By Cathy Hayden
Catholics these days are fortunate in that we have many resources available to us to strengthen our faith. My favorite resource is Give Us This Day Daily Prayer for Today’s Catholics published by Liturgical Press.
One of the features I always enjoy reading is the daily “Blessed Among Us” column written by Robert Ellsberg featuring a saint, church father, martyr or even politician, activist or civic leader whose life offers inspiration. If you read these over time, you can see it’s an eclectic group of people, many Catholic but also some of other faiths.
Their lives are inspiring, but one frustrating thing for me is that their accomplishments are often so lofty they seem out of reach for me. Many of them do big and great things in leading people to Jesus, often being martyred for their actions. Some of their lives and accomplishments are so long ago, and often foreign in their significance, that I can’t relate. Where are the praiseworthy people whose lives more closely mirror mine?
That’s why the presentation of Dr. Tom Neal, academic dean and professor of spiritual theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, made me sit up and take notice. He was a speaker in the very last breakout session of a pithy three-day Go! Gulf Coast Faith Formation Conference for catechists on Jan. 11-13.
Neal’s talk was called “Saints for the World: Discovering Anew the Secular Mission of the Laity.” Among his points were that “the call to holiness is lived out in the secular world” and “the laity is not the second shift.”
Church employees, he said, are not the primary workers in God’s vineyard. Instead, “the role of the church is to support the laity.”
“Be a secular genius,” he said. Change the culture where you are. In other words, bloom where you are planted.
Neal wrote about the talk the next day in his regular blog called “Neal Obstate Theological Opining”:
In Catholic Culture, deeply influenced by the hostility of atheistic secularism to theistic secularism, we tend to think of “secular” as a pejorative, i.e. as hopelessly tainted, of less importance than the “spiritual,” as intrinsically alienating from God, or maybe at best as just neutral “stuff” we have to endure or use as we make our way toward the eternity of heaven, which is obviously not secular. So devout Catholics tend to say things like, “I don’t get involved in secular things like I used to,” or “I used to be totally secular but now I am much more spiritual.” So when Vatican II says that “what is peculiar to the laity is their secular genius” and that their path to holiness is found in “secular professions,” it all seems so, well, wrong.
If we re-claim the Catholic sense of secular, we realize that such negative statements are misguided …
I think this is an exciting reminder for those of us whose livelihood and daily lives exist in the secular world. Oh, sure, we know this in some ways already, right? But Neal’s talk reminded me that my work in being the leaven in the secular world is needed and is important. It’s not just an afterthought. I can’t leave the work of Jesus to my pastor on Sundays. After all, I’m the one in the trenches during the typical workday in an environment where not everyone follows, or even knows, Jesus. It is up to me to show them who he is with my love.
Perhaps that is why this part of the conclusion to “Everyone’s Way of the Cross” has always appealed to me so strongly. I always savor this with extra conviction:
So seek me not in far-off places.
I am close at hand.
Your workbench, office, kitchen,
These are altars
Where you offer love.
And I am with you there.
Especially as we head into the Lenten season, that is my call to action. And yours too!
(Cathy Hayden, a member of the RCIA team at St. Jude in Pearl, received a Master of Theological Studies degree from Spring Hill College in May 2017. She is director of Public Relations at Hinds Community College.)