The Catholic Church Lacks an Imagination for Lay Agency

Some two years ago, I attended the Called and Co-Responsible conference at the University of Notre Dame. It was a conference about the role of the laity in the Church. One of the speakers, Fr. Michael Sweeny, O.P. made two insightful statements in his talk that resonated deeply with my experience working with parishes all over the country. He said, “Formation in the Church has always been for the sake of a mission;” and “as a Church, we have no imagination for lay agency.” 

In other words, we have seminary formation to prepare men for the mission of priesthood. We have religious formation for men and women to be formed for the mission of a particular religious order. We have schools of theology to prepare men and women (lay or otherwise) to study and/or teach theology. This is because we have an imagination for what the agency (vocation/mission) of each of these roles in the Church entails. But do most Catholics have an imagination for lay agency in the modern world? Do pastoral workers and Catholics-in-the-pews have an imagination that goes beyond involvement in “parish life?” I would argue, in agreement with Fr. Sweeny, no. But why? Let me suggest the source of the problem, its causes, what the problem leads to, and at least some pathways for moving forward.

To be sure, Catholic doctrine and theology in the twentieth century has resulted in tremendous development in the articulation of the lay vocation and mission—lay agency. On the level of Church teaching, there is increasing conceptual clarity on the notion of lay vocation and mission.[1] We know with greater conceptual clarity not only what the laity is not and what they cannot do, but also what the lay vocation is and what the mission does entail. 

The “positive” definition of the laity makes all the difference because we cannot form someone according to what they are not. For example, how are we to form someone as “not a ministerial priest?,” or “not a religious sister?” Rather, we form someone in accordance with who they are, and what they are to do. However, all the beautiful development of this doctrine has not yet fully inspired popular Catholicism and those who have been charged with the formation of the laity’s imagination about their vocation (mostly parish pastoral workers and priests). Why? 

Principle: Imagination is shaped by experience. Therefore, the experience of Church professionals’ study, popular examples of holiness, their professional environment, hobbies, and social circles, are going to shape our imagination for the formation we deliver, both in content and in manner.

In my experience, both personally, and from interacting with hundreds of pastoral workers across the country, the typical Church professional’s training in grad school has equipped us for teaching theology/adult catechesis in an ecclesiastical or academic setting. For example, we have classes on Christian Anthropology, Soteriology, Trinitarian Theology, Church History, Analysis of Pauline Epistles, etc., which rightly treat these topics as a science. We write papers, take exams, and have colloquiums, all intended to establish intellectual mastery of studied topics. Thus, from our experience in grad school, some of our imagination for lay agency is based on the experience of lay professors and lay students studying academic theology as a profession. Moreover, our imagination for teaching theology has been formed by experiencing theology as an academic discipline in an academic, institutional, or ecclesiastical setting. While I am sure there are exceptions and nuances to this, however, the majority of people I deal with have had this experience.

In some sense, this is a self-perpetuating cycle of teaching students to become professors who then teach students to become professors. One might raise the objection that students of a Master of Divinity program may have practicums in hospitals and parishes with the goal of equipping the students to be practitioners in those settings. True, this does get closer to the goal, but the hospital or parish office is still a very controlled and specific setting. Thus, the students’ experience of theology is very academic, and in some cases very speculative.

This experience shapes their imagination for how to teach, and even of who they will be teaching. The situation is similar in many seminary settings—seminarians are taught theology in an academic setting by professors. And the human and spiritual/ascetical formation that they receive is for the purpose of forming them as priests, not laymen. And oftentimes those spheres of formation: academic, human, and spiritual are not integrated. Thus, their experience shapes their imagination for how to give formation (and homilies).   

To be clear, the academic study of theology is not a bad thing; it is good and necessary! And I am not in any way suggesting that rigorous theological training, even for priests and for the Church professional who is going to work in a parish or diocese, should go away. The Church needs academia for the rigorous study of theology as a sacred science, for the principles of application and engagement with modern thought, and simply for the contemplative love of wisdom. The issue is that most theological formation offered in schools of theology and seminaries is simply not calibrated for forming and training pastoral worker to form secular professionals, home makers, retirees, and others in the way of Catholic life in the middle of the world.

Additionally, most of the examples of sanctity and exemplary Catholic living that the vast majority of Catholics are exposed to and are familiar with are overwhelmingly religious and ordained saints. These saints are definitely sure and beautiful examples of lived holiness. However, they are not always helpful for our imagination for forming the laity, because examples of clergy and religious help develop an imagination for religious and clerical holiness and mission, not lay agency.

For example, St. Francis of Assisi is held up as an exemplar for poverty. But St. Francis’s example of poverty is not always helpful for someone who has not taken a vow of poverty, and who needs to provide for a family, save for retirement, and live an otherwise credible and attractive life for their peers and children. St. Rose of Lima, a parapet for modesty, may not provide practical guidance for spouses who seek to be attractive to each other out of love and affection. Moreover, religious obedience is hard to apply to a secular situation—for instance, when a supervisor is exercising poor judgement. A religious example of humility that rejects recognition for accomplishments might not be helpful—and could even be harmful—for the professional who needs to seek a promotion or raise in order to support her family, or to improve a given field or society as a whole through her work. 

While it is inspiring to hear about how the evangelical counsels and virtues are heroically lived out in the lives of religious throughout history, virtues and the spirit of the counsels have to be developed and applied in a way that is fitting to one’s state in life. Rarely will direct imitation of religious and clergy translate easily into the situations and circumstances of lay life. Church professionals need to become adept at “translating” religious and clerical examples of virtue into secular formation, as well as finding more examples of lay saints and holy people who can be held up as models of sanctity.     

Moreover, even though most Church professionals are lay people (oftentimes married, and with children) we are immersed almost completely in “Churchworld.” Socially, many friends from grad school with whom we keep in touch work for parishes, dioceses, or Catholic apostolates. Many, if not most of our current friends work for other parishes, schools, or apostolates, and have a similar background.

This oftentimes leads to Church professionals facing many cultural challenges in our ability to relate to other Catholics. We typically do not make a lot of money, nor do any of our friends who work for the Church, so we often struggle with an imagination for forming people, for example, in a poverty that is appropriate to a middle-upper class socio-economic demographic (if that is a demographic in which we find our parish of employment). I have spoken with many who struggle with some resentment toward those who are wealthy, who “do not live poverty very well.” 

Moreover, many of our hobbies, such as our tastes for music, books, and entertainment are theological, philosophical, and/or explicitly Catholic in nature, and are often inspired by or tinged with somewhat of a contemptus mundi; so we oftentimes have difficulty relating to many people in who live in the secular world. A lot of these tastes have developed from our theological formation and those we associated with in our formative years following our conversions or reversions. Thus, we are often uncomfortable with discussions about popular culture, politics, economics, business, leadership, and other such topics that are neither “classical” nor Catholic. Yet these are precisely the things that have direct bearing on the lives of those we are supposed to be forming. 

On a professional level, the majority of people with whom we regularly engage, whether they are colleagues or “clients” (the parishioners who attend our offerings and are involved in our ministries), are openly Church-focused; or at least the setting and context in which we deal with them is Church-related. So, it is hard to know what it is like to work in a non-faith-based (if not faith-adverse) work environment. Or, we are dealing with those who complain and are generally difficult. The first group of people shape our imagination for what in ideal Catholic looks like, while the second tinges our experience of secularity and confuses it with secularism.

None of this is particularly unusual, nor is it blameworthy. It is actually a pretty similar situation to most people in any profession. Our social circles, though patterns, and general outlooks are greatly shaped by our professional circles, academic backgrounds, and all-around values: financial workers are immersed in a “finance world,” teachers in a “school world,” doctors and nurses in a “medical world,” and so on. Nevertheless, this immersion in “Churchworld” limits our experience of and therefore our imagination for secularity, which is an ethos that virtually all the other professions and their corresponding social milieus hold in common. 

Moreover, the day-to-day professional routine of a Church professional is also very different than most of the rest of the lay faithful. Many of us who go to daily Mass, are able to simply work it in to our day rather seamlessly because it is right there, thirty seconds from our office, at a time when we are there anyway (typically around 8:00 a.m.). And many consider Mass and other prayer experiences part of our work day, because we view it as part of our work to pray for parishioners and be seen by them and get to know them. Many Church professionals are also able to spend time in the church or the adoration chapel on slow work days, or when we have to do some prep work—doing it in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

However, as great as all of this potentially is, it creates an experiential gap for us in our ability to relate with others (and thus give effective formation to those) who do not have such ready access to the sacraments, personal prayer time, and silence. Most people who work secular jobs who desire these practices have to do logistical gymnastics every day to make it happen, such as getting up super early in the morning in order to have personal prayer time, and going out of one’s way to get to a 6:30 a.m. Mass, or praying the rosary in the car in one’s commute, etc.

And finally, with regard to the subject matter of our work, it is explicitly faith-based, so we can ponder on the things of God every day at work. But many Church professionals struggle deeply with the administrative aspect of our work, and view it as a necessary evil and an obstacle to the “real work” of spreading the Gospel. I have spoken to many who cannot imagine what it would be like to work eight or more hours a day in a field that is not faith-based, so they have a hard time imagining how a person could live faithfully throughout a workday that is not faith-based. Thus, how could they ever provide formation on how to keep faith front and center in the midst of a workday whose subject matter is not explicitly faith based?

Now, none of these realities are blameworthy or even negative—quite the contrary! These are great blessings that professional Church workers have. But they are indeed experiential gaps that need to be recognized and reckoned with, since experience is the raw material for, and therefore shapes, our imagination. In other words, if pastoral workers need to give formation that is aimed at helping people to sanctify their secular work, which accounts for a great deal of one’s waking hours, and all the realities associated with secular work, as well as their social and cultural lives, we need to reckon with the gaps between our experience and the experience of others.

Many of us can relate to some, if not most of the above-stated dynamics, especially if we have been engaged in Church work for a long time. Thus, depending on the extent to which each of us can relate to these dynamics and experiential gaps, we will understand (or not) the degree to which they may impede our ability to form parishioners for the secular character of their vocation. 

Since lay agency, typically understood, is based on parish life, evangelization is thought of as parish-centered and programmatic, and mostly seeks to build up the parish as an organization or community where success is based on growth of involvement in the above listed activities. This creates a situation where formation and ministries and parish life are not relevant to the everyday life of the very people who the parish pastoral staff are trying to reach; and can even be set up as being in competition with secular life. This inadvertently promotes a dis-integrated life of faith, which may result in manifestations of clericalism or quasi-religious life for those who want to grow, or irrelevance for everyone else.  

In other words, the implication is that those who want to take their faith more seriously will make the time to get involved in parish structures/ministries. Many who pursue involvement and leadership at the parish are often drawn into a sort of lay clericalism as they find particular importance and even power in their role at the parish. Others, led by a need and/or desire to reject, flee, or at best tolerate earthly things, immerse themselves into parish life, as if entering into a quasi-religious life, and lose much of their potential force and impact on the world. 

Seeing this example of the lay vocation, the many lay people in the pews that do not feel attracted to parish involvement, conclude that faith is simply not relevant or helpful to their daily lives in the world. This lack of imagination for secularity contributes to many of the faithful being stuck with highly compartmentalized and lukewarm faith-lives. Many, as we have seen especially over the past year or so, drift away completely because they do not sense or understand the relevance of faith to their daily life.

What is the solution? How can pastoral workers begin to develop this imagination for lay agency? First, we have to have some idea of who the lay faithful are and what their agency is. And second, the pastoral worker has to develop their own secularity or experience of it. 

Who are the lay faithful in reality? They are those Christians who, by their very vocation, seek the Kingdom of God in and through the ordinary circumstances of everyday life: family, school, work, social, civic, etc.[2] What specifies them is their secularity: the world is the setting and means of their sanctity and apostolate: it is their rightful jurisdiction for living and spreading the Gospel.[3] This means that their specific ecclesial role is to be secular—have secular interests, hobbies, work, etc., and to inform or infuse it all with faith, hope, and charity, and all of the supernatural virtues. In other words, the laity experience as their very vocation a “gravitational pull” toward the world, which they are not to overcome. 

They are not to set aside their noble human virtues, interests, and aspirations or seek to “conquer or overcome them” with supernatural or divine desires (for this implies opposition), but to sublimate and “supernaturalize” them with all the corresponding supernatural attitudes and virtues, putting Christ at the summit of all things. Their “human vocation” is part and parcel of their divine vocation; it is the very “matter” that grace informs. In other words, their “post” in the world is precisely their “post” in the Church, such that ordinarily if one were to leave their secular duties in order to get “more involved” in parish activities, this would actually be equivalent to leaving his post in the Church. Thus, one might say that lay agency seeks to sanctify the temporal order from within the temporal order.

Thus their agency is to not do anything different than they are already doing (minus sin), but to do it with sublimated and divinized motives. For example, I know a financial advisor who loves working with money. He finds economics fascinating, and is deeply aware of the tremendous good that money well-invested can do. He is also growing in his fascination of the psychology that is involved in economics. He also loves sports and working out: he loves the skill, mechanics, toughness, and excellence it draws out of him and others. He also loves having fun on the weekends with his family, simply to have fun and be together. 

He also wants to make a lot of money so he can send his children to good schools, provide long-term security into retirement, live in a reasonably comfortable house, have good hobbies, be a good friend, and support good causes. All of these activities, interests, desires, and their motives, as human as they are, should stay, but be purified, well-ordered, expanded, and divinized—permeated by the Spirit for God’s glory, the salvation of souls, and the redemption of the world. This is his path to sanctity and fruitful apostolate. This is therefore his path to being a good parishioner (even if not involved in parish ministries or its institutional structures). This could also be said of any morally upright desires, hobbies, and professions that women and men might have, no matter how secular. 

For my financial advisor friend, as well as for the rest of us who live in the middle of the world, nothing external necessarily changes. But on the inside, everything has been transformed, because it now participates in the infinite desires, motives, and creativity of God. And this internal transformation needs to grow to affect every aspect of his being. For the aspiring lay saint, professional work is seen as participation in the creative and redemptive activity of God. Family life is seen as a participation in the creative and loving communion of God. Well-ordered hobbies, culture, social life, etc. are seen as ways of manifesting and communicating God’s beauty, truth, and goodness. And formation for all of these aspects of life must facilitate, in an individually customized, gradual, and lifelong way, growth into this new reality. 

In other words, formation for the “husband-father-professional-friend” needs to help him contemplate and develop “Jesus, the Husband-Father-Professional-Friend” in him and shed anything and everything that impedes that development.[4] It is to help him to develop a mature Christian personality, which is nothing other than his very own self being an individuated vessel of the Divine Personality in the world: “an instrument of [God’s] presence and action in the world.”[5] This is lay agency.

For sure there are many pastoral workers who understand and live secularity very well, and to some extent, those who have had prior experience working in the secular world have some advantage here. But there are also a great number of pastoral workers (lay or otherwise), who can probably relate to one or more of the above ways that pastoral workers live in “Churchworld.” They experience a certain immersion in parish life and distancing or even isolation from the secular world. 

At risk of sounding too simplistic, it would be my recommendation for those lay pastoral workers to slowly begin working on ways to live secularity better, perhaps one aspect at a time. Working in the Church, they can easily block off their secularity. But it is essential, in order to serve and support the vocation to holy lay agency, that they live out their own vocation closer to the world; indeed, in the world. 

Personally, maybe one’s circle of friends needs to expand to include more friends who are not immersed in Churchworld or very Catholic. Maybe one ought to begin engaging in more activities that are not faith-based or religious in nature. Maybe one ought to start paying closer attention to the sources of news outside of Churchworld. Maybe one ought to expand one’s experience of art, music, fashion, and entertainment. None of these aspects of life should be neglected, but in fact, must be engaged head-on and transformed. For these are “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age,” which are also “the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ,” which should never fail to “raise an echo in their hearts.”[6]  

Professionally, I would suggest two things. First, perhaps one could to pay more attention to one’s own professional development in the realm of leadership, time management, efficiency and productivity, technology, etc.—basically the more secular aspects of their work that are not directly pastoral or theological. In addition to helping the Church professional to grow in skills and virtues that previously may have been undeveloped, unsanctified, or underemphasized, this would help them to more deeply experience and appreciate those aspects of work that they share with secular professionals. This would develop an imagination for how to provide formation for how to sanctify those secular aspects of work.

Second, I would suggest discerning a handful or so of the most faithful, available, and teachable parishioners they know, and invite them into a period of formation. Go through a curriculum or a book or something together. Get together one-on-one with each of them, and get to know each of them—their families, their work, their faith stories, etc. Find out how they live their discipleship; but also help them to grow more consistent and faithful in ever deeper daily prayer, sacraments, growth in virtue, attitudes, and mindsets. You will be serving them deeply and relevantly (these are probably the people who have been praying precisely for a formation experience like this); but you will also be gaining experience of the way secular Catholics live.

You will experience secular examples of and opportunities for virtue such as order, time management, discretion, loyalty, sound judgement, fairness, tenacity, and diligence. Get to know them in authentic relationships as well, by arranging happy hours, cookouts, hangouts, and whatnot. Hang out on “secular” turf. Do this with cohorts of people over years, and you will gain much experience. You will be formed by each other; and over the years, you will get masterful at forming the laity for secular agency. 

Finally, I would recommend seeking out formation or exposure to one of the many approved lay movements or institutions in the Church whose specific charism it is to develop the laity as contemplatives in the middle of the world. Get to know people within the movements.  Unfortunately, there is sometimes suspicion around these movements, I think, precisely because they stretch and challenge our imagination. Most Catholics are familiar with clergy and religious orders, associations, and institutes because they have been around so long, and they are easily identifiable. But lay movements are quite new in the history of the Church, are not obviously identifiable, and promote a new kind of spirituality.

We have to grow into a familiarity with these movements and with the people formed by them. A few that come to mind are Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, Focolare, Sant’Egidio, Charismatic Renewal, the Catholic Worker, and Schoenstatt. I would suggest attending their formation or prayer meetings, and reading books by their founders or by those from the particular movement or institution. This will provide an even more diverse experience of the lay vocation, which is valuable for developing an imagination for lay agency. 

The laity are on the front lines of the Church’s mission, and it is through them that the Church will put Christ at the summit of all things and sanctify the temporal order. It is through them that the lukewarm in the pews will catch fire and the empty pews will gradually become filled, that adult children and grandchildren will come to see the Eucharist as a vital part of their lives. It is also through them that vocations to ordained and religious life will increase, because of holy and evangelical parents and friends and activated interior lives who will hear God’s call.

It is largely on our shoulders, professional pastoral workers, that this duty to form them for holiness and mission rests. Let us pray for creativity and prudence, for boldness and tenacity, to discover new ways of reaching and forming the secular hearts of the lay faithful for deep and apostolic holiness.

[1] See for example, Lumen Gentium chapter 4; Apostolicam Actuositatem, and Christifideles Laici

[2] cf. Lumen Gentium 31; Christifideles Laici 9, 15-17.

[3] Setting and means, but not the cause; the cause is grace.

[4] See: Gal 2:20

[5] CDF, Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization, 2.

[6] Gaudium et Spes 1

Featured Image: Claude Monet, San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk, 1908; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


Peter Andrastek

Peter Andrastek lives in Menomonee Falls, WI with his wife and seven children. He has a masters in theology from Ave Maria University, and is a Senior Consultant for The Evangelical Catholic.

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