to change the world. Much energy has been expended on changing the church … not enough energy has been given to changing ourselves, with the help of the church, so that we can change the world. … This change begins with Jesus Christ, and ends with Him. 4

One of the reasons why it has been so difficult to form laity, who, in turn, evangelize  culture, has been hinted at by John Paul II, who stated: “[W]e have been willing to sacrifice objective truth in order to save subjective freedom, understood particularly as freedom of choice by an autonomous self. This situation will eventually erode our culture from within….” 5

What kind of priestly formation is needed in the seminary to equip the faithful to meet evil with love, to not turn from the cross, whose mystery flows from the Eucharist? Now, this is the most dangerous of questions because it could lead to real suffering on the part of the laity: loss of jobs, alienation from friends, struggle with the legal system, perhaps even persecution and martyrdom, as some Christians are undergoing right now, around the world (e.g., in Turkey, India, Iraq, and Pakistan).

Witness Sustained by Contemplation
Two Cardinals recently expressed the situation this way: “Evangelizing culture relies on deep insight into the mysteries of our faith … evangelizing culture is, finally, a contemplative activity”; 6 and, again, “Worship enables one to penetrate divine truth with the clarity of a lover who has gotten to know his beloved, through his love of her.” 7  It will be a contemplative laity that draws the strength needed from the mystery of the cross to give witness to objective moral truth. How do seminaries, in the very formation of priests, help the laity embrace the suffering of the dismissal rite of the Mass? How do Catholics, formed by the Eucharist, move a culture of subjective licenses, or autonomies, to one which receives the power of objective truth? To form a contemplative laity, we need a contemplative diocesan clergy. A prayerful and wise priest is desirous of intimacy with the living Christ and does not simply possess knowledge about him.

An essential characteristic of missionary spirituality is intimate communion with Christ. … The universal call to holiness is closely linked to the universal call to mission. … The missionary must be a contemplative in action … the future of mission depends … on contemplation. The missionary is a witness to the experience of God. 8

What truths can be interpolated into the seminary horarium (“hours”) in order to facilitate forming priests who lead an evangelical laity to martyrdom?

…it would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life. Especially in the face of the many trials to which today’s world subjects faith, they would be not only mediocre Christians but “Christians at risk”. They would run the insidious risk of seeing their faith progressively undermined, and would perhaps end up succumbing to the allure of “substitutes”, accepting alternative religious proposals and even indulging in far-fetched superstitions. It is therefore essential that education in prayer should become in some way a key-point of all pastoral planning. 9

Making spirituality the center of priestly formation 10 is the only way to put out the fire of relativism, which is currently engulfing modern commitments to reason and moral behavior. The grace of contemplating the Mysteries is not something nice to do, if time affords such luxuries, but is the very oxygen of seminary formation, and the air laypeople need to witness to, and within, a culture of death.

To help mollify the “greatest failure of the post Vatican II Church,” I will close by inviting the reader to meditate upon the following themes expressed in John Paul II’s book: The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful (1989).  We have the truth already in our teachings. Now, we have to have the boldness to re-orient aspects of seminary formation so that these truths will constitute a real percentage of the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation of clergy.

Four Important Themes from John Paul II, The Lay Members of the Christ’s Faithful

  1. All Christians must offer the sacrifice of this world.  “The lay faithful are sharers in the priestly mission, for which Jesus offered himself on the cross, and continues to be offered in the celebration of the Eucharist, for the glory of God, and the salvation of humanity. Incorporated in Jesus Christ, the baptized are united to him, and to his sacrifice, in the offering they make of themselves and their daily activities (cf. Rom 12:1, 2). … Thus, as worshipers whose every deed is holy, the lay faithful consecrate the world itself to God” (§14).
  2. Communion in the Church leads to Mission in the World.  “Communion and mission are profoundly connected with each other. They interpenetrate and mutually imply each other, to the point that communion represents both the source and the fruit of mission: communion gives rise to mission, and mission is accomplished in communion. Pastors know … that it is their exalted office to be shepherds of the lay faithful, and also to recognize the latter’s services and charisms, that all, according to their proper roles, may cooperate in this common undertaking with one heart” (§32).
  3. Christians must work to consecrate culture.  “The good news of Christ continually renews the life and culture of fallen humanity; it combats and removes the error and evil which flow from the attraction of sin which are a perpetual threat. She never ceases to purify and to elevate the morality of peoples. … In this way, the Church carries out her mission, and in that very act, she stimulates, and makes her contribution, to human and civic culture. By her action, even in its liturgical forms, she leads people to interior freedom” (§44).
  4.  Christ must be the center and the goal of all we do.  “There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called “spiritual” life, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called “secular” life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social relationships, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture. The branch, engrafted to the vine that is Christ, bears its fruit in every sphere of existence and activity. In fact, every area of the lay-faithfuls’ lives, as different as they are, enters into the plan of God, who desires that these very areas be the “places in time” where the love of Christ is revealed, and realized, for both the glory of the Father, and service of others” (§59).

For Further Reading:
Abbot, Walter M., SJ.  The Documents of Vatican II.  New York:  Guild, 1966.

George, Cardinal Francis E.  The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture.  New York:  Crossroads, 2009.

John Paul II.  Christifideles Laici.  Washington:  United States Catholic Conference, 1989.

John Paul II.  Redemptoris Missio.  Washington:  United States Catholic Conference, 1990.

John Paul II.  Novo Millennio Ineunte.  Washington:  United States Catholic Conference, 2001.

  1. Lumen Gentium §28. “Christ, whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world, has through his apostles, made their successors, the bishops, partakers of His consecration and His mission.  They have legitimately handed on to different individuals in the Church various degrees of participation in this ministry.”
  2. Cardinal Francis E. George, The Difference God Makes, 180.
  3. Thirty-three percent of Catholics attend Mass once a week. The pastoral approach to Catholic life is, of course, necessary but not sufficient. We want to embrace “the dialogue of salvation (that) adapts itself to the needs of a concrete situation (and) does not bind itself to ineffectual theories and does not cling to hard and fast forms when these have lost their power to speak to men and move them.” Pope Paul VI. (From the online Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey/Portraits).
  4. Cardinal Francis E. George, The Difference God Makes, 130.
  5. Paraphrase of Cardinal Francis E. George, The Difference God Makes, 68.
  6. Cardinal Francis E. George, The Difference God Makes, 41.
  7. Adapted from an ecumenical address given by Cardinal Levada in Canada in March 2010.
  8. Redemptoris Missio §91.
  9. Novo Millennio Ineunte §34.
  10. Program for Priestly Formation, 5th edition 2006, par.115.
Deacon James Keating About Deacon James Keating

Deacon James Keating, PhD, is a professor of spiritual theology at Kenrick Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, MO.


  1. Superb! This is the most encouraging article I have read in a long time. The insights and perspective of Dcn Keating concerning the role of the laity and the necessary empowering and enabling role of the parish priests, are crucial to the call for a New Evangelization. I am very happy to hear of his work in priestly formation. How we need parish priests formed in such a vision!

  2. Mary Gannon Kaufmann Mary Gannon Kaufmann says:

    Powerful article!


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