WHO WE ARE
Witnesses for Christ: Evangelizing the modern world, by using natural science and apologetics to draw all souls to Jesus through Mary in the Family of God.
"It is the hour of the laity" an archbishop told the plenary assembly of the Teresian Association in Spain a few years ago, and, according to Archbishop Julian Barrio of Compostela, it is already proverbial to say: "The new evangelization will be realized by the laity or it will not be realized." Our Lord Jesus Christ has called all baptized Catholics to be His witnesses. Today, Witnesses for Christ offers them an effective way to evangelize the modern world by using natural science and apologetics to draw souls to Jesus through Mary in the Family of God. Far from being a departure from the tradition of the Catholic Church, the mobilization of the laity for the work of evangelization represents a return to the original spirit and practice of the apostolic age.
History of Lay Evangelization
The Acts of the Apostles contains the definitive model for successful evangelization. A close examination of St. Luke’s history of the early Church reveals that lay people played a prominent part in evangelization during the apostolic period. In Acts chapter eight, St. Luke tells us that after the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the disciples left Jerusalem and proclaimed the Gospel wherever they went. Since he notes that the Apostles remained in Jerusalem, this evangelization was carried out for the most part by the laity. When Philip—whether he is the deacon Philip or a lay man St. Luke does not say—evangelizes the people of Samaria, he calls upon the Apostles Peter and John to confirm the newly baptized, thus showing his esteem for the distinctive powers of the Apostles. But for their part, the Apostles seem quite content to let their lay disciples proclaim the Gospel wherever they go.
After St. Paul meets Our Lord on the road to Damascus and is struck blind, it is a layman by the name of Ananias who baptizes and counsels him. Indeed, on many other occasions, lay people are shown exercising leadership in evangelization. In Acts 18:24-28, Apollos is introduced as an effective preacher who has somehow missed the significance of the Holy Spirit. According to St. Luke, it is two lay people, the husband and wife Priscilla and Aquila, who take Apollos aside and enrich his understanding. Afterwards, they give him letters vouching for his orthodoxy and his gifts as a preacher so that he will be welcomed by the other churches in the area. In all of these incidents the vital role of the laity in evangelization clearly emerges, although always in harmonious subordination to the direction of the hierarchy.
As the Church grew, the role of the laity became more circumscribed, until by the late Middle Ages, the laity had been largely excluded from evangelization, which was reserved for the most part to priests and religious. The twentieth century witnessed a radical restoration of the laity to their original place at the forefront of the Church’s evangelization. The "universal call to holiness" was one of the major themes of the Second Vatican Council II. In Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) (November 11, 1964), the Council Fathers proclaimed that all of the baptized—the lay faithful as much as priests and religious—are called to the highest holiness. “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of charity" (Lumen Gentium, Section 40).
Lay Evangelization and the Call to Holiness
Blessed Pope John Paul II continually repeated this call to holiness for the laity. In his 1988 Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici (Vocation and Mission of Lay Faithful), he wrote:
We come to a full sense of the dignity of the lay faithful if we consider the prime and fundamental vocation that the Father assigns to each of them in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit: the vocation to holiness, that is, the perfection of charity. Holiness is the greatest testimony of the dignity conferred on a disciple of Christ (Christifideles Laici, Section 16).
According to Vatican Council II, lay people can even contribute to the growth of the Church’s understanding of the Deposit of Faith through their “contemplation and study” and from “the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience.” However, the Council did not separate the laity’s pursuit of the highest holiness from their mission and duty to evangelize. In Lumen Gentium the Council Fathers emphasized that lay people are also called to “the proclamation of Christ by word” as well as the “testimony of life.”
Christ . . . fulfills this prophetic office not only by the hierarchy . . . but also by the laity. He accordingly both establishes them as witnesses and provides them with the sense of faith [sensus fidei] and the grace of the word (emphasis added).
In his address to the Latin American Bishops at Port au-Prince, Haiti in March 1983, the Servant of God Pope John Paul II affirmed that:
Not only the lack of priests but also and above all the self-understanding of the church in Latin America, in light of the Second Vatican Council and Puebla, speaks forcefully of the place of the laity in the church and in society . . . the bishops together with their churches [ought to be] engaged in forming and increasing the number of laity who are ready to collaborate effectively in the work of evangelization.
Pope John Paul II stressed that the call to holiness cannot be separated from the call to mission. In Redemptoris Missio he wrote:
Holiness must be called a fundamental presupposition and an irreplaceable condition of everyone in fulfilling the mission of salvation in the Church. The universal call to holiness is closely linked to the universal call to mission. Every member of the faithful is called to holiness and to mission . . . the future of mission depends to a great extent on contemplation. Unless the missionary is a contemplative he cannot proclaim Christ in a credible way. (emphasis added)
The Role of the Laity in the Revised Code of Canon Law
Blessed Pope John Paul II’s determination to highlight the essential role of the laity was also reflected in the Revised Code of Canon Law in 1983. In the old code of 1917, the only right accorded to the laity was the right to receive (from the clergy) the spiritual goods and aids necessary for their salvation (Canon 682). In stark contrast, the new code devoted 27 canons to the rights and privileges of the laity. In his Apostolic Constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Leges to accompany the publication of the revised code of canon law, Pope John Paul II explained this new emphasis on the role of the laity in the Church:
Among the elements which characterize the true and genuine image of the Church we should emphasize especially the following: the doctrine in which the Church is characterized as the People of God (cf. dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium, chapter 2) and hierarchical authority as service (cf. ibid., chapter 3); the doctrine in which the Church is seen as a communion and which therefore determines the relations which are to exist between the particular churches and the universal Church, and collegiality and the primacy; likewise the doctrine according to which all the members of the People of God, in the way suited to each of them, participate in the threefold priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ, to which doctrine is also linked that which concerns the duties and rights of the faithful and particularly of the laity; and finally, the Church’s commitment to ecumenism.
Several canons in the revised code highlighted the importance of the laity in the life of the Mystical Body of Christ. Canons 208, 211, 215, and 216 particularly emphasized the dignity of the laity and their freedom to express their Catholic Faith on their own initiative through associations established and governed by them.
Can. 208 – In virtue of their rebirth in Christ there exists among all the Christian faithful a true equality with regard to dignity and the activity whereby all cooperate in the building up of the Body of Christ in accord with each one’s own condition and function.
Can. 211 – All the Christian faithful have the duty and right to work so that the divine message of salvation more and more reaches all people in every age and in every land.
The English commentary on the code observes that “the right and duty of the Christian faithful to proclaim the gospel arises fundamentally from the sacrament of baptism, not from a mandate of ecclesiastical authority.”
Lay Movements and the Heights of Holiness
In his appreciation for lay organizations, especially those oriented toward fostering a growth in holiness, Blessed Pope John Paul II echoed the prophetic words of the great French foundress and mystic, the Servant of God Marthe Robin (1902-1981). In 1936, she had foretold that the Foyers of Charity, a lay movement, would be “the expression of the Heart of Jesus to the nations after the defeat of materialism and satanic errors.” Moreover, according to Marthe, the Foyers would only be part of a much larger movement of lay holiness. She prophesied “a New Pentecost of Love” through which “the Church would be renewed by an apostolate of the laity.” The lives and writings of twentieth century lay mystics like Marthe Robin and Venerable Conchita de Armida eventually led Father Philipon, disciple of the famous Pere Garigou Lagrange, to conclude that “we are incontestably in a new era of spirituality . . . a calling of all, even the laity, even of married people, to the greatest holiness” (emphasis added).
Pope John Paul II’s personal vision of a “new springtime” in the Church was inseparable from his vision of a full development of lay holiness, both in individual souls and in lay associations and movements. Indeed, he attributed his own commitment to the pursuit of sanctity as a young man to the influence of a Polish layman, a tailor named Jan Tyranowski. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Tyranowski’s parish priest put him in charge of the “Living Rosary,” an association of spiritual prayer groups that met in private homes rather than in parish facilities. Tyranowski placed the future Pope John Paul II in charge of one of the prayer groups whose members strove to encourage each other in a life of mystical union with God. The formation he received as a member of the “Living Rosary” disposed the future Pope John Paul II to make the Total Consecration to Jesus through Mary according to the formula of St. Louis de Montfort—an act which he considered a decisive turning point in his spiritual life.
It is interesting to note that when the future Pope John Paul II made the Total Consecration, the spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort was widely considered to be extreme—something for a small number of chosen souls, but not for the mass of ordinary Catholics. It was a twentieth century Irish layman, the Servant of God Frank Duff, who first promoted the Total Consecration among millions of ordinary lay faithful through the Legion of Mary, proving that this radical abandonment to Jesus through Mary could be successfully practiced by ordinary lay people, of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life. With the support of the hierarchy in China, the Legion spread rapidly in the 1930’s where it was considered quite normal for Legionaries to make the Total Consecration when they reached the age of 16. This intense spiritual formation played a major part in preparing thousands of Chinese Legionaries to face torture, imprisonment, and death with heroic fortitude after the Communist revolution of 1949.
Frank Duff himself saw in the personal holiness of the Legionaries all over the world a partial fulfillment of St. Louis de Montfort’s prophecy that “toward the end of the world, Almighty God and his Holy Mother will raise up great saints who will surpass in holiness most other saints as much as the cedars of Lebanon tower above little shrubs.” This helps to explain why Duff inserted prophetic words from St. Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary verbatim into the prayers of the tessera, the prayers prayed by all Legionaries at every Legion meeting throughout the world. These prayers include the inspiring words: “Confer O Lord on us who serve beneath the standard of Mary, that fullness of faith in you and trust in her to which it is given to conquer the world.”
Prior to the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, lay apostolates popularized, promoted, and practiced the Total Consecration on a massive scale. Besides the Legion of Mary—which is the largest evangelistic lay apostolate in the history of the Catholic Church—other lay apostolates that incorporated the Total Consecration into their way of life include the Foyers of Charity, founded by the Servant of God Marthe Robin, and the Apostolate for Family Consecration, founded by Americans Jerry and Gwen Coniker in 1975. Remarkably, when the Conikers founded the Apostolate for Family Consecration and made Total Consecration an integral part of the spiritual formation of its lay members, one of their chief advisors, a world-renowned spiritual theologian, criticized them for it and told them that the De Montfort consecration was “extreme” and “out of the mainstream of the Church.” Only a few years later, Pope John Paul II published his encyclical on Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, in which he recommended the True Devotion and Total Consecration to the entire membership of the Church, priests, religious, and lay faithful alike!
Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis and Lay Evangelization
To the surprise of many observers, Pope Benedict XVI shared Blessed Pope John Paul II’s enthusiasm for lay movements which live and proclaim a new and deeper identification with Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict even expressed his conviction that the future of society is determined by “creative minorities,” and according to Archbishop Rylko of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, he identifies the lay movements as just such a phenomenon. With the election of a new Pope and his selection of the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, new attention has been drawn to the importance of lay evangelization. In the thirteenth century, the Church in Europe faced a serious crisis, characterized by widespread corruption among the clergy and indifference among the faithful. In the midst of that crisis, a young Italian layman, Francesco Bernardone, received the blessing of Pope Innocent III to follow his inspiration to embrace a perfect imitation of Christ through radical poverty. Through the life and witness of this young layman (later ordained a deacon), a movement was begun which largely renewed the Church in Europe and energized the missionary outreach of the Church for many centuries.
With their profound knowledge of this—and other, similar crises—in Church history, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis know that there is no opposition between the "hierarchical" Church and lay initiatives. It would seem that in the estimation of both of these Popes, the future of the Church depends to a great extent on the initiative and perseverance of the laity—and on the support that they receive from the Pope and the bishops in union with him.
Only One Tragedy: Not to Become a Saint
In the words of the French writer, Leon Bloy, “There is only one tragedy in life—not to become a saint.” All human beings have been created for union with God; and the Church exists to help all souls to achieve this purpose. All baptized Catholics have the right and the duty to proclaim the Good News of the Catholic Faith, and no one can grow in holiness without participating in the Church’s mission of evangelization. In short, all Catholics are called to be witnesses for Christ, some as public witnesses within a wide sphere, others as witnesses in the smaller circle of their families, neighbors and acquaintances; all by offering themselves as a living sacrifice to God in their thoughts, words, and actions.
May all who read these words respond to God’s call, and become “witnesses for Christ” to the ends of the earth!
Witnesses for Christ
Feast of Epiphany, 2014