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The Laity and Transformation of the World

“An authentic faith…always involves a deep desire to change the world[.]”

These words of Pope Francis from Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) echo the desire of Jesus Christ for all lay members of the Church. These words were also at the core of the pontificate of John Paul II whose feast day we celebrated Tuesday.

Carrying out the work of the Second Vatican Council, JPII was devoted to the holiness of the laity. He also constantly empowered them with their God-given responsibility to transform the temporal affairs of the everyday world. The great Saint particularly did so in Christifideles Laici (“Christ’s Faithful People”), a papal document addressing “the mission and vocation of the lay faithful in the Church and in the world.” This document contains many treasures for prayerful contemplation and provides the foundations for understanding the true identity of the laity who daily labor in the Lord’s vineyard.

JPII recognized that transformation of the everyday world—in its economic, political, social, and cultural dimensions—is impossible without the power of God. In the absence of God, the human person is not reverently approached in his or her inviolable dignity, as “one endowed with conscience and freedom, called to live responsibly in society and history, and oriented towards spiritual and religious values.” Instead, the human person is subjected to manipulation by those who are stronger and more powerful. In place of charity, false notions of freedom are advanced and “the use of a liberty without bonds” is pursued.

But JPII also acknowledged that the world is not doomed—the misuse of freedom and abuse of power are not a fait accompli. Far from it, Christ has come. He has redeemed the world. And through Him we have been given the grace of Baptism, to be brought into the family of God as children and heirs to the Kingdom.

It is this Baptism which bestows upon us our roles as priest, prophet, and king. In our priesthood, we offer our lives as sacrifice to the Father in our daily activities in the family, in the workplace, and elsewhere. In our prophetic office, we pronounce the Truth and “without hesitation [] courageously identify and denounce evil.” In our kingly office, we help the world “overcome... the kingdom of sin” by serving our brothers and sisters in charity and justice.

Transformed in Baptism and constantly rooted in Jesus Christ, Who is the Vine, our transformation of the world takes on a particular form as lay people—a “secular character” as JPII called it. By this, he meant that the laity are, quoting Pope Pius XII, on the “frontlines of the Church’s life.” 

The laity are those who “live in the world... in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life…they study, they work, they form relationships as friends, professionals, members of society, cultures, etc.” As JPII further notes, this is not simply a sociological description of lay person’s life, but this is an anthropological and theological reality. It is something essential to “the very fabric of [a lay person’s] existence.”

All of this compels the human heart to interact with the world and to seek its transformation, including in its political dimensions. Each member of the laity is called and commanded to engage in the political sphere, to some degree or another as is fitting for their particular life circumstances and call to holiness. Fear cannot detract from this call and command. Instead, solace must be sought in the words of Scripture so often quoted by JPII: “Be not afraid!”

Pope Benedict XVI said with conviction that “the Church cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.” An authentic faith—rooted in an identity as a child of God the Father, continuously transformed by an encounter with Jesus Christ, driven by the mission of the Holy Spirit—must play a role in transforming the cultural and political conditions necessary to achieve peace and justice for all people. This is why Saint Pope John Paul II could say without hesitation: “It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle” in the work of transforming the world for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

As we seek to courageously participate as faithful citizens in the political sphere, let us ask for the intercession of Saint John Paul the Great!

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