Vatican II’s Lay Genius

By Guest Blogger Tom Neal

This post began with a hope to simply offer a few brief thoughts on an interview I heard, but as you see my meandering mind got the best of me. Like most of my posts it’s just raw thoughts, so pardon the length and ragged edges.

I was listening to a radio show featuring a convert to Catholicism whose radical conversion to Christ had led him from a life of moral corruption and spiritual aimlessness to a profound and lively faith in Christ. This sudden roundabout led him to quit his highly successful job in the business world and start a Catholic company that distributes religious goods.

It was inspiring. But there was a moment in the interview when I found myself really perturbed. After the man indicated to the interviewer that he felt Jesus was asking him to abandon his secular career and sell religious goods, the interviewer said, ‘That’s really great. How inspiring for our listeners to hear that you abandoned your secular career, like St. Matthew, to serve God in his Church. We need more of you.’

As opposed to the uninspiring choice of remaining in the secular career to serve God in his Church?

{NB though the word ‘secular’ has come to mean hostile approaches to religion, here I use the word to mean the ‘extra-ecclesial’ world– those dimensions of life not explicitly related to church institutional structures, liturgical worship, or other things related to the virtue of religion. In slang language, secular is that which is commonly identified as not churchy or religious. I understand religious and secular to be distinct but related, as opposed to seeing secular as absorbed into the religious, the religious absorbed into the secular, or, what is clearly the most popular contemporary view, that religious and secular are unrelated or even opposed.}

The Lay Call

Now, it may be that this businessman felt he was unable to maintain his integrity in the matrix of morally compromised business relationships he had established, and that Jesus was indeed calling him away into a religious-goods business. That’s not my judgment to make.

Though I don’t know what the interviewer really meant by his comment, here’s the underlying message that I find detestable: that, when it comes to serving God, secular careers constitute a sort of ‘settling for less.’ Such an approach implies that when the ‘worldly’ who come to Christ are faced with the option of godly religious or godless secular careers, and that those who leave their secular careers to work for the Church, engage in ministry, or to do overtly religious things, are valorized as truer beacons of light whose radical witness to real discipleship supersedes that of their still-secular counterparts.

I have struggled with this perception for years. Many good and faith filled people have said to me over the years, ‘I wish I could work for God like you.’ Sometimes I reply, ‘Not the last time I saw the signature on my paycheck.’  Other times I say, ‘You already do! See Genesis 1:28-30.’

But usually I try to appreciate their sentiment, and say, ‘It’s a privilege to work for the Church.’

Ordinary and Extra-

As a man long employed by the Church, I obviously am a firm believer in the intra-ecclesial career path as a genuine calling from God. In fact, for those laity who believe themselves called to serve in voluntary or employed ministries, the Bishops have spelled out a program and vision for their rightful place in the Church Institutional. But the fact remains, mine is not the ordinary or even preferred career path for the vast majority of lay men and women. It’s extra-ordinary, non-normative. The orthodox Catholic vision is that the essential character of the lay vocation is secular, meaning that the vocation of the laity is to primarily live and work in the temporal world, to be fully engaged citizens of the City of Man, engaging in the ordinary circumstances of secular affairs.

It’s a risky venture, no doubt, to bear the mind of Christ in the City of Man; in a post-Christian culture that increasingly perceives the patterns of Christ’s mind as signs of mental illness. But Christians have always been risk-takers, willing to chance being labeled a fool just as their Master was. The laity are on the Church’s front lines, engaging in God’s riskiest business as God’s foolish geniuses.

Facing the many, many hardships that accompany this call to be Christ in the heart of the world is is the warp and woof of lay sanctity. Personally, I have always been far more inspired by Christian men and women who live their faith outside the walls of the Church, fighting the good fight on the front lines, bringing the light of Christ to life’s darkest corners. For these lay saints, work, civic involvement, marriage and family life have served as their personal Colosseum.

But we must never forget that it was the Colosseum that offered Roman Christians in antiquity the very best pulpit and PR for Christ.

Staying Power

So, what we really need hold up in the Church are the lay witnesses who encounter Christ in a life-altering way and heroically choose to remain in their secular careers, embrace more fully their spousal and domestic duties, uphold more vigorously their civic responsibilities, feeling wholly at home in non-church environments among friends, co-workers and strangers of all persuasions and ways of life. In a word, the Church needs secular saints who see that the leaven of the Gospel needs to leave the secure space of the leaven-jar in order to be mixed deep into the center of the batch of unleavened dough.

We especially need young people who fall in love with Jesus and at once find their passion for future secular careers enkindled, making them into a new ‘creative minority’ in our society, capable of serving as fonts of a new culture: creating new economists, new artists, new politicians, new journalists, new educators, new students, new spouses and parents, new car mechanics, new salespeople, new social justice advocates, new janitors, new lawyers, new doctors, new technologists who each excel in their respective field and are thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Gospel in the midst of the world.

And the church must help these ‘lay genius’ become adept at doing the world in Christ, learning all languages, living in all states of life, and mastering all cultures in order to offer humanity the chance to think with them, over a beer or a cup of coffee, about ‘whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, or anything worthy of praise’ (cf. Phil 4:8). In other words, these geniuses will be capable of giving others who do not yet know Christ’s mind a chance to think with Him in us.

But the ‘lay genius’ will never be unleashed into the public square as long as we continue to think that ‘the converted’ are only ‘working for God’ if they work for the Church, do ministry, or believe that holiness = doing explicitly religious things. For the secular saint, church activities, ecclesial ministries or religious practices are servants — even if necessary servants — to their opus Dei, their ‘work of God’ which is, to say it again, to do the world in Christ by remaining at home in the world.


Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes says,

They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.

The laity must find this schism first healed in them before they can help heal it.

A young man I knew at Florida State University once mentioned to me that, after his conversion to Christ, he felt ‘guilty’ every time he did anything ‘secular.’ He said, ‘I feel like I have to be doing church things, or talking about God, to feel like I am close to God. And I feel like every time I do something outside of that religious world, listen to non-religious music, hang with non-religious friends, I’m somehow settling. Even if I’m not doing anything really wrong, I always feel compromised. I guess I feel that the two – religious and secular – are like oil and water. There’s God-stuff and there’s world-stuff, and never the two shall meet.’

But here’s the deal. The really radical lay saint finds him/herself in love with all that God made genuinely human, and sees that reading the newspaper, going to a movie, playing cards, tinkering with your car, going hunting, playing pool, learning to dance (my wife hopes for this one), enjoying sports, or sipping a glass of Chianti with a friend, listening to some good jazz music in the French Quarter, all the while talking about the world is, when done with the mind of Christ, truly engaging in a holy acts fitting to the genius of the lay vocation. It’s the way to sanctify the secular qua secular.

Lay saints end the schism that sin drives between God and the Garden he made for us to cultivate and enjoy as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and remind the world that the world itself, purified and transfigured through our lives, will remain constitutive of our happiness in the next world. Of these lay saints, Vatican II says,  ‘[God] summons others to dedicate themselves to the earthly service of men and to make ready the material of the celestial realm by this ministry of theirs’ (GS 38).


The words framing the Mass, Venite, ‘Come!’ and Ite, ‘Go!’ impart to the secular labors of the lay faithful outside the Mass a fundamental demand: As priests of the public square, go into the world to make of the world bread and wine susceptible to Christ.

Then at Mass, the priest of the sanctuary will bring your offering to the One who appeared to Mary Magdalene as a Risen Gardener, and he will bear up to the Father the fruits of the soil you have labored so hard to till.

That is the true harvest of Vatican II.

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