A few years ago, when The Benedict Option was becoming popular in certain Christian circles—primarily through the writings of Rod Dreher who is influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre—I was initially intrigued and drawn to this approach. The culture was, and continues to be, in a downward spiral. Anti-Christian sentiments and policies continue apace throughout the Western world, while many of our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world suffer violent persecution and even martyrdom. As Western Civilization continues to abandon its Christian roots in favor of nihilism, hedonism, consumerism, materialism, utilitarianism, and relativism, many Christians are wondering what our response should be to the situation.
Retreating from the world to build primarily Christian communities is attractive. I myself would like to find friends within the Church who desire greater prayer in small communities, whether it be through a weekly or monthly gathering to pray the Rosary or Vespers. I want holier friendships with my brothers and sisters in Christ that are grounded in the communion we share within the Mystical Body. I want to live a fully Catholic life, so it makes sense that people want to build up communities around monasteries and churches in order to weather the storms of this age.
The problem is that, for Catholics, the laity’s mission differs—while also sharing similarities—with consecrated religious such as Benedictines. We are not called to retreat from the world. We are called to go out to meet the world and bring it to Christ.
But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.
Consecrated religious such as those found in the Benedictine Order are called by God to live the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience within their set Order for their own sanctification and the sanctification of the world through their prayer and work. Monasteries have played a central role in Church history and world history in preserving much of Western Civilization through dark periods, but that is a part of their mission from God. The laity on the other hand is called to transform the world through leading holy lives and proclaiming the Good News in our secular vocation. It is our example as disciples of Christ that is meant to invite others into the joy and hope we have been given through the Paschal Mystery and the Church.
The lay apostolate, however, is a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself. Moreover, by the sacraments, especially holy Eucharist, that charity toward God and man which is the soul of the apostolate is communicated and nourished. Now the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth. Thus every layman, in virtue of the very gifts bestowed upon him, is at the same time a witness and a living instrument of the mission of the Church itself “according to the measure of Christ’s bestowal”.
Lumen Gentium 33
If the laity retreats from the world and seeks a monastic life that is primarily meant for consecrated religious, then we will fail in enacting the mission ordained to us by God through the Church. Our life in Christ is not meant to be solely interior and insulated. As we grow in holiness and our interior lives strengthen through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we move outwards in charity towards our neighbor. We are not meant to create Catholic communities that seek to keep the world out, rather, we are meant to invite the world in so that salvation may be offered to all.
Who is going to evangelize the culture if we do not? While priests and consecrated religious also have the ability and duty to evangelize, their duties differ from our own by virtue of their sacred office or their vows. It is not primarily these two groups who are going to help bring people to Christ in offices, clubs, sports teams, volunteer organizations, political life, economic life, etc. It is those of us who live primarily secular lives because we spend the majority of our time living and working within the culture. We interact with non-believers or fallen away Catholics frequently throughout our daily lives.
Through our baptism and the common priesthood we enter into, we participate in the Divine Offices of Christ as priest, prophet, and king. One of the ways that we are able to lead people to Christ is by our participation in the prophetic office of Christ. The laity also teaches in His name to all we encounter, not only through our words, but through the holiness of our lives which is evident by the joy and hope we have been given that surpasses all understanding.
Christ, the great Prophet, who proclaimed the Kingdom of His Father both by the testimony of His life and the power of His words, continually fulfills His prophetic office until the complete manifestation of glory. He does this not only through the hierarchy who teach in His name and with His authority, but also through the laity whom He made His witnesses and to whom He gave understanding of the faith (sensu fidei) and an attractiveness in speech so that the power of the Gospel might shine forth in their daily social and family life. They conduct themselves as children of the promise, and thus strong in faith and in hope they make the most of the present, and with patience await the glory that is to come. Let them not, then, hide this hope in the depths of their hearts, but even in the program of their secular life let them express it by a continual conversion and by wrestling “against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness.
We are called to persevere in hope even as fierce storms rage in this life. If we retreat and abandon the culture then a great many souls may be lost. We are called to boldly proclaim the Good News to the world. We cannot hide the gift of faith that we have been given, and it is a great gift. We often forget that it has been given to us. We didn’t earn that gift. We must share Christ with our neighbor, even if persecution comes. How can we not want to share the gift of salvation to all we meet? Through the love of God we have been given, there should be a great desire within us to share in the eucharistic banquet with every person put in our path. If we love God, then how can we not seek out the lost, as He has done? How can run from sharing the gift of salvation with the culture? The answers is, we cannot. We must stand firm and fight. The laity is called to help bring the world into communion with the Most Holy Trinity through the Church. That’s our mission.
In light of Lumen Gentium, as well as documents such as Gaudium et Spes and Christifideles Laici, there’s no way the laity can walk away from it’s mission. The Benedict Option contradicts what the Church has called us to do and what Christ is asking of us, which is to be salt and light to a Fallen world. Should we create closer knit Catholic communities of prayer, study, service, and the centrality of the Sacraments? Absolutely. We need to start to truly live as brothers and sisters in Christ. But, from those close knit communities we must move out towards the culture and evangelize. The laity is uniquely equipped for this mission, and in doing so, by God’s grace, a great many souls will be won for Christ.