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The Mission of the Laity


by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson

The renewal of the Church depends on charity and on our commitment to the common good, the family and growing in faith

Carl A. Anderson

ON OCT. 16, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s election to the See of Peter.

It is easy to forget the situation of the Church at the time of his election. Since the publication of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae a decade earlier, the Church had been embroiled in theological controversies. Many in the news media considered the Church out of touch, with a frail, elderly pope no longer able to respond adequately to the daily attacks upon Catholic beliefs.

Then, a young, dynamic pope was elected. In his first homily, John Paul II told Catholics, “Do not be afraid!” And to the rest of the world he announced, “Open wide the doors to Christ!”

And to show that he would personally open many of these doors, John Paul II traveled to Mexico, Poland and the United States in the first year of his papacy.

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s great apostolic exhortation on the vocation and mission of the laity, Christifideles Laici.

In its opening pages, we read, “A new state of affairs today both in the Church and in social, economic, political and cultural life, calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful…. It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle” (3).

Those words ring as true today as they did when written.

Christifideles Laici outlines four principles especially important for us.

First, “At this moment, the suffering individual is the way of the Church because that person is, first of all, the way of Christ Himself, who is the Good Samaritan who ‘does not pass by’” (163).

Second, the laity has “the specific duty” and “irreplaceable” role “to work towards the Christian animation of the temporal order” by means of the “spiritual and corporal works of mercy” (41). Related to this is the recognition that charity “is never able to be separated from justice,” and that the laity “are never to relinquish their participation in ‘public life’” or their responsibility to promote the common good (42).

Third, “The lay faithful’s duty to society primarily begins in marriage and in the family” (40), and the family as a domestic church “is a community in which the relationships are renewed by Christ” (52). As a domestic church, the family shares in the Church’s mission to build up the Kingdom of God through its everyday work that expresses the love between husband and wife and between members of the family.

Fourth, the lay faithful should grow and mature in the faith in order “to overcome in themselves the separation of the Gospel from life, to again take up in their daily activities in family, work and society, an integrated approach to life that is fully brought about by the inspiration and strength of the Gospel” (34).

Christifideles Laici is an extraordinarily rich document that has provided sure guidance for the Knights of Columbus for two decades.

St. John Paul II summarized the mission of the laity in these words: “Their responsibility, in particular, is to testify how the Christian faith constitutes the only fully valid response … to the problems and hopes that life poses to every person and society” (34).

The spiritual genius of Father Michael McGivney is that he established a way in which Catholic men could fulfill this responsibility by joining together to live the principles of charity, unity and fraternity. Now, with our new Faith in Action program model, the Knights of Columbus will demonstrate his genius in even more effective ways.

As we confront the challenges that Catholics face today, we can say of Father McGivney that he was a man ahead of his time, but more appropriately that he was a man just right for our time.

Vivat Jesus!