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God and My Work / Part 1

A series on the role of laity in the Church
by Fr Luis Garza LC | Source: www.catholic.net


A Dutch friend, a director of a bank, sent me a book by David W. Miller entitled God at Work (Oxford, 2007). I read it almost immediately. It reminded me of a conversation that I had with my father, a businessman in Monterrey, Mexico, years ago when I was just starting my seminary studies. We talked about the lay Catholic's role in the Church. My father was not the type of man easily satisfied with cursory explanations, and I was not able to convey what the Church envisions for lay people.

   Finally, the conversation ground to a halt. He said, "But really, Luis, besides fundraising to help the parish and the diocese and cutting the grass at the rectory, what else can we as lay people do?" The only thing I could tell him was that all Christians are the Church, and that we cannot think that the life of the Church consists of priests and religious. The days of the passive Christian are over, I said.

   My father still had many questions and kept looking for answers. I remember that he and other businessmen met every month with the archbishop of Monterrey, first with Archbishop José de Jesús Tirado and then with Cardinal Adolfo Suárez, whom he esteemed highly. Their purpose was to give the archbishop an occasion to lay out his plans and concerns as shepherd of the local church and also for them to tell him about the difficulties that they, as committed Catholic businessmen, were encountering in living out their faith.

   Once my father organized something really unusual: a meeting of some Mexican bishops, businessmen, and union leaders to discuss social topics and the situation of workers. They published a joint declaration that expressed everyone's concerns and aspirations, and that proposed specific ways to pursue the common good. (I think that these sorts of meetings would be very useful today for facing many of the social problems we face today.)

   He was also a great friend of Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity at the time. They spoke frequently, and my father admired his profoundly spiritual outlook on life as well as his openness and simplicity. My father never stopped thinking about the layperson’s role in the Church up to the day of his death. I believe he never found an answer that satisfied him.

   This essay does not attempt to give an answer, even a partial one, to this great challenge that the Second Vatican Council bequeathed to the Church. Rather, it seeks to spark a conversation on a topic of crucial importance for the future of faith and evangelization.

   I use the word "crucial" for two reasons. In the first place, the trend of urbanization appears unstoppable. In Latin America, almost half of the population already lives in urban areas. In developed countries, an overwhelming majority do. In the second place, people spend an enormous amount of time at work. The Church must find a way to evangelize the world of work in cities, as this is where the vast majority of people spend most of their time. God cannot be absent from people´s lives.

   I think that we are facing one of the new areopagi that John Paul II talked about in chapter 18 of his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

Against the spirit of the world, the Church takes up anew each day a struggle that is none other than the struggle for the world's soul. If in fact, on the one hand, the Gospel and evangelization are present in this world, on the other, there is also present a powerful anti-evangelization which is well organized and has the means to vigorously oppose the Gospel and evangelization. The struggle for the soul of the contemporary world is at its height where the spirit of this world seems strongest. In this sense the encyclical Redemptoris Missio speaks of modern Areopagi. Today these Areopagi are the worlds of science, culture, and media; these are the worlds of writers and artists, the worlds where the intellectual elite are formed.

   Maybe I see it too negatively, but it seems to me that the Vatican II-era phrase "It is the hour of the lay people" - a call to action that was so attractive in the years immediately following the Council - did not have a lasting impact. It is enough to read the daily news to see that businessmen and those who steer the economy do not make their decisions with a view to eternity, nor do they ask themselves if what they do is in accord with their Christian faith. The situation is no different in the world of workers. Their ideals and aspirations are often focused merely on getting their salary. I do not want this to come across as an overly critical judgment, but as a statement of fact, something caused by circumstances which workers often cannot control.


   The Church has tried to reach out to the workplace, but our programs have been partial in scope and sometimes not directed well, with very limited and sometimes even negative results. Chaplaincies have been set up in some businesses, but there are still very few. We can also speak of the "worker priests" whose good intentions were rewarded by scanty results and serious difficulties suffered in their personal lives as priests. Often, their fellow workers even resented them for taking jobs away from other workers in times when work was scarce.

   Certainly, the fact that the Catholic Church has become aware of the need for commitment of the laity is already an important step forward. It is most certainly the result of a special enlightenment by the Holy Spirit. Evangelization would undoubtedly take a decisive step forward if the 1.3 billion Catholics in the world were all evangelizers and apostles. I think it is well worth the effort to awaken lay Catholics to their mission.

   My goal in what follows is to shed some light on the apparent contrast between the Lord's command to man, "Be fruitful and multiply. Subdue the earth" (Gen 1:28) and Christ's command: "Go out to all the world and make disciples of all nations" (Mk 16:15). There cannot be tension between these two requests made by God, so we must discover how to fulfill them both in harmony until human history shall reach its climax in our encounter with Christ the Redeemer, when all things shall be made new in Him.


As the Church has engaged the workplace, many historical difficulties have arisen. It is necessary to review the context in which they arose so as to bring our topic into better focus. In particular, it will become clear that we are facing a relatively recent phenomenon for the Church, at least in the way the Church measures the passage of time.

   There is still a lot of ground to cover, and I am hopeful that, as we move forward, we will see the Church tackle this problem effectively and offer the faithful in the world of work the tools they need for their human and Christian fulfillment and for an effective apostolate.


   The difficulties the Church has found in evangelizing the world of work are also caused by the inflexible laws of the economy. These are not easily reconciled with the message of the Gospel. The market, whether we like it or not, dictates many of today's decisions, since the survival and growth of businesses depends on following its rules. Workers often do not have many options, nor is it easy to offer employment to people who need further training and cannot offer immediate results.

   Being disciplined and keeping focused on goals and results may be necessary, but when taken to the extreme that alienates people, it can dehumanize relationships within the organization. This is one of the challenges faced by Catholics who run businesses. It demands a high level of creativity and attentiveness to the Holy Spirit, as a company subjected to unmerciful competition can fall into the temptation of becoming an organization without a soul. The Catholic businessman has the great responsibility of resisting the dehumanizing influence of the laws of the market and of fighting to uphold fundamental ethical principles. Thus, I think that any proposal about how to evangelize the world of business should be very realistic and should bear in mind that today it takes great skill just to survive.

a. Apostles only around the parish

I think that one of the difficulties that has prevented an adequate evangelization of the workplace is the common perception that the Catholic apostolate is something that should directly serve the parish. An example of this is the text of the document produced by the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Episcopate, held in Aparecida, Brazil, in May 2007. In speaking of the lay faithful, it says: "Their proper and specific mission is carried out in the world, in such a way that with their witness and activity, they contribute to the transformation of current social realities and create just structures according to the criteria of the Gospel" (210) and then shortly afterwards reads: "The lay people are also called to participate in the pastoral action of the Church, first by the witness of their life, and in the second place, with actions in the field of evangelization, liturgical life, and other forms of apostolate according to local needs, under the guidance of their pastors."

   In this document, the mission and activity of the lay faithful is carried out in the world, where their apostolic responsibility seems to be reduced to only giving witness and creating structures that are just. It seems as if the world of work were somehow fireproof to a deep evangelization, and the Christian was only carrying out his functions with an ethical sense and with justice. If he wants to carry out an apostolate, he has to leave the world and his work and act within the sphere of the parish to give catechesis and dedicate himself to liturgical life.

   I do not want to criticize the bishops' document, but there seems to be a reductive understanding of the apostolate that underlies these paragraphs: an implicitly "clericalized" concept of the apostolate. Before Vatican II, people talked about the "hierarchical apostolate" as something proper to pastors and delegated to the laity via a canonical mandate. There could be no apostolate in the world of work, because this is not a sphere of action of the clergy. Although the terminology is no longer in use, and it is understood that laypeople can and should do apostolic work without needing a mandate, some people still think that the clerical apostolate is the only real one.

   Going further, the difficulty in understanding the apostolate of the laity is based on the difficulty of understanding the distinction between institution and charism. This distinction has been used in discussion on the relationship between the movements and the parishes. John Paul II, speaking of the movements, told them that institution and charism are coessential in the Church:

The institutional and charismatic aspects are co-essential as it were to the Church's constitution. They contribute, although differently, to the life, renewal and sanctification of God's People. It is from this providential rediscovery of the Church's charismatic dimension that, before and after the Council, a remarkable pattern of growth has been established for ecclesial movements and new communities. (May 27, 1998)

   I understand this very enlightening comment from the Pope in the following way: That which is essential is an element that is proper to the object, as its most deeply constitutive part. If there are two coessential elements, this means that both are part of this constitutive nucleus. Thus, we cannot separate institution and charism in any Church reality. They are intrinsic to each other; that is to say, they live within each other. It is the Holy Spirit himself who gives life to the Church, giving it form always with these two aspects. To understand the apostolate of the laity in the world, we must first understand the profound unity between institution and charism.

   If we still have not perfectly grasped the concept of the apostolate of the laity and of the charismatic action of the Church, it is evident that we cannot completely evangelize the workplace. It's possible for the committed lay person to suffer a sort of schizophrenia when he believes that he is truly a Christian only when he does something in the direct service of his parish. It is not my intention to forbid the lay person from committing himself to his parish, of course, but we do require a more robust understanding of the role of the lay person in the Church.

   Without giving a theological definition, I can say that the parish is the realm (normally defined geographically) of the ordinary pastoral care of the Catholic faithful. This makes it a privileged place, without excluding other realities, for the faithful to receive formation and where they can gather their collective strength to undertake organized apostolic work. The parish is the point of reference for their liturgical life and the celebration of the sacraments as a community of believers. However, it does not seem appropriate to me to think that their apostolate can only be an apostolate if it is carried out in the parish or in activities that are mainly parish based.

   If a Catholic does not have an apostolate of his own in the workplace, he will live in two parallel universes: what he does from Monday to Saturday will be irremediably separated from his faith and from his Sunday Mass.

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