“To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body.” Rather than a contemporary summary of the Second Vatican Council’s idea of the renewal of the vocation of the laity, this was a reflection offered by a second or third century Christian teacher in a letter to a seeker named Diognetus.
The question of the role of the layperson in the world arises not from a particular point in time but rather from the meaning of baptism and how those baptized share in the priestly, prophetic and royal mission of Jesus in the missionary life of the church.
Pope Francis writes in “Evangelii Gaudium,” “Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: We no longer say that we are ‘disciples’ and ‘missionaries,’ but rather that we are always ‘missionary disciples'” (No. 120).
Missionary discipleship can take many forms. One form is the presence of associations of lay faithful at work in the world. Associations have grown out of groups of lay Catholics coming together out of a desire to address a specific spiritual or social need. Associations have taken different forms in different centuries but all share a common example of the impact for good that missionary discipleship can bring to the mission of the church.
At three times in the 20th century, in three cities in Italy, Catholic men and women came together to be agents of evangelization at home, on the job and in the world.
Following the devastating effects of World War II in Europe, a laywoman, Chiara Lubich, and a small group of friends decided to take up works of “spiritual and social renewal.” Their desire was to create unity within the community, to learn the “art of loving,” in Lubich’s words. The group’s name, Focolare, means hearth and seemed to define the familial spirit of these small communities.
Today, Focolare hosts communities in 182 countries. Some Focolare members take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and others are single and married. All members work in grassroots programs as diverse as creating small business opportunities in struggling economies to aiding the cause of peace in countries embroiled in war.
In 1954, also in northern Italy, a priest-educator, Luigi Giussani, desired to encourage laypeople to think of education in the faith as the work of a lifetime. He designed a formation experience to train people for life in faith, forming “schools of community.” Members began to experience the liberation that comes in the encounter with the Gospel and living out that encounter in communion.
Rooted in a weekly commitment to study, reflection and discussion, groups then seek to apply what has been learned to the deepest needs of the community in which they live. Response can take the form of charitable educational and artistic activities that foster the spread of the Gospel. Today, about 60,000 Communion and Liberation members live in 90 countries.
A third Italian movement, born out of the vision of the council for greater participation of the laity in the church’s mission is the Sant’Egidio Community. Founded by Andrea Riccardi, it began with a group of young adults gathering for prayer and moving out into the community to care for the poor and vulnerable in the streets of Rome.
Today, it embodies Pope Francis’ call to serve at the peripheries in more than 70 countries, numbering some 50,000 members. Members, both single and married, work in all types of industries and professions, and commit some time every week to come together for prayer and service.
These three associations and many more like them that have emerged following the council, raise the question of the place of parish and its ministry and the ministry of the associations.
Some pastors and pastoral leaders feel that associations take people away from parish life and deprive parishes of potential leaders. Others, interested in parish life, say that if parishes provided more by way of prayer, education and small group experiences, people would not look for “something more” outside of the parish.
The reality is that associations are an authentic expression of the baptismal vocation and an important part of the way the church fulfills her mission and ought to foster a commitment of their members to parish life.
Parishes indeed have something to learn from the commitment that is asked of members and how the formation provided bears fruit in intentional discipleship. One could say parishes and associations need one another.
Parishes ought to be the spiritual home of every Catholic, the primary place one gathers with the community for the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist and other celebrations throughout the church year. Members of lay associations can be a leaven for the spiritual life of the parish, sharing their knowledge, gifts and charism in and through parish ministries.
In a time in which many Catholics do not live out a vocational expression of their faith, beyond participation in the Sunday liturgy, the associations offer a guide for nurturing in lay women and men a commitment to live more intentional lives of missionary discipleship.
(Timoney is an associate professor of practice in pastoral studies at The Catholic University of America and has 30 years of parish and diocesan leadership experience.)