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Forms of the Lay Apostolate

God took flesh, lived amongst us, and taught us so that we might be holy. He founded his Church to guide us for the same reason. God wants all men to be saints; his longing for our holiness infinitely exceeds anything that we can imagine. There is not one kind of Christianity for priests and religious and another for people living in the world. The Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church has made that very plain indeed. 

Immediately after the chapter on the laity and before that on religious is one entitled “The Universal Vocation to Holiness in the Church.” Here we are told that all Christians are called to the perfection of charity to love God with one’s whole heart, whole soul, and whole mind and to love all men as Christ has loved them. The Council says: “The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and every one of his disciples of every condition.” Again, “It is evident to everyone that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.” In our own age this summons to holiness is more urgent than ever before, if only because the men of our day seem to be drifting further and further from God. 

Rooted in the Love of God

Zeal for souls is derived from the love of God. All who are on fire with that love, who know something of intimate contact with God, of the immense reality of his love for men, must be on fire with zeal to win all men to that love. Love of our neighbour depends upon our love of God. When the latter takes possession of us, the former bursts forth from it as a necessary consequence. Those who love God little have little love for their fellowmen. If love of God is weak, zeal for souls is weak; and if zeal for souls is weak, it is a certain sign that love of God is weak. It is just impossible to love God sincerely without loving those who are his children, whom he loves so much, on whom he lavishes his infinite care, for whom he died: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). If we really understand God’s love for men we cannot be indifferent to their fate, we cannot remain by unconcerned if we see them apparently hurrying along the broad road to damnation or, by their ignorance, forfeiting all the treasures God gives through his Church. 

Again, if we really love God we will be anxious to offer him our collaboration in bringing about the salvation and sanctity of those he loves so much. It was this kind of thought that animated the saints in all they did to work for souls. Simply to help one soul they practised generosity to the point of heroism. The great Teresa wrote: “This is an inclination given me by our Lord; and I think he prizes one soul which, by his mercy and through our diligence and prayer, we have gained for him, more than all the other services we can render him.” Nothing exalts God’s goodness, love, and mercy more than work for the salvation of souls. For that reason to love God and his glory means to love souls; it means work and sacrifice for their salvation. 

Love Is the Heart of Apostleship

Love is the very heart of the apostolate. This was well understood by the Little Flower of Jesus. Burning with apostolic zeal and having passed in review every possible vocation she wrote: “My vocation is found at last-my vocation is love! In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love. Thus shall I be all things. The source of love like that is, of course, God himself, the Holy Spirit Who is the personal terminus, the eternal breath of the mutual love of the Father and the Son. He dwells in our hearts to fill us with supernatural love for God and, therefore, for souls. Paul wrote: “The charity of God is poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit Who is given to us” (Rom. 5:5). He gives the flame of divine love to men. He associates them in his own infinite love. He animates all apostolate and sustains it. 

As Pope Pius XII wrote: “It is he, who through his heavenly breath of life is the source from which proceeds every vital and efficaciously salutary action in the Mystical Body of Christ.” He is the soul of the Church. If we wish to be worthy apostles we must open our hearts wide to the outpourings of his love; it must invade us, penetrate us so that it absorbs our own love into itself. Our ideal must be to unite our own poor human love with the living flame of love which is the Holy Spirit. Think along these lines and you will see how inseparable zeal for souls is from the true love of God and how absence of zeal is one of the most disturbing signs in any Catholic community. 

Zeal Is Love in Action

According to Thomas Aquinas, love is like fire. It produces a flame, and the flame of love is zeal. The more intensely the fire burns the more intense and devouring is the flame of zeal. When a soul comes into intimate contact with God through love apostolic zeal results spontaneously. The closer the union with God the more one appreciates his infinite love for men and his desire to save them. So love of necessity becomes apostolic. Apostolate which does not spring from love is suspect. Apostolate which is only half animated by love will never be as fruitful as that which springs entirely from love. 

Teresa tells how God takes the soul of his lovers for his very own, seals them with his seal, infuses into them a most lively sorrow for the sins of men and gives them a burning desire to immolate themselves for their salvation. This is universally true. Even contemplative religious, who never leave their cloister, direct their lives of prayer and sacrifice towards the ideal of making reparation for the sins of men and saving souls. Contemplatives give vent to their zeal by redoubling their hidden immolation, but those who are active find the flame of love giving strength, support, and fruitfulness to their apostolic work.

The way to apostolic fecundity is the way of union with God. If we really contemplate as we should the sufferings of God made Man we will learn from them how much he values souls and how dearly he loves them. But what return is made for his love? Does it not seem that with every passing age more and more ungrateful men seem bent on escaping his influence? “The world is on fire,” said Teresa of Jesus; “Men try to condemn Christ once again, as it were, for they bring a thousand false witnesses against him They would raze his Church to the ground.” Again she said: “It breaks my heart to see so many souls travelling to perdition. I would the evil were not so great. . . . I felt that I would have laid down a thousand lives to save a single one of all the souls that were being lost.” 

Desires, of course, are not enough. They must be effective. We must work, act and suffer to save our fellowmen. It was John Chrysostom who said: “Nothing is colder than a Christian who does not care about the salvation of others.” Charity should be warm; apathy is cold. Apostolate is a duty but we should not think of it merely as that. We should think of it as a privilege, as something which flows by sheer necessity from our love of God. 

The Catholic Religion Is a Love Affair

I wonder if the reason why the apostolate is remarkable for its absence in so many places is that our Catholic people do not understand the inner meaning of their religion. They seem to put all the emphasis on the externals-going to Mass, Holy Communion, and confession, contributing to Church funds, taking part in some social life. But the great inner reality, the fact that the Catholic religion is primarily a love affair between the Creator and his creatures, is not appreciated. 

How many people in an average parish are seriously trying to live an ordered interior life? Surely if they were their love would shine out in the form of apostolic zeal. God’s grace and his love are of themselves expansive, apostolic. Love cannot embrace God without embracing all creatures in God. It is only counterfeit love which loves God but excludes God’s creatures. Love is stifled in its very essence if either love is repressed. 

Mature love means a love of God and a love of men which are fully efficient. The highest expression of brotherly love is apostleship, working for souls. If that is diminished then our love of God must inevitably be diminished also. A spiritual life that is indifferent to love of souls is dwarfed and maimed. It is a mean, petty, selfish form of piety which can never mature into true holiness. It is a piety without the vital warmth of true love. It hardly deserves the name of spiritual life. 

Here a practical thought suggests itself: Should there not be in our parishes far more interest in developing the spiritual life? Could not courses on spiritual theology and the writings of the masters of the spiritual life be studied under the priest’s direction? Of course, any apostolic organisation worthy of the name develops holiness side by side with and even through apostleship. 

Let us sum up what has been said so far. Apostolate, collaboration with the saving work of Christ, is the duty of all his members and the highest expression of brotherly love. Our Lord wants us to collaborate with him for the salvation of souls. He wants our lives to be a prolongation of his life just because we are his members. Our apostolate will be fruitful insofar as it springs from the love of God and union with him and is accompanied by prayer and sacrifice. God alone, of course, can make it fruitful. Its soul is the interior life. Zeal for souls is derived from the love of God and from union with him. It is a sharing in God’s love for men. On the one hand the interior life should be orientated towards the salvation of souls, and on the other the salvation of souls urges us to practise a deeper interior life. 

Apostleship Strengthens Faith

Now let us look at the second half of our theme. The practice of the apostolate is a means of growing in holiness. We shall consider the theological and some of the other virtues. First of all faith. Apostleship is built upon it, in deep faith in God and in the love he bears all his children.

The genuine apostle must believe that his desire to work for souls and any success that comes to him are both God’s gift. He consoles himself by his belief that the success of his work means far more to God than it does to him, that God desires infinitely more than he does the spiritual good he is seeking. He believes that God is with him in his work and that to God all things are possible. He has at his disposal nothing less than God’s all-powerfulness. 

The true spirit of faith shows itself in intensity of purpose, unrelaxed effort, unquenchable love, steady discipline, undaunted courage, and unflagging perseverance. The man of faith knows that the fight is always worthwhile and never gives in in spite of natural difficulties. He is always ready to seize any opportunity of doing good. He knows that faith will conquer the world. 

It is faith that makes one recognise God in all his creatures, faith that leads one to believe in God’s infinite love, faith that buoys one up in darkness and temptation, faith that sees us through trials and difficulties faith that enables one to see and judge things as God himself does, faith that is the foundation of spiritual obedience, faith that recognises God’s will or permission in every circumstance of life, faith which enlightens the whole of life, faith which purifies our understanding, faith which clings blindly to God through every circumstance and personal experience, faith which keeps one’s gaze fixed always upon eternity. 

Apostleship Increases Trust in God

The true Christian apostolate cannot be practised without growth in the virtue of trust. The apostle knows that he has at his disposal nothing less than the infinite power of God. He strives to cooperate with grace as steadfastly as God permits him. He knows that merely worldly methods are useless. The apostolate is not a commercial enterprise. The works of God must be governed by the rules of God and use the instruments of God. So divine trust increases the apostle’s energy, his labours and his sacrifices. 

When he is successful, he thanks God; when he fails, he merely increases his trust and regards his failure as postponed success. He regards the mark of the Cross as the sign of hope. He knows that Christ’s work will always bear Christ’s mark. It is never done under ideal circumstances nor as one would have chosen or imagined.

When he sees his work threatened by obstacles which, from the human point of view, seem destined to prevent success, he knows that, provided the obstacles are not due to his own neglect, they are the requisites for success, the fuel which feeds his efforts and helps them to win through.

God’s way is to bring about his greatest successes with inadequate instruments. That has always been the lesson of the history of the Church and the lives of the Saints. The apostle soon learns that it is only through hope in God that he is able to overcome his own timidity and human respect and to have a right attitude towards dangers and difficulties. 

Trust breeds enterprise. There is no room for timidity or human respect in the apostolate of a man who puts all his trust in God and the power of his grace. When difficulties and dangers lie ahead, supernatural trust begets courage. The obstacles are seen as challenges which much be met and overcome with the help of God. 

For the trusting apostle no work he can prudently undertake is too difficult. He is prepared to penetrate to the utmost depths in the search for the lost sheep, to establish personal contact with every member of the degraded classes, to reach each of the fallen away, to uplift all of the most wretched and dejected of the population. He trusts in God so thoroughly that he pursues his search for souls to the bitter end with far more zeal and earnestness than the men of the world search for rare and precious treasures. 

It is trust which makes the apostle keep on keeping on. If he is to be an apostle at all he must be buoyed up by this unfailing trust in God. He must convince himself that for even the most serious evils there is a remedy and only one remedy-the intense and patient application of the whole religious system of the Catholic Church. 

Love Grows by Exercise

As for charity, all we need say here is that the apostolate is an exercise of charity and charity grows by exercise. It is impossible to practise the love of God and of one’s neighbour without growing in that love. The yearning to be an efficient apostle urges a man to a deeper interior life It is a powerful lever for personal sanctification. 

While the interior life is the source, the force, and the flame of the apostolate, the apostolate helps to make the interior life more generous and more intense. A man who is fired with zeal to win souls for God finds himself impelled to devote himself with greater generosity to prayer, self-denial, and the practice of all the virtues. Again and again I have seen that. Simply by taking part in the apostolate men and women realise how very necessary holiness is. 

Not only that, they know that apostleship is the continuous practice of faith, hope, and charity, and they cannot practise those virtues without growing in them. So, while the interior life is the soul of the apostolate, the apostolate is a very powerful mainspring which urges the soul on to union with God, that is to perfection, to holiness. One who understands the apostolate does not plunge headlong into activity; he practises a deeper interior life, tries to give himself completely to holiness, realising that before he can make others love he must love himself. 

Apostleship Is the Way to Humility

The relationship of the apostolate to other important elements in the spiritual life should be obvious. For example, one who is filled with self cannot devote himself adequately to the cause of God. That is why humility is the root and instrument of apostolic action. One who takes part regularly in apostolic work soon realises that he must develop gentle, unassuming manners if his approach to others is to yield spiritual fruit. 

The apostle soon learns that humility is the virtue from which all others derive value. They depend on grace, and God does not give his grace to the proud. On the contrary, he resists the proud. Scripture tells us that three times over. When virtue is claimed to be the result of our own unaided efforts it ceases to be virtue. The hard school of apostleship is one of the best in which to learn humility by practice. It gradually drives home even into the heart that is naturally very proud that hard lesson that only one’s own worthlessness is one’s own. Everything else is God’s free gift. 

The less of one’s capacity for love is given to self the more of it can be given to God. That is why humility is so necessary for the union with God upon which supernatural efficacy in the apostleship depends. A proud man who tries to be successful in the apostolate is like a paralysed man who longs to walk. He simply has not the capacity. He must learn humility, and the best school is that of the master and apprentice in the way of apostleship. Conquest of self grows insofar as one is prepared to work with others in an approved, organised apostolic system. Through it the would-be apostle is made to learn that belief in his own absolute nothingness in God’s sight is the foundation upon which God will build. 

Zeal Brings Growth in all Virtues

So we could go on talking about every virtue-courage, heroism, prudence, perseverance, enterprise, sacrifice, joy, and obedience. Much could be written about each of them, but a little thought will soon make it obvious that sharing in an organised apostolate with others under adequate spiritual direction must necessarily bring with it a growth in all these virtues. 

The ideal organisation of the lay apostolate should also be a way of life. If it is not, it is hardly worthy of support. In my little book, Holiness through Mary, I have shown how the Legion of Mary develops all these virtues The same ought to be true of other apostolic organisations. Any apostle should be perfected by doing his work and purified through the difficulties, hardships, hindrances, and trials he meets with in the course of it.

Speaking to the world congress of Pax Romana on July 30, 1955, Pope Pius XII told apostles of the laity that they would find in apostolic work the spiritual support they needed to resist the spirit of autonomy and independence which is so typical of this age and the antidote to egoism and the answer to many difficulties. The wise guidance of the Church would open to them, he said, the inexhaustible wellsprings of grace. In an address a couple of years earlier, the same Pope said that the lay apostolate is an excellent means by which the faithful may intensify their own spiritual life and deepen their own religious convictions. 

Finally, every benefit of the apostolate of the laity, both to those to whom it is directed and to those who take part in it, will be immeasurably increased if all is done in union with the Blessed Mother of God whom Pope Paul VI has asked us to honour as Mother of the Church. 

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