“As laity, we have an active duty to work for the Church, in the Church, in a specific way.”
For those of you who read these Friday posts frequently, you know that I often reflect on the upcoming Sunday Mass readings. Scripture is inexhaustible, and we can go back again and again to the same passages to pull out additional insights for prayer, study, and reflection.
When I tell people about my posts, I often joke that the posts are my homilies for the week or, “This is what I would preach this Sunday.” For people who know me, they know that I speak in jest, of course – I do not desire to preach at Mass, nor do I think it’s my place. That doesn’t mean I don’t have something to contribute to people’s thoughts about Scripture, nor does it mean I can’t speak about the Scripture readings of the week. But it is not my place to preach during Mass, at the time of the homily. That is the responsibility of the priest.
Have I had priests thank me for my reflections? Yes. In fact, I know that some priests have received ideas for their Sunday homilies after reading my posts or my Bible studies, and I’m honored by that. It’s not my job to preach for them, but I’m happy to be a sounding board for several priests who are open to running ideas past me before they give their homilies.
I’ve had people grumble that I would give better homilies than some priests. But that is like telling me I would be a better mom to a certain child.
I may possess a certain skill set or be blessed with certain talents. Perhaps I would make a wonderful mother because of my gifts. But to a certain child that is not my own? His mom, whether by birth or adoption, has the vocation to be his mother. That’s her calling, that’s her responsibility, that’s her privilege.
Maybe on the surface, I would be a better nurturer. Maybe it seems I would be a better disciplinarian or a better teacher. Possibly it seems I am more fit to be his mother.
But the fact remains – I’m not his mother. That’s not my vocation.
The metaphor isn’t perfect, of course. But just because I’m a good teacher and public speaker with insights into Scripture doesn’t mean I should be giving homilies at Mass.
When I was a student at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome, I attended classes with mostly priests, seminarians, and religious. I remember a priest from another country asking me if I was there so that one day I could become a priest. His question caught me off guard. Of course that wasn’t why I was there. When I told him no, he seemed to imply that I wasn’t desiring enough or that I was selling myself short.
I’ve thought about the exchange a few times over the years, and I realized that I wasn’t the one selling myself short. He was.
Whether he meant it or not, what he implied was that becoming a priest was the best thing I could desire. It was the best way I could hope to serve the Church. If I wanted to really be something in the Church, I should want to be a priest. This is what we call clericalism.
St. Catherine of Siena made an enormous impact in the Church. It wasn’t by preaching homilies, although we all know she would have preached stunning and stirring ones. She knew that God had called her to particular vocation and given her gifts to play a particular role in the Church. That role was that of a lay woman in the Church. She lived that vocation to the full, which is why she had the impact she did. (As a side note, St. Catherine of Siena was a member of the Third Order of St. Dominic. We might consider her as a precursor to the congregations of Sisters we have today that live active-contemplative lives, often living in community but not in a cloister.)
I am extremely honored and grateful to be a lay woman serving the Church. I am grateful to be working for a bishop who values the contribution of women and strives to put capable and talented women in places of influence. There is great responsibility in the gift I’ve been given here and elsewhere, to write and speak and have a platform to contribute to the intellectual and spiritual life of Catholics, both in Nashville and throughout the country.
I am not less in the Church because I am not a priest or because I cannot preach at Mass. For too long, we have defined laity by what we are not. If you read the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, you’ll see tension surrounding discussions on the laity. The Council Fathers struggled to speak of the laity on their own terms, without defining them by what they were not. It is not enough to define laity as those who are not priests. We must discover the richness of the lay vocation and our role in consecrating the temporal order. Through the laity, the entire temporal order is permeated by spiritual. We are active members of the Church, bringing the kingdom of heaven to the world.
All of us are called to do that in different ways. Rather than spending our time focusing on what we cannot do, it is time to pray, discern, and seek what we are called to do and how we can bring the kingdom of God into the world. Read Apostolicam Actuositatem. It is not a call to sit on the sidelines and let the priests do all the work, nor is it a call to do the priest’s work. As laity, we have an active duty to work for the Church, in the Church, in a specific way. For some, that might mean actually working for a diocese or a parish. For others, it means volunteering on the parish finance council. For others, it means evangelizing the workplace, working on legislation that upholds human dignity, or raising holy children.
As a woman, I have a unique perspective and a set of gifts to bring to the Church. Losing sight of this is detrimental to the Body of Christ. As Paul famously reminds us, the foot shouldn’t want to be a hand, nor the ear an eye. Not being a hand doesn’t render the foot any less a part of the body. It is time for us, as laity, to play an active role – not as priests, but as laity; not as “less than priests,” or second-class citizens, but members of the Church, seeking holiness and actively working for the kingdom of God.
“If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Cor 12:17)
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