What’s a Lay Apostolate?

I was trying to explain the idea of lay apostolate to an intelligent Catholic laywoman. Oh sure, she said, she knew exactly what I meant. Lay apostolate was lay people participating in parish-based activities of various kinds — serving on the parish council, teaching an RCIA class, things like that.

What could I say? These obviously are admirable, excellent things to do. How helpful would it have been for me to point out that, good as they are, they definitely aren't lay apostolate?

Getting Catholic lay people to understand their role as laity in the mission of the Church isn't easy work. I don't claim to be any smarter than anybody else, but at least I've been thinking and writing about this particular subject for a long time. Sometimes I wonder if I'm getting through.

A key part of lay apostolate is that it happens in a secular environment, not in church. Vatican Council II's Constitution on the Church spoke of it as a “special vocation” — making faith “present and fruitful” in those places where that can only be done by the laity. What places might those be? The home, the neighborhood, and the workplace come to mind. If Christianity is to be lived out there, it's up to lay people to do it.

Lay apostolate comes in two broad varieties — individual and group. A group apostolate might involve something like running a pregnancy counseling program or operating a values-oriented private school.

Important as that is, Vatican Council II stressed that individual apostolate almost by definition comes first. That's because the right and duty to engage in individual apostolate arise directly from baptism — nobody's off the hook. Individual apostolate consists in living one's ordinary, everyday life — as a spouse, a parent, a worker, a student, a friend — in the light of one's Christian faith, while giving specific, verbal testimony to that faith when circumstances permit.

It's hardly news that some Catholics fail to do these things. The convert, author, and social critic Orestes Brownson, the most intellectually distinguished American Catholic layman of his day, wrote as follows back in 1870: “We shall find even Catholics who…gravely tell us that their religion has nothing to do with their politics; that is, their politics are independent of their religion; that is, again politics are independent of God, and there is no God in the political order; as if a man could be an atheist in the state, and a devout Catholic in the church.”

Does that sound familiar? It's the creed of today's pro-choice Catholic politicians — and the very antithesis of lay apostolate.

The confusions I'm talking about here have many sources. One of them is the one-sided emphasis on lay ministry at the expense of lay apostolate for the last 30-odd years.

Lay ministry happens in a church setting. Lectoring or being a eucharistic minister. Teaching Sunday morning catechism. Performing other helpful chores around the parish. And it is very, very good.

But lay ministry isn't lay apostolate. Apostolate happens out there in the big, wide, secular world. At the risk of some oversimplification, you could put it like this: lay ministry is something that some Catholic lay people do on Sunday morning; lay apostolate is what all Catholic lay people should be doing every day of the week.

These matters are covered, briefly but clearly, in my book Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press, 2005). Not enough people talk about them these days. Would someone else care to give it a try?

Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at [email protected].

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Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, DC. He is the author of more than twenty books and previously served as secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference.

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