Recent decades have seen a beautiful explosion of Catholic apostolates dedicated to evangelization and discipleship. I happen to work for one of those. I can very personally attest to the sometimes overwhelmingly fast growth that we have experienced. We have grown from advising four ministries in 2012 to almost 120 today. All of this growth of other apostolates and ours is happening despite scandals and polarization in and around the Church in the United States. I firmly believe that this is the work of the Holy Spirit inspiring men and women in the Church to new expressions of leadership and missionary discipleship, relevant to today’s culture, to stop the bleeding out of our parishes.
My concern, however, is that in our zeal to quickly stem the tide, parishes and dioceses are missing a key component to accomplishing this great commission: an integral understanding of the relationship between holiness and apostolate. For example, many parishes have a Director of Evangelization, who is in charge of various entry-point ministries and events, and a Director of Discipleship, who is in charge of catechetical programming. While this is definitely moving in the right direction, and in some cases could be an effective approach, I would suggest that it is perhaps perpetuating a subtle, but serious problem: a deficient understanding of the relationship between holiness and apostolate, oftentimes understood as discipleship and evangelization. In order to deal with this problem, we will need to understand each component, their relationship to each other, and be able to identify some errors that flow from a deficient understanding of their relationship.
What is holiness? Holiness may be simply understood as “the fullness of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 40). Christian life is the Life of Christ communicated to us. The sacraments, initially Baptism, and most profoundly the Eucharist, divinize us, mystically configuring us to the Second Person of the Trinity, making us “sharers in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). Becoming sharers in the divine nature, we mysteriously become “sons in the Son,” Christ Himself: “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Pope St. John Paul II identified our divine filiation as "the deepest mystery of the Christian vocation" and "the culminating point of the mystery of our Christian life . . . we share in salvation, which is not only the deliverance from evil, but is first of all the fullness of good: of the supreme good of the sonship of God." Thus, holiness is living the very life of Christ.
What is apostolate, or evangelization? Again, no shortage of books can be found on this topic. But for simplicity’s sake, we may define this as "every activity of the Mystical Body that aims to spread the Kingdom of Christ over all the earth" (CCC 863). Indeed, it is a broad and rich term that has many dimensions: organized and spontaneous, group and individual, words and witness. Most concisely, to evangelize means “to proclaim Jesus Christ by one’s words and actions, that is, to make oneself an instrument of his presence and action in the world.” It is living a life mystically identified with Christ. Moreover, since the Church is composed of individuals who are knit together as the Mystical Body of Christ, it is the individual apostolate which is the “origin and condition” for all forms of evangelization (Apostolicam Actuositatem 16).
From these definitions, the relationship between holiness and evangelization becomes clear: Holiness and apostolate “form one and the same thing;” they are only conceptuallydistinct. Put another way, “There is no way to separate interior life from apostolate.”
The basis for the relationship between holiness and apostolate is precisely our divine filiation. Our divine filiation illumines the relationship between holiness and apostolate because it is based on the unity of Jesus Christ’s identify and mission as Word: I am called only to become perfectly one with him (cf. CCC 521). Therefore, if his identity and mission converge as one, so do mine.
A few illustrations can shed light on this. Let us first look at the Trinity, since the Trinity is the central reality of our faith, which both has an identity and a mission. We can conceptually distinguish between the “theological Trinity” ad intra and the “economic Trinity” ad extra(cf. CCC 236). However, they, are (or rather, it is) the same reality, only conceptually distinguished so that we can somehow understand and speak about the Trinity. Another example, drawing upon our divine filiation, is that we can conceptually distinguish between Jesus’s identity as Son of God and His role as Redeemer; however, he is One. “It is not possible to separate in Christ his being God-Man from His role as Redeemer,” writes St Josemaria Escriva in Christ is Passing. Identity and mission converge in him; likewise it does in us, as stated earlier. With this understanding, we can rightly understand both holiness and evangelization as our “grace and vocation” and “deepest identity;” and that we “exist in order to evangelize” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 14). Finally, we can conceptually distinguish between fire and its heat. But those concepts converge into the same reality: fire is heat.
However, though holiness and evangelization are really one and the same reality, we do need to maintain the ontological priority of holiness. I think most pastoral workers intuitively get the priority, but rather than understanding it as ontological (related to being), they understand it and operate as if it were chronological, in the same way that there is a chronological lag between when one begins to pour liquid into a glass and the glass overflowing. Though there is a temporal dimension to this relationship because we are temporal beings, the priority is not chronological. Rather, it is ontological. In other words, holiness will radiate “to the extent that it exists.” Going back to our above analogies, with the Trinity, while maintaining the oneness of the Trinity, we do distinguish and maintain an ontological priority of the theological Trinity: first (ontologically), the Trinity is; then, the Trinity reveals and communicates itself.
With this understanding, we could analogously speak of evangelization as the “economy of holiness” and “manifestation of holiness.” Likewise, with Christ, he is the Word, who exists from all eternity, and is the divine communication of God. Thus, we can understand apostolate as the “communication of holiness.” And though we identify fire and heat, we can also distinguish them and maintain the ontological priority of the fire over the heat which radiates from it and affects its surroundings: there is no chronological lag between a fire existing and it giving off heat. As stated above, heat radiates from a fire to the extent that the fire exists—the heat it radiates is instantaneous with fire from which it proceeds. Thus, we can refer to holiness as the “radiation of holiness.” All of these words less inadequately communicate the relationship between holiness and apostolate than “overflow,” which could imply that the priority is chronological.
Common Errors and Suggested Solutions
The above considerations have several pastoral implications. What happens if the above considerations are not understood or applied by parishes trying to prioritize evangelization in their ministry? I will briefly introduce four errors that flow from either failing to prioritize holiness properly or separating holiness from evangelization.
1. Forgetting the Priority of Holiness
If we forget about the priority of holiness, we tend to flip means and end: We subordinate holiness to evangelization. The goal becomes, “get people trained so that they can evangelize”; “Get people praying so that they can evangelize.” In this way, we introduce a subtle utilitarianism. And, even though, it is subtle, parishioners will sense it – they feel it even if they cannot name it. They sense that the parish is asking them to be a cog in a machine. They experience the parish looking past them to the people “who need to be evangelized.” And the pastoral workers experience a dissonance as well. Though they may know, intellectually, that holiness is more important, they strategize and act in a way that ultimately prioritizes evangelization as a program or initiative over individual persons. For example, they will invite parishioners to get involved in activities “in order to” reach other people, but never make time to shepherd and care for the volunteers. Or, they will be concerned with growing numbers as the indicator of success, and keep pushing strategies that will result in continued growth of those numbers; and not pay attention to those who are already engaged, because it may take too much time and slow the growth down. Thus, they will prioritize acting over being, resulting in unfruitfulness, frustration, empty activity, interior resistance, and parishioners who drift because they feel managed or used.
It is only when the focus is on holiness as the end, maintaining the ontological priority of holiness, that holiness legitimately become a means to further holiness—both for oneself and for others (apostolate). What this means is that if the pastoral worker has a parishioner’s growth in holiness as their ultimate aim, then God himself will use that person (treated as an end) as a means to more love, because holiness begets holiness. In other words, maintaining the priority of holiness safeguards the personalism that undergirds holiness and evangelization: “Man is the way for the Church” and, as Irenaeus famously said, “The glory of God is man fully alive” (Redemptor Hominis 14). The true goal is to help an individual to be fully alive, and thus God will be glorified, magnified, manifested. His glory will spread, will radiate in all directions. In other words, we must focus on fueling the fire. Only then will the heat increase. We must focus on forming Christ himself in an individual; and the more he is formed the more perfectly his mission will be accomplished in and through that person. When this priority is maintained parishioners immediately sense that they are being treated as an end. They will not feel utilized, looked past, as a volunteer. They will feel valued, cared for, and served. This, in turn, will increase their zeal and initiative. They will then be open to apostolic encouragement, and even direction for their holiness will radiate as zeal, which will render them open to such encouragement and direction in their apostolate.
2. Treating the Priority of Holiness Over Evangelization as Chronological
If the priority of holiness over evangelization is treated as chronological, rather than ontological, we will likely become paralyzed over formation and training length, and become tempted to over-formalize and complicate the process. We will also tend to subordinate people to the curriculum. Further, we will want to wait until people are “ready” before we send them or “allow them” to do anything mission-oriented. And how long should the curriculum be? What should it all include before we can “let them” evangelize? And should we include certification? And should we make everyone, regardless of their level of formation, go through the curriculum? What then? Should we commission them—have some sort of blessing or sending ceremony? Should they be vetted by the priest? Thus, in this instance we introduce over-professionalization, or even a clericalization of evangelization. We confuse the ordinary baptismal vocation of the laity to apostolate with certifications, special callings, and/or formal employment.
Now, we are temporal beings, so there is a temporal dimension to the relationship between holiness and evangelization. However, keeping in mind the reality that the priority of holiness over apostolate is ontological (not chronological), the best thing to do is simply to begin encouraging people who have had an experience of conversion to live the apostolate more intentionally right away, knowing that fruitfulness will likely increase over time. The reason is twofold. First, because as the holiness increases over time, the radiation over time will become more fruitful. Secondly, because even though holiness is ontologically prior, there is a reciprocal relationship between the two. This is because there is a degree to which each person is his own efficient cause: by acting a certain way, I become a certain way. This is the foundation for virtue. In other words, holiness and apostolate are the condition sine qua non, for the other. If I become more selfless, forgetting about myself, thinking more about others, praying for them, serving them, stretching myself for others, am I becoming more holy or apostolic? Both. Doing these things, I become more virtuous and holy. This in turn continues to fuel my apostolic zeal because my charity is increasing. Each becomes the condition for the other’s growth. By encouraging apostolic holiness—holiness that is inherently apostolic—we can actually correct or even prevent an over-professionalization and clericalization of evangelization. It returns to what it has always been: the ordinary living of Christian life that radiates forth; rather than some specialized, advanced activity that only those who are ready or properly qualified can or should be doing.
The formation method for this can take on countless contours. Let us suggest just four. First, frequently talk about apostolate in spiritual guidance. Bring it up to your own spiritual director in your own spiritual direction; and when you meet with people to provide guidance, frequently ask them questions such as: Who has been on your mind lately?; How have you been praying for X?; How have things been going with X?; What is your plan for X? Second, provide all formation (individual and group) in an apostolic tone or with apostolic dimensions. For example, when teaching about the Eucharist, in addition to the explanations of what it is, explain a) how it is relevant to one’s personal holiness, b) how it is relevant to evangelization, and c) provide a few concrete tips for people to put what they learned into practice. Or, when teaching about a particular virtue, show people a) how this virtue is relevant for personal holiness with examples of what it looks like, b) how it is apostolic; and c) provide a few concrete tips for growing in it. Third, frequently and explicitly remind people that apostolate and holiness are one and the same thing, and that they are the condition for the other. Everyone needs to know that frequently people stall in their intimacy with God because they are not stretching themselves (or being stretched by their spiritual directors) apostolically. If people want to grow in their intimacy with God, they must seek to grow apostolically, and they need to be challenged in this way from their guides and directors.
Finally, beware of language. Avoid language that implies that a certain level of training is needed, or that somehow people become more qualified to evangelize if they attend trainings. Avoid speaking about apostolate in terms of “parish life” or “getting involved” or “connected to” the parish, as if some sort of association with parish structure or parish ministries is needed in order for someone to be considered qualified to do it, or to be a better Catholic.
3. and 4. Distinguishing too Sharply Between Holiness and Evangelization (Separating Them)
One thing that happens when we distinguish too sharply is that we tend to overemphasize vision, strategy, and skills-training for evangelization. We will develop a mindset that all we have to do is train the disciples, and it will happen. Simply provide workshops on kerygma, small group facilitation, spiritual accompaniment, apologetics, etc. Or, hold conferences for pastoral councils and evangelization committees on parish life, evangelization planning, leadership development, visioning and strategizing, etc. This approach can introduce a mechanization of evangelization, which is closely related to over-professionalization and clericalization.
If the focus is only (or even primarily) on training, or on ministries or organized activities with an overly “churchy” feel, evangelization and the trainings associated with it will soon become irrelevant: People will stop going to trainings for a variety of reasons. For one, activities with an overly churchy feel, workshops that focus on “parish life,” and organized evangelization activities will seem irrelevant, because they often try to create a positive alternative, or, “truly Catholic” community, with only religious music, language, activities, and conversations, that exists alongside, or even in opposition to, their secular life. This can imply that they must choose between “church life” and secular life, where they live, work, have friends and family, are engaged in civic life, etc. Or, alternatively, such activities try too hard to be cool and/or relevant and just end up being hokey. In either case, people stop going because these activities actually have very little to do with people’s secular, everyday lives, where they are called live the gospel.
Also, people will stop going to activities when the focus is only or primarily on training because once a certain skill or strategy is taught, people usually will not feel the need to review it if it is offered again: “I’ve already learned that skill.” Another reason many will discontinue attending trainings is that people do not have an insatiable desire or need for skills and vision and strategies like they do for human and spiritual formation: deeper formation begets both need and desire for deeper formation. Not so for skills, techniques, or strategies, because they terminate in temporal activities, whereas formation terminates in virtue and ultimately in the attainment of eternal life. All this contributes to parishioners feeling like volunteers who need to attend in-services to stay sharp, or like they need to become volunteers and get involved in “parish life” in order to be good Catholics; or even like there is opposition between secularity and sanctity. Moreover, a mechanistic approach tends to inadvertently minimize the mystery of evangelization and the cross. It conditions people to expect formulas and simple concrete plans and answers to their difficulties. And if there are no formulas or answers to their specific issues at a given training, or if the results don’t come quickly enough, they will move on to the next program or organization that promises to offer the solution.
However, knowing that holiness and evangelization are one and the same thing, with the (ontological) priority on holiness will remind us to put a heavy emphasis on formation in the virtues, habits, and attitudes needed for personal apostolic holiness in secular life, rather than on “skills training.” Strategy, tactics, and skills are indeed important for pastoral workers, and can be very helpful for everyone else: helpful, but ancillary and supplemental. But formation for apostolic holiness should fit the secular character of the laity (cf. Apostolicam Actuositatem 29), and as much as possible be customized to the individual’s life,for lay apostolate happens not only in the world (in saeculo), but also ex saeculo (cf. Primo Feliciter). This means that apostolate happens not only in an organized manner, but also in an “unorganized” and spontaneous manner, in the carrying out of one’s everyday secular responsibilities where she already is, with a supernatural motive.
Such formation in apostolic holiness will necessitate both ongoing group formation and regular individual spiritual guidance. It must be repetitive, and focus not only on theological topics, but also on the temporal and human dimension of life: the human virtues, family, work, etc. forming people to do these things humanly well, but with supernatural motives. In a word, such formation must focus greatly on formation for one’s human vocation, for the human virtues are the matter that grace informs. Grace lies dormant, and in fact, fades in a person who does not strive to grow in and activate the very relevant virtues of punctuality, order, cheerfulness, loyalty, discretion, diligence, industriousness, delicacy, etc., just to name a few. Ongoing and customized formation in the human virtues and the very human circumstances of life makes faith operative, and therefore relevant and evangelical. If people who are not receiving such formation from some lay movement or institution in the Church (and the vast majority have no such connection) do not receive this formation from their parish, where will they receive it? How will they learn to grow in holiness and sanctify the temporal order if the only formation they receive is, on the one hand skills, strategy, and tactics, and on the other hand, simply theological and theoretical?
Finally, if we distinguish too sharply between holiness and evangelization, we may develop a fear that providing too much formation once people have gone through training will turn people inward and take them away from apostolate. Relatedly, we assume that people cannot receive formation and live a life of mission at the same time—they cannot “inhale” and “exhale” at the same time, as if people always need seasons of formation alternating with seasons of outreach, and cannot do both at the same time. Or, we fear that we will be asking too much of them if we “make them come to programs” too often. Hence, we will create a competition or opposition between holiness and evangelization. Hidden in this sentiment are also traces of utility and clericalization, since we subtly view formation as something we ask people to attend in order to do something for the parish more effectively, rather than as something the parish offers for their benefit.
Since this error also contains traces of the other errors, the suggested solutions mentioned above cover this one. Here, I will highlight just two considerations. First, it will be key to remember that, maintaining the ontological priority of holiness over apostolate, each is the condition, sine qua non, of the other. Formation for personal holiness, because it is always apostolic, should always have an evangelical dimension or tone; and vice versa. This means we have to spell out for people the practical application for personal holiness and evangelization, with concrete examples, tips, and tricks, in every opportunity of formation. Moreover, we must keep in mind that holiness will condition apostolic fruitfulness, while apostolic effort will condition growth in holiness.
Secondly, we must be fully convicted that if we fail to provide ongoing and ever deeper formation, people will drift, and their apostolic holiness will fade. In fact, when people’s lives get complicated, and they need to make difficult decisions with regard to their time, it is almost always better to err on the side of recommending pulling back from organized apostolate in favor of receiving formation, because individual, un-organized apostolate will still be happening with your guidance and encouragement, so long as you continue to provide that individual guidance and encouragement through those tough times. It will almost always be necessary for a given individual to sacrifice to obtain the formation that is necessary to them for their vocation with vigor and fruitfulness; but it may not always be prudent for a given individual to persist in some organized form of apostolate when other aspects of his vocation may require more time and effort.
Formation thus given, specifically for apostolic holiness in the secular world, will over time help foster unity of life, shrinking the rift between faith and everyday life that the Second Vatican Council was so zealous to address. Such formation in practical holiness that not only takes into consideration one’s work, family, friends, preoccupations, hobbies, etc., but focuses on sanctifying them and turning them into occasions of authentic encounter with God and with others will be sure to make “secular saints” who sanctify and transform the temporal order, just by being secular saints.
With docility to the Holy Spirit, the primary agent of evangelization, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the greatest and most fruitful apostle, all of this is possible, and indeed is necessary for us to accomplish.
Message: 1997 World Day of Peace
CDF, Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization, 2
Ordinary Life and Holiness in the Teaching of St. Josemaria. Ernst Burkhart and Javier Lopez, 208
St. Josemaria Escriva, Christ is Passing By, no. 122
St. Josemaria Escriva, Christ is Passing By, 106.
Just as the identity of a “word” is also a mission. A word is communication.
Cf. Burkhart, p. 33
Only God can “use” people, and in doing so he elevates their dignity, because he is infinitely above us, and any association with him only elevates our existence.
We see this phenomenon when parishes or even dioceses put together pastoral plans that speak of, for example, a 6 year span: The first two years consist of growth in prayer; the second two years growth in discipleship; and the final two years in evangelization. Are people not supposed to evangelize during the first year? Or should formation for prayer stop in the 6thyear? This example is also indicative of seeing the priority of holiness over evangelization as chronological rather than ontological. Another way we can see this manifest is when a parish urges everyone to take a break from their small groups in order to come to some formation event, or tries to schedule formation events around people’s groups. Or when a parish tries to seasonalize to rigidly their cycle of formation, training, and outreach: Outreach only in Fall. Formation in Winter. Training in Spring. Take summer off.
“The secular character is properly and particularly that of the lay faithful." LG 31; CL 15.