Single and faithful ... a role for lay apostles?

Is it possible for a layman to be called to serve God in the single state, in the midst of the world?

The Church is divided into Laity, Deacons, Priests and Bishops. This is its hierarchical structure, ordained by Christ himself. (cf Lumen Gentium)

The evangelical counsels (or counsels of perfection) are an invitation made by Christ to clergy and laity alike. Hence this invitation comes directly from Christ, and we are all urged to accept it in some way or another.

Since the beginning of the Church, some people accepted the counsels of perfection in a more external way than others (not marrying, not owning property, submitting themselves to obedience. Forms of life sprang up, after the apostolic period, that promoted the public profession (often, especially later, under life-long vows).

There is no ontological difference between a professed religious and a layman. There is an ontological difference between an ordained man and a layman. Hence the nature of a vocation to the priesthood and a vocation to the religious life is completely different. Secular priests, for example, do not live the evangelical counsels in a special way (although they are usually celibate and obedient to a bishop), but they are certainly called to the priesthood. They also tend to respond to the invitation to the evangelical counsels in a generous way, according to circumstances and custom.

Marriage is also a state which is – it seems to me – profoundly ontological: the two people become one flesh, and this can never be undone, except by death. Although they are free to marry again if one partner dies, it is likely that marriage has some kind of effect on the soul, which is, after all, inextricably bound up with the flesh. This question has always been a mysterious one.

Vocations to the ordained ministry and to marriage depend on sacraments instituted by Christ himself. Also, marriage – in some sense - is part of the original blueprint of creation. Priesthood is an accident of history (even if a happy one) which would not have come to pass but for Adam’s sin, for without Adam’s sin, no great sacrifice was called for.

What about the religious life? How does it differ from the fruitful virginity of someone who simply responds to the evangelical counsels as best he can in the circumstances of his lay apostolate (one thinks of Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc, Edel Quinn, Frank Duff (Founder of the Legion of Mary), Bl. Frederic Ozanam (Founder of the Society of St Vincent de Paul), and many thousands of nurses, doctors and teachers over the centuries.) These people often choose the celibate state because it is bound up with the apostolate that they are devoted to. In the past, and well into the 20th century, for example, many university posts and teaching positions carried the obligation of celibacy.

Sometimes the choice of the celibate state is a dawning realisation which grows in intensity as an apostolic career progresses. It is also true that God can have a series of different states envisaged for a person’s life, as is the case with saints such as St Elizabeth of Hungary or Blessed Edmund Rice.

The only difference between the consecrated religious life and the fruitful virginity of someone who is not married, is that the Church has especially blessed the first of these two states. It would seem then that consecrated virginity, because more definitive and public, is a higher vocation. Both states however, respond to the same invitations of Christ and St Paul. Both are only meritorious in as much as they are fruitful, because the command ‘Go forth and mutliply’ was made to all men of every age.

This way of looking at the practice of the evangelical counsels, as something to which we are all called in some way, was common in the early church, the middle ages and the renaissance. All over Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries various layfolk, married or single, tramped around in habits, loosely associated with religious orders, carrying out their own lives in the world, but bearing witness to some extra degree of apostolic work or prayer. St Catherine of Siena was such a person. She never made any public vow of virginity, although she had made a private childhood promise to Jesus at the age of seven. She, like many single and married people of the day, moved by the example of the religious life, had become a tertiary of the Dominicans at age 16, but lived at home with her family. She later went on to care for the sick, and then – a most original apostolate for a woman - to enter into spiritual correspondence with many people from all walks of life. Her life in the world made her accessible to people in a way that religious life would have hindered.

Similarly the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller, celibate men, but not classed as religious, consecrated themselves to warfare, politics and trade, areas that would be scandalous for true religious. But they did this work for the sake of the liberty of the Church and the furtherance of Christendom.

It is only after Trent that a huge divide springs up between professional church people and the laity. St Alphonsus Liguori, a Doctor of the Church, and yet as much lawyer as theologian, may well have said that single lay people were neither one thing nor another; that was the legal tendency of the Church of his day. He also enjoined (in The Dignity and Duties of the Priest) all sorts of behaviour for priests which few of them would follow today. He lived in a clericalist age, and Christians reasoned in a clerical way. The eighteenth century was a time when the participation of the laity in the Church’s mission was at an all-time low.

After the French Revolution, the Church discovered that in order to respond to the ever-changing needs of the world, the way needed to be opened up to the laity to participate in the apostolate of the Church as they had done so freely in the middle ages and in the renaissance. New congregations sprang up with annually renewable vows (and they still exist); many heroic single lay people founded lasting lay movements. For example, Pauline Jaricot founded the Association for the Propagation of the Faith, and the Living Rosary, as well as working for the improvement of the conditions of working men. Her beatification is currently being sought.
This new era of spiritual fruitfulness of the laity has continued over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One thinks particularly of the Legion of Mary and of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, both founded by celibate laymen.

At Vatican II these currents, apparent in the early Church and at various times throughout the Church’s history, are particularly evident. Religious life is to be renewed in order to be a greater sign, and the full diversity of different apostolates and vocations in the Church is to be revivified. Teaching, especially, is confirmed as a vocation of great importance, to which non-consecrated laity are also called. Vatican II also addresses single people as an important consitutent part of the Church (see the final address of the Fathers to the women of the world, where single women are told that the world needs them because of their ability to come to the aid of families.)

So, in the twentieth century the evangelical conception of the ministry of the Church is restored, with a variety of callings, but the same Spirit to animate them all. (cf. Corinthians 12)

Thus, while the single state may be a transitional one, it is not necessarily so. In the context of a real vocation to a kind of diakonia in the Church or the world (such as teaching or nursing, for example) it can be where God wants someone to be for a whole lifetime.

This is because the Church needs such people in the midst of the world: “the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God.” It was this freedom, within the world, that enabled Pauline Jaricot, Joan of Arc and Catherine of Siena to immerse themselves in politics, for the good of all, as well as in a life of prayer.

It was this freedom, in our own age, that allowed Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, to minister to the prostitutes of Dublin, and to cut though the political red tape that stood in the way of helping them to improve their lot.

The choice, then, of this evangelical freedom, for the reasons which St Paul explained in his first letter to the Corinthians, is a radical option that is still valid today; one which remains open to single people seeking to do God’s will in the world. As such, it is a witness to perfect charity, inasmuch as it is ordered to the giving of self in the lay apostolate.

In the modern Church, as at different times in the past, various associations and secular institutes, approved by the Church, assist single lay people to persevere in their way of life. These organisations, such as the Third Orders, Opus Dei, and various other groups, are useful to such people and can make their apostolic efforts more fruitful.

Personally, I would recommend to single lay people who devote themselves to apostolic work, to adopt a kind of rule of life: it could be knighthood, membership of a third order, membership of the Legion of Mary, or similar. Or it could simply be a form of private consecration such as the Consecration to our Lady proposed by St Louis de Montfort.

The Fathers at Vatican II encouraged the laity to make the prayer of the Divine Office their own, so this could also form the basis of a rule of life for single lay apostles. In fact, there are many possibilities, all with the same aim: to ensure that the apostolic effort is ordered within the context of personal sanctification and ready to bear fruit in the light of the Holy Spirit.


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