Sunday, January 19, 2014

Defining the Laity: “Saintly heroes”?

PORK barrel scam. Bungled disaster response. Leadership fiasco. Bunkhouse controversy. Who are involved? Mostly Filipino Catholic laity. So when I first read the CBCP document basically challenging the Filipino Catholic laity to bear in mind that they are “called to be saints” and “sent forth as heroes”, I said to myself: “No statement could be truer, but no order could be taller! How does one make saintly heroes out of so many who may be inclined otherwise?” To Abraham Lincoln’s remark that “God must love the common man; he made lots of them”, I also say that God must likewise love the laity since he made them the most numerous in the Church. Still, I submit that for these most numerous members of the Church to find fulfillment as “saintly heroes” they must heed the advice of the ancient Greeks: “Know thyself; be thyself; be thy best self.”
One very tragic thing that happened during Super Typhoon Yolanda’s disastrous visit was that many people abandoned responsible behavior because they did not know what a “storm surge” was or what a good parent should be. A mayor in a town called Hernani, south of Eastern Samar’s center, which is Borongan, told me that a father of a family refused to move his family to a safe location, continued a drinking spree, and dismissed the warnings of “storm surges”. He died and his whole family died with him. Might we not also say that the tragedy behind the Filipino Catholic laity counting corrupt politicians among them who are responsible for the endless scams in the country partly comes from them ignoring or being ignorant of who they are?
So then we must heed the first ancient Greek advice. We ask: “Who are the Laity?” In answer the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church or Lumen Gentium (The Light of the Nations) teaches us: “The term ‘laity’ is…understood to mean all the faithful except those in Holy Orders and those who belong to a religious state approved by the Church. That is, the faithful who by Baptism are incorporated into Christ, are placed in the People of God, and in their own way share the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ, and to the best of their ability carry on the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world.” It is important for the laity to know their identity because it makes clear to them the things that pertain to or not pertain to who they are.
What pertains to who the laity are?
First, it is having faith in God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ. That is why Lumen Gentium speaks of the laity as “all the faithful” who are neither ordained (they are not bishops, priests and deacons) nor consecrated (they are not religious priests, brothers and nuns). But their having “the faith” is distinguished from other members of the Church in that expressing this faith is not coursed through the Sacrament of Holy Orders and religious consecration. A lay person, a priest and a nun have the same faith. But the lay person is not required to express his faith by presiding over Mass and the Sacraments and preaching the Word, as an ordained priest is. Nor is he required to strictly follow the evangelical counsels of chastity, obedience and poverty, as nuns or religious priests and brothers are.
Second, the laity’s faith is inseparable from their having received the Sacrament of Baptism. Faith in Jesus Christ leads to Baptism. Baptism seals one’s faith in Jesus Christ,  incorporating him into his Body, that is, making him a vital part of Jesus the Christ. The document Filipino Catholic Laity: Called to be Saints…Sent Forth as Heroes declares: “When you were baptized, the Holy Spirit united you with our Lord Jesus the Son of God, and thus you became true sons and daughters of God, partakers of the divine nature” (FCL, 1).
Third, because Baptism makes the laity (and all Christians) members of Christ’s Body, they also become sharers in Christ’s threefold mission: Priest,  Prophet and King. We need to reflect separately on these three. Suffice it to say that somewhat akin to an aide of a politician eventually sharing that politician’s vision and mission, defining his way of thinking, seeing and acting, so the laity and all the baptized share in Jesus Christ’s threefold mission and, consequently, must think, see and act the way he thinks, sees and acts.
Isaiah once told God’s People that they must be like their saving God by the way they live, that is to say, by the way they think, see and act. “Thus says the Lord: Observe what is right, do what is just; for my salvation is about to come, my justice about to be revealed. Happy is the man who does this, the son of man who holds to it, who keeps the Sabbath free from profanation, and his hand from any evildoing” (Is 56:1-2). This God who is just, holy and saving is revealed to us in his Son Jesus Christ.
And how does Jesus the Son reveal himself?
            Jesus answers this question himself in the gospel of John in a way that brings each of us to the core challenge of the laity. He reveals himself by his works, by what he does. Jesus does not excuse himself from the burden of giving testimony. If humans ordinarily play the blame game and buck-passing where a responsibility is at issue, Jesus does not and neither must we Christians, especially the laity who are “incorporated” to (i.e., “in corpore” or “in the body of”) Jesus Christ. “Yet I have testimony greater than John’s, namely, the works the Father has given me to accomplish. These very works which I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me” (Jn 5:36). We all know Jesus preached and preached forcefully, not to say powerfully too. But we know even better that Jesus practiced what he preached. He spoke of love of enemy; he forgave them from the cross. He spoke of himself as the Resurrection and the Life; he showed it when he raised dead people to life. He spoke of love; he practiced it when he died for us “while we were still sinners” (Rom 5:8).

            I know some very heroic priests who refused to leave their posts when Super Typhoon Yolanda came and unleashed massive devastation on our land. But I have been struck by so many lay people who, without fanfare and publicity, continue to volunteer to repack food and relief goods, guard them, transport them and make sure they reach their intended destinations, the victims. They show they are the true laity not so much in words as in their deeds. Like Jesus.

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