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A Guide To Lay Holiness

An outstanding book from outstanding Catholic laymen Michael Novak and William E. Simon Jr.

By From the December 2011 - January 2012 issue

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Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation
By Michael Novak and William E. Simon Jr.
(Encounter Books, 184 pages, $21.95)

HOW DOES a Christian layman who takes his faith seriously, indeed as a matter of (eternal) life and death, answer Christ's call to imitate him in everyday life, in such a way that Christ will welcome him into the next life?

Authors William E. Simon Jr. and Michael Novak take on this question in Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation. Simon, a well-known philanthropist and former political candidate in California, and Novak, lay theologian and author of dozens of books (including works on politics and free enterprise very familiar to the readers of TAS), offer suggestions that may prove useful not only to fellow Catholics but also to members of other faiths.

Laymen make up 98.5 percent of the Catholic Church, with the rest of the population consisting of popes (only one a time, please!), bishops, priests, deacons, and members of Catholic congregations who take permanent vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, usually accompanied by distinct garb to emphasize their specific vocation to be "in the world but not of the world."

If the average self-identified Catholic were asked to identify the main messages of the Second Vatican Council, he or she might offer answers such as "it was about the end of the Latin Mass," or "now we don't have to abstain from meat any more on Fridays," or "the Church is now focused on ‘social justice' rather than worship." What the great majority of at least 70 million nominal Catholics in the U.S. unfortunately don't know is that the key teaching of the Council is the "universal call to holiness." And that is what this book is essentially about.

The authors have divided the book into two parts. The first "is devoted to life in the lay world: work with the poor, or the disabled, or the young or our secular colleagues, how we can spend our time and energy and talents to work for and improve our Church." This section profiles nine living pioneers among the laity in three important areas: education, parish life, and lay ministries.

The second part of the book is devoted to our life of faith and our relationship with God. How we can learn to live in a way that heightens our vision of the ordinary? Simon and Novak put together a fine potpourri of recommendations for the Christian layman to turn a perhaps nominal faith into one that burns interiorly in such a way as to truly encounter Christ in His Church. In essence, they present the Catholic Church's age-old recommendations of prayer, the sacraments (particularly the Eucharist and confession of sins), guided spiritual reading, meditation on Sacred Scripture, and self-denial. Key to making it all work is a spiritual advisor or "coach" who can guide his directee toward holiness in his or her particular situation. For laypeople, this situation normally includes marriage, family life, work, and involvement in the community.

The authors explain that some laypeople may feel called to live a life of even greater dedication through affiliation with various religious congregations or by becoming a member of one of the dozens of "ecclesial movements" that might be called the spiritual hallmark of our era of Church history. Most of these movements were founded by Catholic laypeople in the last century as means to grow in holiness and to evangelize the world around them. These "new ecclesial realities" have been approved officially by the Church and strongly endorsed by Bl. John Paul the Great and Pope Benedict XVI as essential components of the "New Evangelization" launched in John Paul's pontificate.

AS GOOD AS THIS BOOK IS, I do have a few reservations. The subject of part two, the spiritual life of grace, in fact must always take priority in a person's life. Only in that way can it lead the believer to live his life in the world as someone who not only gives good example but also joyfully shares his or her faith with others. Read the lives of the early Christians for evidence. In other words, Simon and Novak should have reversed the order of the two parts of their book. Good works flow from one's interior life of grace, not vice versa.

A synodal document by John Paul II entitled "The Church in America" makes this point crystal clear:

[T]here are two areas in which lay people live their vocation. The first and the one best suited to their lay state is the secular world, which they are called to shape according to God's will. Their specific activity brings the Gospel to the structures of the world: "working in holiness wherever they are, they consecrate the world itself to God."

The document makes it very clear that what are called ministries are secondary. In fact, in all the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the word "ministry" is never applied to the activities of laypeople.

Indeed, later on the document says, "America needs lay Christians able to assume roles of leadership in society…who can influence public life, and direct it to the common good."

It would also have been helpful to encounter profiles of men and women in high places in media, entertainment, business, finance, elected office, the judiciary, and the world of sports who were also openly serious Christians trying to bring Christ into those environments. Think of St. Thomas More's legal career and chancellorship in the environment of Henry VIII's court.

Simon and Novak are outstanding Christians in the public square known for their chosen respective fields of philanthropy and academia, and also known to be joyfully serious about the practice of their faith. This book should be widely shared and I look forward to future editions that can be improved along the lines I have suggested. 

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About the Author
Matthew Kenefick is a Church historian who writes from Washington, D.C. and a Research Fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute.