PUBLISHED IN LANTAYAN Vol. 13 (Academic Year 2013-2014)
Pastoral-Theological Journal of Don Bosco Center of Studies, Paranaque City, Philippines

Since the end of the Second Vatican Council nearly fifty years ago, there has been a great awakening among the Catholic laity that it is their main responsibility, and not of the clergy, to sanctify temporal realities. I have personally witnessed the transformation of many Catholic laymen from a “sacristan” mentality, when they thought of themselves only as assistants to bishops and priests, to being at the vanguard of sanctifying all honest secular realities. Laymen are at the forefront of pro-life movements; the strengthening of the family as the pillar of society; the carrying out of myriad corporal and spiritual works of mercy; the restructuring of the economy according to the social doctrine of the Church; the fight against corruption, pornography and other social ills; and the setting up of schools that are faithful to the Magisterium. Of course, there is no room for complacency. Much more will have to be done, considering the de-Christianization of society as a result of the consumerist and materialistic environment that is engulfing the whole world. There is also the great heresy of “relativism” which denies the existence of absolute truths.

Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Vatican II Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, clearly stated:

The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation. Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church and motivated by Christian charity, they must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere. As citizens they must cooperate with other citizens with their own particular skill and on their own responsibility. Everywhere and in all things they must seek the justice of God’s kingdom. The temporal order must be renewed in such a way that, without detriment to its own proper laws, it may be brought into conformity with the higher principles of the Christian life and adapted to the shifting circumstance of time, place and peoples. Preeminent among the works of this type of apostolate is that of Christian social action which the sacred synod desires to see extended to the whole temporal sphere, including culture. (1)

Among the Catholic laity in the Philippines who have taken to heart this leading role of lay people in the evangelization of society are the faithful of the Prelature of Opus Dei, which this year is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in the Philippines. Over the last half-century, I personally witnessed how the members of Opus Dei, especially the vast majority of them who are married, respond to the stirring exhortation of the Founder of Opus Dei St. Josemaria Escriva in a homily he delivered at the campus of the University of Navarre just three years after the start of the apostolic activities in the Philippines:

I have taught this constantly using words from holy Scripture. The world is not evil, because it has come from God’s hands, because it is His creation, because: “Yahweh looked upon it and saw that it was good….” We ourselves, mankind, make it evil and ugly with our sins and infidelities. Have no doubt: any kind of evasion of the honest realities of daily life is for you, men and women of the world, something opposed to the will of God. (2)

I still remember how the first Filipinos to be in touch with the apostolic activities of Opus Dei marveled at those “revolutionary” words uttered by St. Josemaria in the same homily when he talked about “Christian materialism”:

There is no other way, either we learn to find our Lord in ordinary, everyday life, or else we shall never find Him. That is why I can tell you that our age needs to give back to matter and to the most trivial occurrences and situations their noble and original meaning. It needs to restore them to the service of the Kingdom of God, to spiritualize them, turning them into a means and an occasion for a continuous meeting with Jesus Christ. Authentic Christianity, which professes the resurrection of all flesh, has always quite logically opposed “dis-incarnation,” without fear of being judged materialistic. We can, therefore, rightfully speak of a Christian materialism, which is boldly opposed to that materialism which is blind to the spirit. (3)

Over the last fifty years, the faithful of the Prelature of Opus Dei have been cooperating with many others, some of whom are not even Christians, to undertake the task of bringing Christ to the top of every honest human activity, especially in undertakings to address the needs of the poor. These include technical schools like Dualtech, Punlaan, Amihan in the Metro Manila area; and Center for Industrial Technology and Enterprise (CITE) and Banilad in Metro Cebu. These technical schools cater to the children of the poorest households, giving them the skills to be gainfully employed in factories, hotels, households, and others. There are also family farm schools all over the archipelago training the youth in farm entrepreneurship. Encouraged by the Prelate of Opus Dei Bishop Javier Echevarria, members of Opus Dei, in tandem with many other lay people, have contributed to bringing the Christian ideals to such strategic areas as culture, fashion, and legislation, giving the greatest importance to strengthening the family, imparting Christian education, and defending life.

Very much in keeping with the wishes of Pope Francis in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, a good number of the faithful of the Prelature of Opus Dei have opted to practice their respective professions or occupations in many countries in the Asian region, such as Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and South Korea to help in the evangelization of these countries or territories in which the vast majority still do not know Christ. Almost from the very beginning, the members were already very conscious of the vision of St. Josemaria that the Philippines will be at the front line of the Christian apostolate in the whole of Asia.

Role of the Laity in Evangelization

On November 18, 2015, the Catholic world will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the game-changing document Apostolicam Actuositatem. The Fathers of the Council, in complete union with the Pope, declared solemnly that “the apostolate of the laity derives from their Christian vocation and the Church can never be without it.” (4) This means that every baptized person has the obligation to spread the doctrine of Christ and bring other souls to heaven without having to belong to any organization mandated by the bishops. As Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz wrote, “The evangelizing capacity and responsibility (the munus propheticum) of the lay faithful is not delegated by the hierarchy, but comes directly from Jesus Christ, through Baptism and Confirmation.” (5)

Those of us who reached adulthood before the Second Vatican Council will surely remember that the very word apostolate evoked such associations as the Student Catholic Action (SCA), Legion of Mary, Knights of Columbus, and other apostolic associations “mandated” by the bishops. There was little or no consciousness among the ordinary faithful that every baptized person is called to be a saint and, therefore, to spread the doctrine of Christ to those around him or her without having to belong to any organization.

Having come from an environment with this “mandated” mentality, it came as a surprise to me when, in 1959, I met professors and students at Harvard University who spoke to me about what St. Josemaria Escriva had been preaching since October 2, 1928: that every baptized person was called to seek sanctity and to “be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48), and that the other side of the coin of sanctity was to do an abundant work of a personal apostolate of friendship and confidence. Indeed, St. Josemaria Escriva could be called the “precursor of the Second Vatican Council” whose most earthshaking reminder to the laity is the “universal calling to sanctity.” I must admit that in 1959, it sounded new to me, especially in the secular environment of Harvard, a university that was called “Godless” by some of my religion teachers at De La Salle College and where, they said, “I could lose my faith.”

What impressed me was the reference in the writings of St. Josemaria Escriva to the lives of the early Christians. He pointed out that those who were first converted by the Apostles and disciples of Christ did not leave their respective pagan environments. There were no monks, nuns, or other religious persons who embraced vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. The first Christians lived with their pagan families, friends, and fellow workers. It was precisely through these intimate dealings that they had with the paganized environment that, through the example of their virtuous lives as practicing Christians, they were able to convert more and more individuals and spread Christianity to more and more territories. They were the first ones to realize fully the import of these words from the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity:

The laity derive the right and duty to the apostolate from their union with Christ the head, incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body through Baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation, they are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord Himself. They are consecrated for the royal priesthood and the holy people (cf. 1 Pet 2:4-10) not only that they may offer spiritual sacrifices in everything they do but also that they may witness to Christ throughout the world. The sacraments, however, especially the most holy Eucharist, communicate and nourish that chastity which is the soul of the entire apostolate. (6)

I was fortunate that my spiritual mentor at Harvard, a Numerary priest of Opus Dei, immediately introduced me to the habit of spiritual reading. One of the first books he recommended that I read for fifteen minutes a day was the classic book of spirituality by a Benedictine monk, Dom Chautard, entitled The Soul of the Apostolate. From the very beginning I was immunized from the “heresy of activism,” also called “Americanism” in the days of St. Pius X. Those of us who were in touch with the means of formation provided by Opus Dei, mostly graduate and undergraduate students at Harvard University, did not have to wait for the Second Vatican Council to be told about the authentic spirituality of the laity, as contained in Apostolicam Actuositatem:

Since Christ, sent by the Father, is the source and origin of the whole apostolate of the Church, the success of the lay apostolate depends upon the laity’s living union with Christ, in keeping with the Lord’s words, “He who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit, for without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). This life of intimate union with Christ in the Church is nourished by spiritual aids which are common to all the faithful, especially active participation in the sacred liturgy…. (7)

This truth is very much in keeping with the secular adage that “he who wants to change the world must first start with himself.” Nemo dat quod non habet (one cannot give what he does not have).

Revolutionary Concept of Christian Materialism

Every Christian has to be convinced that Christ wants to be on top of every honest profession or occupation, as St. Josemaria Escriva would say. This can be achieved if every baptized person practices what he called “Christian materialism” or the passionate love for the world, for everything in this world is good, having been created by God. The only evil thing in the world is the sin of man. It follows from this that the ones who have to carry out the Christianization of every honest profession are the laity with the doctrinal and spiritual guidance of the clergy. The laity are the ones totally immersed in the world: in their family life, workplace, and social relations.

The individual apostolate, flowing generously from its source in a truly Christian life (cf. Jn 4:14), is the origin and condition of the whole lay apostolate, even of the organized type, and it admits of no substitute. Regardless of status, all lay persons (including those who have no opportunity or possibility for collaboration in associations) are called to this type of apostolate and obliged to engage in it. This type of apostolate is useful at all times and places, but in certain circumstances it is the only one appropriate and feasible. (8)

Individual apostolates are especially indispensable in areas that have great social impact but where there are certain beliefs and customs that are increasingly incompatible with the Christian faith. Among them are education, media, politics, fashion, culture, and legislation. In my work of trying to upgrade the level of economics education at the high school level, I have encountered outstanding examples of public school teachers who, through the example of their lives as practicing Catholics, have done much to Christianize the environment of many public schools, especially in some of the most remote rural areas. These silent apostles show by their example of piety and fidelity to the teaching authority of the Church what it means to respond to the universal calling to sanctity in their work as public school mentors. I have also seen how government officials in such challenging environments as the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) go against the current by demonstrating that it is possible to resist bribes and other forms of corruption. It goes without saying that a clean and honest life of a professional in these environments can be the lighted candle of which Christ spoke in the Gospels (cf. Lk 11:33; 8:16; Mt 5:15; Mk 4:21). They may still be a minority but the government officials especially at the local government unit (LGU) level who are following the example of the late Jess Robredo can do much more to Christianize public service than all the sermons given by well-intentioned parish priests.

Take another case of a profession with tremendous repercussions on public customs and morals: the fashion designer and fashion enterprise. The refusal of a professional in this field to kowtow to the demand of some sectors to exhibit sex and pornography in the marketing of fashion goods, especially those geared toward women, can counteract the tendency in the fashion world to increase profits by literally trafficking the human body. The individual apostolates of digital natives who come out with morally sound and entertaining products on the internet can Christianize this most important industry of the twenty-first century. The same can be said about the other professions at the vanguard of this century such as biomedicine and communications technology. The medical doctor whose research focuses on the use of adult stem cells for the cure of diseases, vigorously defending life by refusing to use the human fetus, is doing an individual apostolate of immense value. The practitioner of integrated marketing communications who injects Christian and human values into his or her advertising or marketing messages is helping to spread these values, a true apostolate of doctrine.

Those members of the Legislature, both in the lower and upper chambers, who patiently tried to explain to their colleagues both the scientific and moral arguments against certain provisions of the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill were more effective than bishops and priests who, unfortunately, have little moral sway on a good number of Catholics. Although the persevering work of preaching the doctrine of the Church must be undertaken by the clergy, legislators who have both the right doctrine and the moral strength have a completely indispensable role in the final work of Christianizing our laws. This will be especially crucial if bills on divorce or same-sex marriage will be introduced in the near future. We must encourage more well-formed Catholic laypeople to run for Congress so that our civil laws will always be in conformity with the natural moral law and the common good.

Finally, it is mainly through the individual apostolates of Christian parents that the many beautiful customs which are part of Filipino culture—e.g. Christmas and Easter celebrations, town fiestas, the reception of the Sacraments, flores de mayo, etc.—will be preserved and protected against the waves of secularization that have gripped other parts of the world where people are prevented to display the Christmas crib or the Crucifix in public.

Including the Poor in Society

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council defined clearly the primordial role of the Catholic laity in establishing a just society in which all, especially the poor, share in the fruits of the goods of the earth.

The apostolate in the social milieu, that is the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives, is so much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be performed properly by others. In this area the laity can exercise the apostolate of like toward like. It is here that they complement the testimony of life with the testimony of the word. It is here where they work or practice their profession or study or reside or spend their leisure time or have their companionship that they are more capable of helping their brethren. (9)

Today, these words have been given more urgency and concreteness by Pope Francis. I hope the Catholic laity in the Philippines can demonstrate to the Pope that they are actively responding to his pleas to “include the poor in society” when he visits us for the first time next year. The Pope will not accept any excuses:

No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional and even ecclesial circles. While it is quite true that the essential vocation and mission of the lay faithful is to strive that earthly realities and all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel, none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice: “Spiritual conversion, the intensity of the love of God and neighbor, zeal for justice and peace, the Gospel meaning of the poor and of poverty, are required for everyone.” (10)

This appeal is especially addressed to Catholic lay people who are in politics, business, the academe, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in the restructuring of economic society to make it more inclusive. Professionals in these fields are the ones who can respond most directly to the following appeal of Pope Francis:

The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills. (11)

The Pope, who will travel to Palo, Leyte in mid-January next year will not be satisfied with stop-gap or band aid solutions in resolving the scandalous poverty situation in our country, in which a fourth of the entire population live in dehumanizing poverty. In fact, in some areas of Eastern Visayas the poverty incidence can be as high as 50 percent.

I am sure the Pope will be very happy to visit several projects in Palo, Leyte that are examples of “welfare projects which meet certain urgent need.” Among these are homes for orphans and for the aging poor as well as socialized housing for those displaced by Typhoon Yolanda. He, however, would like to be told a lot more by the Catholic laity of Eastern Visayas, which is a microcosm of the entire Philippines. He would like to see the national as well as local government officials exerting more effort and devoting more financial resources to improving the quality of basic education for the children of the poor. He would like to see more rural health clinics. He would like the poor to have greater access to potable water and electricity. Real estate companies should partner with the Government to put up more affordable houses for the C, D, E homes, some for rent and others for actual purchase. The unemployed and underemployed, especially among the fisher folk and coconut farmers, should be given alternative skills in construction and tourism, the two sectors that are likely to grow rapidly in the region in the next five to ten years.

Most importantly, both national and local governments should cooperate to endow the whole region with more farm-to-market roads, irrigation systems (especially in the coconut areas to enable the farmers to diversify into high-value crops such as vegetables and fruits, as well as livestock), post-harvest facilities, and agricultural extension services. Large agribusiness firms should partner with cooperatives and small farmers in increasing the productivity of sugar farms and to introduce new crops like coffee, cacao, cassava, palm oil, and other high-value plantation crops. To achieve this transformation of the rural areas in the region, there must be more imaginative approaches to agrarian reform that will make possible nucleus estate farming and other cooperative forms of increasing the productivity of the land. The Philippines is notorious for having the lowest productivity in practically all agricultural crops in Southeast Asia.

All these efforts to uplift the poor can be an answer to the Pope’s plea:

It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare. Why not turn to God and ask him to inspire their plans? I am firmly convinced that openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset which would help to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society. (12)

  
Notes

1. Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity: Apostolicam Actuositatem (AA) (Rome 1965), no. 7.
2. Josemaria Escriva, Homily at the University of Navarre (October 8, 1967).
3. Ibid.
4. AA, no. 1.
5. Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz, “The Lay Faithful and the New Evangelization,” Opus Dei, accessed December 30, 2014, http://www.opusdei.org.za/en-za/article/the-lay-faithful-and-the-new-evangelization/.
6. AA, no. 3.
7. Ibid., no. 4.
8. See ibid., no. 16.
9. See ibid., no. 13.
10. Francis, Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World: Evangelii Gaudium (Rome 2013), no. 201.
11. Ibid., no. 202.
12. Ibid., no. 205.

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