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"Authentic Lay Spirituality" Part 1: "Where Charity and Love Prevail"

Byline: Msgr. Peter J. Vaghi
Posted: October 7, 2010

I wish to welcome each and every one of you most warmly as we begin together our First Thursday Fellowship 2010-2011. The overall theme this year is “Authentic Lay Spirituality.” Today’s reflection is entitled: “Authentic Lay Spirituality: Where Charity and Love Prevail.”

In preparing these eight talks, I will be guided by the writings of  Pope Benedict XVI, the many contributions of  Pope John Paul II, Church teaching and of course Holy Scripture. Special reference will be made to the 1988 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the laity entitled “The Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World (Christifideles Laici).”  Above all, my hope will be to reflect on my own 25 years of priestly ministry, so much of which has been devoted to ministry among you--members of John Carroll, Serra and parishioners of Little Flower, St. Patrick and St. Ann-- members of the lay faithful.

At the outset, I wish to emphasize that the aspects of spirituality that I will treat apply to all followers of Jesus Christ—those of us in the ordained or consecrated life in addition to those of you who are members of the lay faithful.

My particular effort in these meditations, however, will be to present aspects of the spiritual life in the context of the challenges and questions that are common among those of you in the professions, in the world of business and government, those between jobs, and those of you whose primary workplace is the home--the life and world of you who are lay people. It is a hectic world. And you are in the middle of it. With all the meetings, family obligations, toil that seemingly never stops, the challenges of technology that for sure brings us together in a second but at the same time seems to make it more difficult for us to have quiet time alone and with God. In the midst of this, I pray that these reflections, and our fellowship together this year, will help draw us closer to the Lord and each other and His wonderful Church throughout this year. Spiritual lives are, after all, always works in progress and require the utmost patience and guidance.

I was struck with the emphasis on the laity by Pope Benedict XVI during his recent visit to the United Kingdom. At the Mass of Beatification of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, he cited Newman and his famous appeal for an intelligent and well-instructed laity: “ ‘I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men (women) who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can defend it.’” We might add that we hope and work for a laity who have and continue to develop spiritual lives, concrete lives based on love. In addition, during his homily at Westminster Cathedral, the Pope underscored the indispensable role of the laity and the witness of the lay faithful in the world of ideas, the marketplace and in the homes. He said: “How much we need, in the Church and in society witnesses of the beauty of holiness, witnesses of the splendour of truth, witnesses of the joy and freedom born of a living relationship with Christ!”

Holiness, indeed the vocation to  holiness, is at the heart of our spiritual lives. And it stems from a living relationship with Christ. That is both our goal in life and our challenge.

In his new book entitled “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything (A Spirituality for Real Life),” Jesuit Father James Martin describes spirituality in the following helpful and beautiful way: “In brief, a spirituality is a way of living in relationship with God. Within the Christian tradition, all spiritualities, no matter what their origins, have the same focus—the desire for union with God, an emphasis on love and charity, and a belief in Jesus as the Son of God.” (p. 2)

Father Martin got it so right when he included in his definition of spirituality “an emphasis on love and charity.” Life with God is inseparable from life with each other as we are made in the image and likeness of God. And the life with each other must be defined by love and charity.

In his Angelus talk on Sunday September 26, 2010,speaking on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Pope Benedict stated that this parable  "tells us two things: firstly, that God loves the poor and raises them from their abjection; secondly, that our eternal destiny is dependent upon our behaviour, it is up to us to follow the path God has shown us in order to achieve life, and this path is love, understood not as an emotion but as service to others in the charity of Christ". He ups the ante. Our eternal destiny is actually linked to our loving service to each other.

Pope John Paul II once wrote the unforgettable statement that how we care for the poor, how we respond to those in need, is in fact a measure of our fidelity to the very Bride of Christ as much as our fidelity to the orthodoxy of the Church’s doctrine. In his encyclical letter, God is Love, Benedict similarly states: “The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.” DCE 22 You see, social justice is constitutive of the gospel. It is not a footnote.

Throughout these meditations, I will seek to underscore the importance of love and charity in our relationship with each other and with God. There can be no authentic spirituality without love—a love translated into how we treat each other—even and particularly when we have differences. It is also importantly evidence in our love for the least amongst us. Recently, at Rome, in his address to the Pontifical Council of the Laity, Benedict XVI, in speaking of the challenges of our time and the role of the Christian, in fact stated: “A real ‘revolution of love’ is necessary” (May 21, 2010, 24th Plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council of the Laity).

Yes, a real “revolution of love” must be the cornerstone in our relationship with God and each other! It is essential in our developing spiritual lives. How can we conceivably love God whom we do not see and not love each other whom we do see—love in the sense of self-gift and self-sacrifice for each other—love in practical and concrete ways?

Pope Benedict reminds us, after all, in his first encyclical letter, God is Love,  that “love is possible, and we are able to practice it because we are created in the image of God,” God who is love. DCE 39 As baptized followers of Jesus, by participating in the Eucharist, His greatest gift of love to us, you and I become involved in the dynamics of His act of sacrificial giving. We become the love we receive in His body and blood broken and poured out for us. We are thus able to love sacrificially in a new and powerful way. For Benedict, he points us to Christ’s death on the Christ and suggests in that encyclical on love to contemplate the pierced side of Christ. He writes: “This is love in its most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (cf. 19:37), we can understand the starting-point of this Encyclical Letter: “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). It is there that this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move.” DCE 12 This is not simply theology. It becomes very practical.

For example, I am constantly edified by the incredible love showered on the children of my parish by moms and dads. I see it every day as parents sacrifice themselves by taking their children to sports games, ballet classes, tutoring and every possible kind of play group. So many fathers and mothers coach their children. This is a concrete expression of love, of self-sacrificing love. It is an integral part of our spiritual lives and should be seen in that way. Where charity and love exists, there God is.

There are others who give of their professional time to the poor in their pro-bono legal and health and business services. So many stretch themselves to serve the poor by giving of their time, talent and treasure. We find God in our solidarity for the poor in our midst and our spiritual journeys are enriched. We actually come to God in our service of the poor.

Pope Benedict reminds us, however, that, from a Christian perspective, for those who work with the poor, a “formation of the heart” is required. He writes in his beautiful encyclical God is Love that we need, through this formation to be “led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens [our] love and opens  [our] spirits to others. As a result, love of neighbor will no longer be for [us] a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from [our] faith, a faith which becomes active through love.” DCE 31 It thus becomes an integral part of our spiritual lives and journeys with God.

And oh how we yearn for the friendship of God even when we are not conscious that it is God that we desire.

I am reminded of a homily given years ago, at our annual Red Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, for lawyers, judges and those involved in the administration of justice, by Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde where he stated:  “So much of your time is spent with time-sheets, agenda books, email, faxes and meetings (we can now add to the list blackberries, iPhones and the latest in technological means of communication) your inner spirit surely thirsts for something more, indeed, for time to be with the Transcendent One--the Holy One--the source of these seven gifts [of the Holy Spirit], especially wisdom and fortitude.  In those treasured moments, your minds will be enlightened and your inner spirits renewed, so that your advocacy of justice and peace will be all the more authentic and real.”

Is not this inner thirsting for something more in life really the  focus of spirituality, the focus of our desire for union with God? Each one of us yearns, after all, for communion with God and with each other.  No man, or woman, is an island.  There is something within our very beings that moves us naturally to communion with God and friendship with each other, a desire that can never be snuffed out or eradicated.

President Harry Truman was reported to have said that if you want a friend in this town (Washington, D.C.), get a dog. Who of us does not want a friend, or group of faithful and genuine friends? One good friend is a treasure. A pet can for sure be faithful. But there is something more profound in us that pulls us in the direction of a supernatural Friend. With reference to this Friend, the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about this desire for God: “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself.  Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (CCC 27).  Quoting the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism states further: “The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God.  This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being.  For if man exists, it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence.  He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator ” (CCC 27).

You see, then, our mere existence is an act of love on the part of our God! You and I are held in existence as we speak and breathe and move by the love of God. Our spiritual lives, our lives in communion with God, are thus another way of revealing the  inestimable love of God for us.

Oh what a challenge it is--to entrust oneself to our Creator, to find Him in the midst of all that preoccupies us, and above all to come to know and love Him our living God, the God of Jesus Christ, God who is love!

As laity, you find yourselves on the front lines of the Church’s life and life in this world of ours.  As priests and religious, we are called to help, assist and serve you. That is our unique vocation. And what is at the heart of my vocation is my role as a priest assisting you in what is most precious in your lives—your developing spiritual lives, your desire for a personal and intimate relationship with God. There is no privilege more important to my vocation to our joint walk with God.

As laity, you not only belong to the Church but in a real way you are the Church, members of the Holy People of God and the Body of Christ.  You enrich the Church by your various charisms and professions and you are meant to be a  spark of the divine in your secular pursuits. Your proper role is to work “for the sanctification of the world from within as leaven.” LG 31

In fact, in that magna carta document on the laity entitled Christifideles Laici, a document that we will often return to this year in this series of talks, we read about the laity and their role in the Church and the world: “It is no exaggeration to say that the entire existence of the lay faithful has as its purpose to lead a person to a knowledge of the radical newness of the Christian life that comes from Baptism, the sacrament of faith, so that this knowledge can help that person live the responsibilities which arise from that vocation received from God” (CL 10).

This radical newness of our lives thus comes from Baptism. It is the very gateway to the Christian life.  It is the first sacrament.  Baptism is thus the basis of our spirituality—your spirituality and mine.  For many of us, it is a distant memory.  For some, not so distant.  For all, it is a sacrament, a transforming encounter with the living  God, which frees us from all sin--original included--and makes us children of God the Father, members of the Body of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit. The implications of this tremendous gift of God, this new life at Baptism, is not easy to understand or even appropriate.  It is the permanent beginning of a whole new way of living on this earth and directed to eternity with God.

Our spirituality is thus rooted in our Baptism as is our dignity as Christians.  We have become radically different kinds of people because of our plunge into the very life of God, people filled with love in the power of the Holy Spirit.

To fulfill your mission, as faithful lay men and women, your unique and irreplaceable mission in the life of the Church and in the world, requires an authentic spirituality and an authentic way of coming in communion and staying in communion with God and with each other. That is the challenge this year to help us know where to find our God and to allow Him to walk with us as we seek to love Him and love each other all the more deeply from the core of our being, a walk that began on the day of our baptisms.

Yes, “Authentic Lay Spirituality” is where charity and love prevail, a love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit on the day of our baptisms and renewed each and every day of our lives as we seek a deeper union with the living God. May God continue to bless you and deepen His love within you!