Everyone agrees: We need more priests. I, however, think that, more importantly, we need more lay people. For what is a layman, what is a lay woman? Not a born Christian who does not have the guts—or the gender—to become a priest, nor someone too spiritually challenged to enter a religious order. Being a lay person is indeed a vocation; a drastic choice, more fundamental even than that of priesthood, because it has to be made first, before specialization into the second. It is the choice to accept baptism. It is the choice freely to join the church, for better or for worse, for life. Infant baptism may hide this truth from many. But baptism is a gift. Like all gifts, it must be freely accepted to have its impact. Unless the receiver freely decides to use it and grow with it, it will go to waste. In fact, it will be resented.
Accepting baptism, becoming an adult member of this Church, may sound like a very bland choice. Yet it is the most life-altering decision a human being can make. Any one facing it lucidly knows what an anguishing if exhilarating step it is to take, especially for well-respected, successful people.
The Church is not a club of like-minded friends, or a coterie of the perfect; it is a nation used by Christ as his body in order to remain truly present at the heart of mankind.
'Do walls make a Christian?' Victorianus asked sarcastically, struggling against St. Ambrose's efforts to lead him to the baptismal font. The answer was a sharp and clear: 'Yes'. For choosing to be a Christian does indeed imply abandoning the free-wheeling independence of individualism in order to find one's identity in membership—literally becoming a member of the body of Christ. It means for good or for bad, being inextricably united to the whole, responsible for it's thriving, shamed by its failures. The closest analogue I can think of is marriage, real marriage, not sex between consenting adults nor partnership 'till love do us part'.
Becoming Catholic is not adopting some specific valid ideas. It is joining a concrete, living reality, a fiery and cumbersome one, with a very specific agenda. That reality has a bad name: 'The institutional church'; for it is not a club of like-minded friends, or a coterie of the perfect; it is a nation used by Christ as his body in order to remain truly present at the heart of mankind. As a nation, it is inextricably involved in real history. Joining it means accepting to participate with it in history, to take on its agenda.
One does not belong to this nation by ethnic origin, any more than one is married by birth. One has to freely enter into marriage contract, one must ask for nationalization; and before any one would ever make such a move, one must know that person or that nation at least well enough to be seduced by it. To choose to be a Christian, one must know the church well enough to dare commit one's entire life to it, to dare take on its agenda. I must say that I cannot imagine how young people, constantly exposed to the barrage of dis-information spread about this church by all the media, can ever experience the urge to do this.
'Lay formation' should begin by dissipating this caricature; it should begin with a real introduction to this Church, and to the commitment it demands. Young people do not need their head stuffed with pre-packaged theological answers to questions they are not asking. They do not need to become walking museums of Catholic culture. They need to be offered the glimpse of a possible vocation: the chance to become full time secular members of this living church, and to give it what each of them alone is capable of giving it: the unique flavor of their person. Joining this church is entering into its project, which is to help save the world, to change history. Some vocation! Make no mistake, vocations are rare, and there is no greater joy, when one is young, than encountering one and choosing it. There is no greater joy than knowing oneself to be needed, than seeing one's life as 'making sense'. When we succeed in presenting to young people the true implications of joining the Church, when they get dazzled by this prospect and accept it, when they start living it as fully as they can, they begin treasuring every word, every ritual, every image it has to offer, as necessary food for this living. And they in turn become providers of new food for others.
Young Catholics are overwhelmed when they discover that the 'boring' Church to which they were dragged by their parents on Sundays is exciting, beautiful, at the very heart of human culture, and always skating on thin ice.
Practically, what can 'introducing the Church to somebody' possibly mean? The problem is two-fold: tactical and strategic. Strategically, what does it mean to 'introduce the Church' to someone? What does a Christian need to know, to choose it in full lucidity? What does a lay person then need to learn, to become a fully effective participant in its vocation to the world at large? Tactically, who are these 'young people'; and how do we get to them?
There is obviously matter here for a book; I will only attempt here to speak briefly to the strategic dimension of this endeavor, attempting to draw from my narrow experience a few general insights potentially useful for others. St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto launched twenty years ago a 'Christianity and Culture Program' of correlated university courses which for many years operated with this intent in mind. We discovered in the process:
1. That young Catholics are overwhelmed when they discover that the 'boring' Church to which they were dragged by their parents on Sundays is exciting, beautiful, at the very heart of human culture, and always skating on thin ice.
2. That they have in general no awareness of the role of the Church in the world, nor of their own potential participation in this role, a participation which is almost the antithesis of para-clerical activities around liturgies.
3. That they have no idea how to access the Church's 'deposit of Faith' on their own, nor do they realize that this treasure is their birth-right, and that they have a responsibility to manage and share it.
4. That non-Catholic Christians are fascinated by the immensity of this treasure, and find both re-enforcement of their faith and a sense of great freedom, by just knowing it exists and is accessible.
5. That non-Christians tend to be puzzled, surprised and fascinated by this encounter, and usually respond with respect, or leave in the first classes. Even the most intense of arguments tend to end in true friendships, if the presentation remains as description of facts, symbols and ideas, rather than turning 'didactic'.
That time for digestion, reading, discussion among peers of issues raised, is vital. Courses for credit, because they demand development, reinforcement, personal input and a minimum of community, are obviously privileged modes of 'lay formation;' and university years seem to be a good time to reach people.
It is not easy to define what are the essential components of an 'introduction of the Church' to young people. But the first advice I would give is: 'Be concrete'. The church exists in the flesh, is 2000 years old, and therefore can be described. We can say in this regard what icon lovers successfully argued: Christ's image can be painted; so can the Church's; and as the new Catechism quotes St. Joan of Arc: 'Of Christ and the Church, what is the difference?' We are flesh, and Christ took on flesh to reach and save us. The church is the extension of that flesh so that His presence in the marketplace continues. It is in that 'flesh' that He has always been and still must be encountered first.
We need adult lay persons, who do not need to run back to a priest every time they are faced with a real life decision.
There are many places to encounter the church in the flesh. Ultimately, however, all these places are persons. The church is not stones or ideas, but persons united in communion with one Person to incarnate God's plan for this universe. Newman said it beautifully, describing his own conversion: It is because he heard the individual voices of the Fathers of the Church in their teaching that he converted. Introducing someone to the church is introducing that person to other persons. They can be found many places.
To begin with, the church is alive, here and now. The living church can be encountered actively present and radiant in the flesh, today. This bit of news needs to be broadcast.
Why not introduce young people to the new movements active around us; each of them is an effort to create new forms of community in which the church can incarnate itself and propagate the Kingdom all around. They are living proofs that the Good News is believable; that Christian communities can become for others 'a sacrament of unity', centers radiating peace. Meeting their members reminds one that the words 'Semper reformanda' still apply; that they call on all living Christians to exercise personal 'institutional' creativity in today's world.
Why not take them in pilgrimage to events which will bring them in contact with the immensity of the universal church: World Youth Days, for example. Joining those can revolutionize one's vision of Christianity.
Above all, there are individuals who radiate faith, peace, Christian hope and charity in the secular world, in every parish or university. Why not call upon them to discuss publicly their experience as active professional lay people; introduce students to them as mentors; join and encourage their projects; establish links between them so the wheel does not need to be reinvented every day. Etc.
Many of those who preceded us in eternity have left for us solid earthly tokens of their lives in Christ while in time. Intellectual tokens, of course. All Christian have a right to know Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Francois de Sales, Newman, Teilhard de Chardin, Von Balthasar, to name but a few. I am obviously choosing here a highly variegated collection of original thinkers, to make my point clear: All of them had to recreate Christ's message in their own words, for their time, and that is what makes them paradoxically still so able to move us today. They are models of intellectual responsibility, calling on us to do for our time what they did for theirs, and demonstrating in the process how numerous are the mansions in our Father's house.
We have the extraordinary grace of a living magisterium, continuously interpreting Church teaching in the light of contemporary developments.
Institutional tokens: What a mine of wisdom are the rules of the great orders; what wonderful places of re-creation are the communities which incarnate the visions of Benedict, Dominic, Francis, Ignatius, to name but a few.
Visual tokens, of course. Romanesque architecture was my re-introduction to Church; Gothic cathedrals were Claudel's and Peguy's; how many were lured back to the Eucharist by Baroque art? How many learned to pray through the peaceful presencing of icons? There is often no name behind these expressions of contemplative insight; but they are the gifts to mankind of real persons, whose delight in the beauty of Christ, whose desire for God's presence remain contagious across time and space.
All of these 'cultural deposits' are in fact the gift of God to the world through his people. They demonstrate for us what it can mean to think Christian, to organize a Christian society, to perceive, rejoice in, and praise the beauty of Christ.
The persons who have preceded us, our spiritual ancestors, have left behind their historical legacy: a history which will never be erased for it keeps shaping our world: the story of the Church, a story which new persons are called to extend by picking it up today. To introduce new members to the church means asking them to participate in this history. To decide for themselves if they wish to, they must have some idea of what it is. We need to help them explore it, learn from it, rejoice in its splendor, envy its excitement, repent its scandals, ponder where it goes next.
This calls, obviously, for honest research, and much soul searching. But it is foolish to flee the issue because of its difficulty and of the pain involved. Lay people choose to live Christ at the heart of the secular world, to help Christ enter history. To fulfill this vocation, they must have a sense what it can possibly mean for Christ to enter history. They must be brought to ask the question: Well, did He make any impact on the world in 2000 years? If it is true that this Church is privileged to the revelation of God's plan for the whole universe, as Paul repeatedly taught, what has it done with that revelation? Has it served to bring about the unity of all things in Christ? What has really been the Church's historical role?
Regrettably, the historical image of the Church in the public arena is terribly negative; it is also horribly superficial. Our youth is drowning in it. All they tend to know about the Church's history is that it tortured Galileo, aggressed helpless Muslim during the Crusades, destroyed the high culture of native Americans, burnt hundreds of thousands at the stake during the Inquisition, and to top it all, that Pius XII was Hitler's pope. Refusing to deal with all this means abandoning the high ground to the Church's worst enemies, and losing to the church the most educated, the most realistic and the most passionate potential members: For who would take on willingly such a tradition of totalitarian paternalistic obscurantism?
Moreover, whoever does not know history relives it. We have much to learn from the past, and so do future Catholics. We are supposed to believe that time is intended to make sense: our unique Revelation gift is to know that God does have a 'plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things on heaven and things on earth' (Ephesians 1:9-10). If this is true, we Christians have to rethink our relationship to real history, so that we can lucidly do our part in bringing this plan to fruition.
So much for introduction to the Church. The next requirement is giving to those who choose it the necessary tools to live out what they undertook. In a world as self-conscious as ours, it is difficult to live Christianity properly without adult intellectual formation in its tradition. We need adult lay persons, who do not need to run back to a priest every time they are faced with a real life decision.
To begin with, Christians need to be able to feed off the Word of God and off the Sacraments. This implies basic formation in reading the Bible for spiritual growth. It also implies fundamental education in sacramental symbolism.
Between fundamentalists rejecting even the most basic of interpretive methods and contemporary Biblical criticism, dead set on anatomizing the Word into meaningless bits of information to be manipulated at will, few Catholics today have the slightest idea how to approach Biblical texts. This is especially true of the Old Testament, but the New Testament is never fully understandable without reference to the Old; moreover, the problem of interpretation touches the New Testament as well: for example, which are true sayings of Christ? How does one understand miracles? Did Christ really resurrect? Etc. These questions are in the air. Lay people must learn how to face them honestly. All Christians thus need introductory training in Bible reading, the kind of training which will get them to love these texts and feed from them on their own.
Too much has been said about the era of the laity, about the priesthood of the laity. Not enough has been done to make it happen.
But all Christians also need introduction to Christian prayer and sacraments. Our contemporaries are symbolically challenged. They abstract, they allegorize, they pychologize, but they do not respond in depth to symbolism. However, they love the experience whenever they are introduced to it. Tragically, Catholics today are almost totally symbolically illiterate when it comes to their own tradition. 'Why did they not tell us this earlier?' is a question I heard again and again when teaching the Easter Vigil as 'art'. We possess treasures of prayer which remain practically inaccessible to most of the laity: Common prayer, first; not only the Mass and the Sacraments which require the presence of a priest, but the Hours, which are the lay prayer par excellence. And also private prayer; a poetic treasure amassed through the centuries, and equaled by none. It is time we let them get their hands on their rightful inheritance. How much more could already be done through sermons in this area!
Symbol, however, is not best transmitted didactically, but in action. Lay people must be taught to pray by real praying; introduced to liturgy by real liturgy, performed intensely, explained little by little through sermons. They must be encouraged to develop viable modes of prayer and reflection at home, as a family; Advent, Lent, are wonderful times for home para-liturgies, which children never forget. In this area, we have much to learn from the Jews!
Finally, lay people need to know what the church teaches, in order to bring this teaching to bear on the reality surrounding them. This teaching must be accessible without having to flit from one authority to the next, authorities continually contradicting each other. It must be teaching which they can digest for themselves, at their own speed; teaching which becomes their backbone. We now possess a wonderful new Catechism of the Catholic Church; the laity must be told about it, and shown how to use it.
Moreover, belonging to a living Church, we have also the extraordinary grace of a living magisterium, continuously interpreting this teaching in the light of contemporary developments. How many young Catholics know what are Encyclicals and Apostolic exhortations, much less read them when they come out and figure out how to use them in their daily lives? I hate to ask how many priests make it their responsibility to feed on that teaching themselves; much less how many endeavor to teach their congregation how best to read such texts, and how to concretize them in the work place.
Wonderful dream, you may say. What I am mapping out here, however, is not a fantasy, it is a necessity. Too much has been said about the era of the laity, about the priesthood of the laity. Not enough has been done to make it happen. No one can fulfill the laity's vocation, except the laity itself. It alone reaches daily into the secular world, in order to shape it. It is the front line of the Church, its interface with those whom Christ thirsts to reach.
The priesthood is the Eucharistic heart of the Church, but the laity is its skin. The role of the laity is to impact the world at large with Christ's teaching and presence. This will not happen until the laity recognizes this fact, and is fully aware of this vital responsibility: What the Eucharist is to the Church, the Church is meant to be for all human beings, bar none: a sacrament of unity, a contagious image of the kingdom to come. We do not exist on earth to enjoy clubbish ecclesial comforts, but to become what we are supposed to be, real, tangible centers of spreading joy and peace. Each of us is called to become a supple instrument in the hand of God actualizing in history His wonderful plan for the created universe. That is what needs be communicated by the lay formation process. Every parish should lean on its lay professionals both to advise and to participate in this vital activity, on which the future of the Church depends.