The Freedom, Trust, Responsibility and Practice that the Laity Need
by Dom Thepdore Wesseling, 0.S.B.
ON March II the Pope addressed Italy's Catholic Workers' Associations in a memorable discourse vrhich ended with these words: '' The time hes come to repudiate empty phrases and to attempt to organise the forces ot the people on a new basis; to raise them above the distinetion between employers and would-be workers, and to realise that higher unity which is a bond between all those who co-operate in produte tion, formed by their solidarity in the duty of working together for the common gOod and filling together the needs of the community."
It is nos the first time that the present Pope has put his finger on the sore spot. Empty phrases . . unity
... solidarity .. trganising thc forces of the people on a new basis. These are points worth a fow moments' reflection, especially if we share in the general worry thou( the shaky foundations upon which all too eager-planners think of erecting a lasting worldpeace.
Empty phrases. Do we suffer from empty phrases ? Are we as Catholics immune from the danger of empty phrases ? Where do they rise from ? Usually from a gap between reality and ideal, a gap so wide that only the hollow sound of empty words can bridge it. Life is essentially a growing-process and reality only lives if it grows, right from the bottom, into the structure of which the pattern is furnished by our ideals. It is this slow growing -from the low level of the soil to the roof of the building which is the one and only guarantee that reality and ideal are united in our efforts. Is this growing stage present ? And if so, is it encouraged and supported by unity and solidarity ?
Laymen and Laywomen
This is the weory of those simple mea and women who, in their worka-day lives, uy to find and lay the bricks, one by one, in a thousand different ways, but all animated by one high purpose, a Christian society where peace is firmly saddled on the perfect poise of justice and charity,
If this paper had as its only distinctive feature that famous letter-page where these men and women can freely give vent to their worries and their problems it would already deserve to be in every single Catholic home. Some people criticise this opening. others look down on the letter-writers ..as cranks or at any rate exceptions. 1, for one, am not interested 1st how representative each letter is. it is enough for me Zr, read a letier from layman or laywoman tu be immediately interested, for here we touch the true nerve of the whole social system.
Every considered statement by any layman or laywoman is worth its weight in gold: what the books tell us is but a small percentage of the truth, all thc rest must be learned from those who are " in it," What would the Church be without the " people of God "? What would a nation be without the men and women who are its cells ? And yet, how little ate those ordinary men and women listened to; they get plenty of directions, exhortations. controls, tickjogs-off from a hundred varied authorities (and not always in the most respectful way) whilst at the top of the ladder sit the planners like farmers discontented with the slowness or the
thinness or the unmanageableness of the crop.
There arc tett main lines tu which the Papal statements have pointed time and again. The first line is the recognition of the personal element in the laity. Men and women, young and old, are persons, beings with a free will, a spontaneous activity. responsibility, mind, heart and experknee. The way of referring to the laity as " the flock " goes back to the Gospel. 'But it sbould never be forgotten that the Good Shepherd knew all His sheep by name, by personal • expetience, and that He laid down His life for each of them.
They Are Persons
How can one expect a strong, mature ad heroic laity if these good people are pushed hither and thither or kept crowded in a small pen set off with the barbed wire of the dangermentality ? Yes, there arc dangers round every single cooler, but what have we been trained for 1 What do WC receive graces and go to the Sacraments for ? The telly way to secure mankind from all danger is to take away all tests. But if there is no free passing of the test, how do we know our worth ? flow can the laity show their mettle ?
If, on the one hand, autleoritiet (of Church or State) can do little more than exhorting, guiding and controlling, and the " real practical realisation of every single precept or plan is the labour of the ordinary man and woman, surely, these men and women must have the freedonl, the trust, the responsibility and the plain chance of working it all out Without leaving the laity u wide margin to feel and find their way towards the thousandfold and complicated way of working things into the real growth of a Christian or secular society, all those plans and exhortations become meaningless, mere political flag-waving or dangeo signalling.
No, definitely, the laity is not a mere blank envelope In he addressed and stamped without any say in the matter. Nothing, absolutely nothing. can be done about a new and glorious epoch for the Church or a reconstruction of socidty without the full collaboration of the lower ranks, no more than an army can move without the heroism of the low-down private. But euch a collaboration is impossible unless they, can put their heart into the -matter, with a sense of personal responsibility, and therefore with an elementary minimum of true personal freedom and individual initiative.
Yet, it is a powerful, mature laity the Pope has been clamouring for; a laity prepared for the struggle of life and prepared to live and to die, if necessary, in heroism. But heroism which is not born of,petsonal freedom but of blind following is fanaticism, something very different. And so, it would seem, there can be no sincere following-up of the Pope's directives unless the laity a-re given the necessary freedom for self-development and
Es4ntials of Catholicism Theesereond line which funs through all the Pope's statements is that we should pay more attention to the essentials of Catholicism. In this particular address to the Italian workers he simply says " the Gospel." lo other, addresses or documents' he said the " sacraments," " prayer " and the elementary teaching of the Mystical Body. The meaning of this directive is also simple and clear.
It Li quite obvious that if the laity retest bear, perhaps more than ever in the Church's history, the brunt of the
battle, ii they must be pcnverful tout heroic, they must he well grounded in the trite Catholic spirit.
It is not enough to have goodygoodies walking about or to have a small fund of Catechism-answers stored up somewhere in our " Memories from early Childhood.What must be fostered is a definite personal interest, art intelligent assistance at the Mass rather than knowing the chances of ktick in a snow-ball prayer or a chain novena.
I may shock some of my readers, but must definitely put it down as my own experience that there is a deep and disquieting lack of depth and coherence in the religious formation of our layfolk.
There is often a meat glack of that sense of proportion in rEligious practices which cannot hut frustrate the real flow of Christ's grace. Their knowledge is piecemeal, haphazard, whimsical. Is it• their fault, or is it the clergy's'? I prefer to leave the answer to that one to each one's judgment and experience.
All I wish to say is that we live in a time when essentials arc at stake; that peace threatens to bring us a spiritual and moral upheaval far more, chaotic than the material upheaval of the war.
And in itch a atom) you cannot expect to " come through " in weak and leaky little barges; you need strong ships.
It is because of this that I plead for a return to the essentials of our religious life. the Mass. first of all, togethei with prayer' that is not merely a formula but as it were a constant attitude of the soul facing God, not only in the church, but in the street, the factory, the bus, the office thc " socials." With this I would like td see our people return to the Bible. Let its once for all get rid of this stupid fear of the Bible or this strange standoffishness towards it as if it were a Protestant thing, simply becaitae Protestants claimed it. And, lastly, a constant but clean and straight devotion to Our Lady who has entrusted us
with Her Dowry. With these three essentials you can become a saint, without getting sophisticated or joining the Churchwalkers° Purity Brigade.
If we did understand the Pope's directives in this way, I do not doubt that we should reap the fruits of Christ's Death and Resurrection. We should beeoms really live Catholics and the result would be that Catholiciem would be a live force by which God will reshape the world, or. as at the end of Eastertide we shall hear in the Pentecostal Litargy: renew the face of the earth. But that will only conic about when the laity will have won the battle and march to Judgment's Day as Christ's own Old Contempt ibles.