How to be an authentic lay Catholic in a professional setting in secular society

A lay Christian is simply a member of the faithful who is not a priest, religious brother, nun or has no other Holy Orders.  Since Vatican II, there has been a new focus on the Laity (Lay people).  Lay people are the ones who make the Church come alive in society. They are the ones who live the faith in their everyday working lives. They are the one who get into the social and political, and economic realities with the demands of the Christian doctrine and life.

Lay believers are in the front line of Church life; under the leadership of the Pope...and the Bishops in communion with him, they are the Church. (Pius XII discourse, Feb 20, 1946)

...every baptized person is called to be a blessing and to bless... (Catechism verse 1669)

Naturalness, Secularity and Personal Apostolate

I do not pray that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from evil. Even as you sent me into the world, so I send them into the world (John 17: 15-19)

If they are truly going to be salt, light and leaven, they must live out their secular vocation as Christians with naturalness. In an age of Faith, the Church has an impact on the culture through its ordained ministers. In a pluralistic society and secularized culture, however, it is all the more crucial for the laity to assume their role as leaven, salt and light in the heart of society, the forefront of the battle.

Confusing a religious vocation with a secular vocation

For many centuries the laity have been exposed to and encouraged to cultivate an adapted version of the religious [vocation] spirituality, as semi-religious they wear a cross or scapular outside their shirt; they say God bless instead of goodbye; they equate holiness with devotions and acts of piety and see the rest of their day as fillerthey see the world as a place of temptation and fail to love it passionately as something good coming from the hand of God, something that they have been called to sanctify and bring back to Christ.

The First Christians lived a secular spirituality

Here's a letter to Diognetus, late second century)

Christians are not different from any other men, either by their property or their way of speaking or their customs. They do not live in cities of their own, nor do they speak a strange language nor do they live in a way different from other men. Truly, this doctrine has not been invented by them thanks to the talent and speculation of curious men. Nor do they profess, as others do, a human doctrine. But rather, living in Greek or barbarian cities, as fate has decreed for each one, and adapting themselves in matters of dress, food and way of life to the customs and practices of each country, they give witness to an admirable kind of conduct.

The Early Christians sought to be salt and light, leaven in society.

The rise of monasticism in the forth century

Monasticism was inspired by God, certain men first fled alone to the desert and then established monasteries and cloisters. These religious were seen as the truly holy people. And so sanctity gradually became identified with the religious life.

Soon after, it was thought that the laity could only aspire to a second class or mediocre kind of sanctity

[but the lay person must be salt and light not because] he receives a mandate from his bishop, but in virtue of his baptismal vocation.

Overcoming clericalism and taking our place as lay Christians

Imagine a reunion of your extended family. Some cousins are divorced or on drugs. Others have stopped practicing. You, on the other hand, are practicing your Catholic Faith and try to take it seriously. Could anyone correctly maintain that you do not belong in that family reunion? Of course not. You have every right to be there, and to try to help your cousins, though always respecting their freedom. And you will not stop loving your family because of their problems. On the contrary, it is because you love them that you will try to help them.

Lay Christians are to take their place in the heart of civil society where they belong. Those around this person are peers, equals. In this milieu, the Christain will naturally have an operative concern to build up the earthly city from within and will also strive to make a contribution to human progress, which is a way of living charity and serving our fellow men

What does excessive clericalism look like in a lay person?

They may well belong to 10 confraternities, attend daily Mass and recite all 20 decades of the Rosary every day. They will know the latest episcopal appointment but not the latest ministerial appointment. Lacking this love for the world and this desire to contribute to human progress, they are often not competent in their work and have no interest in their job. In addition, they frequently fail to live many of the human virtues that are basic to both social intercourse and to professionalism in one’s work. These would include such virtues as order, cheerfulness, temperance, humility, affability, patience, loyalty, optimism, generosity, elegance, industriousness, good manners, etc.

This well meaning person may end up saying or wearing things that suggest they have come from another planet. They may place place a holy water font in their office or wear a visible cross or scapular or a T-shirt announcing 10 good reasons for being Catholic. They will say God Bless whenever they leave someone.

People who do these things are courageous and devout and truly believe that by doing so they are giving an effective witness to their Faith. However, we would contend that this kind of external witness in a university or professional milieu is not effective. It is once again an imitation of the religious spirituality, which is public. By doing this Christians marginalize themselves and they de facto withdraw themselves from that battle to evangelize the society and the culture from within, which is the specific role of the laity. With the best of intentions they abandon that secularity proper to their condition as lay persons.

Even though it takes courage to give public witness, the bottom line is that the lay person who does this is unwittingly escaping from the more difficult task of doing a far more effective though less spectacular apostolate. This person may succeed in engaging some people in dialogue about the Faith, but never as one more among his colleagues.

If a Christian enters a new environment and comes on strong from the beginning through the use of external signs (“here is where I stand, so watch out”) they will turn off many people whom they might otherwise have been able to help.

There is a deeply rooted prejudice in the secular world, that people who take their faith seriously do so as a sort of escape because they cannot succeed in the real world. A successful professional who also takes his faith seriously is seen as a rare exception. Christians have to overcome that prejudice, not by externals (since this will only reinforce the prejudice that men of faith are strange) but by living their faith with naturalness.

The Church has no offical position on the details of most temporal issues

The Church has no official position on temporal issues such as politics, economics, social questions, etc. Her social doctrine sets out broad principles; but it is up to each layman to find the best way of implementing those principles in the precise circumstances of each time and place. And different Catholics may legitimately propose different solutions to a given social or political problem, and all these solutions may well be in conformity with the principles enunciated by the Magisterium.

What is a more authentic expression of a lay vocation?

It is preferable that colleagues come to know the Christian over time and be impressed with their professional competence and the way he or she lives the virtues in daily life. As colleagues come to know him they will learn that he or she is a practicing Catholic who takes his faith seriously. People should encounter Christ in us and through us

How will the Christian who has an authentic lay mentality stand out?

This Christian will be the friendliest person, always cheerful, serene, optimistic and in a good mood. THis person will be the one who is most sensitive to the needs of others, with a great spirit of service, generous, patient and understanding with everyone. This person will be one who works hard and well, is temperate and sober in his conduct, one who lives a refined and exquisite chastity which is noticed. A Christian will be loyal to his employer, to his friends and to everyone, never speaking badly about anyone who is not present. This person is not vain and does not boast. THey will be known as a person of character, one who is principled, standing up for what he or she believes in without being belligerent, abrasive or aggressive, but without compromising. And it is precisely the good example that the Christian gives in living these virtues that will lead others to be attracted to the Faith.

A properly adjusted lay Christian fits right into their milieu, but does not partake in conduct he or she considers inappropriate. This is not secrecy; by acting in this way the Christian is not hiding anything. He is simply living out his Christian vocation with naturalness and a secular outlook.< p>

Part of the good example is that he or she is not superficial. They seek to raise the level of conversations without always turning them to a religious subject and always avoid preaching or lecturing to colleagues. If he or she prays about professional, political, economic and social issues and brings their doctrinal formation to bear on them they will be able to offer colleagues a more profound reflection on these issues. If colleagues see that the Christian has a well thought out approach to these questions and has resolved them in his own mind they will be more likely to confide in him. The Christian will avoid sectarianism and respect those who hold different opinions while continuing to defend his own, with great charity towards that [other] person.

The Christian never hides his Faith, but never uses the excuse of his Faith to avoid legitimate professional obligations. There are times when it will simply come out.

When the defense of truth is at stake, how can one desire neither to displease God nor to clash with one’s surroundings? These two things are opposed: it is either one or the other! The sacrifice has to be a holocaust where everything is burned up, even the thought: “what will they say?”, even what we call our reputation. (Saint Josemaria Escriva, Furrow, n. 34).

If the Christian is struggling for sanctity, trying to give good example, speaking with his colleagues or classmates, his conduct will be a moral slap in the face to some and they will react with hostility. In these situations, the Christian is called to overcome vanity and human respects and persevere in spite of opposition.

We neither practise fanaticism nor do we hide

He who truly strives to be a good Christian will inevitably meet with difficulties and clash with the paganized environment that is so prevalent today. The same thing happened to Our Lord, and the disciple is not greater than his master. We are in the world but we are not worldly. We are in the world, we live in the world, in order to sanctify it and guide it back to God. Thus we can never adopt the false naturalness of someone who hides his Christianity when the circumstances around him are not favourable; nor can we camouflage ourselves by adopting habits or customs contrary to our Christian vocation. We shun any kind of fanaticism (which can never arise when charity abounds) but neither do we feel inhibited by the clamour of those who behave as enemies of the Cross of Christ, which many still regard as foolishness or a scandal. Don’t be afraid of clashing with the paganized morality that so often surrounds you. Show clearly that you are Christian, by your lives, your spirit of service, your hard work, your understanding, your zeal for souls, your cheerfulness. (Alvaro del Portillo, Letter, February 1, 1991).

Based on an article by Anthony Schratz, February 15, 2003. Updated by Hugh, 2019.

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen