1935: The lay apostolate

The better we get to know the living reality of Catholic Action, the more we discover the great resources which the lay apostolate brings to the Church, the better we understand why Pope Pius XI insisted so much on Catholic Action becoming everywhere “the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy.”

If we do no more than examine the legal status of Catholic Action, if we are content with an external analysis of a theory, we shall not even suspect the unbelievable renewal that Catholic Action brings to the Church. We shall miss its vast conquests and victories, we shall remain indifferent strangers, if not suspicious critics, in face of the great spiritual and apostolic renaissance which has become especially evident in youth, and which should open up vast prospects to every priest.

Have we given sufficient thought to the apostolate of the laity, have we understood its place in the Church?

There exists in the Church an apostolate which is proper to the laity, which transforms lay life into an apostolic life.

An apostolate proper to the laity. We shall understand what a wealth of new life has been acquired by the Church when we get down to concrete applications, when we see what has actually been done, when we learn astonishment of those humble, hidden, often heroic achievements of those lads and girls who are changing their daily lives into an apostolate of extraordinary faithfulness. Their work becomes a missionary life, their courtships a grand novitiate and a sublime vocation.

When we say: “Without work there can be no host, no wine, no paten, no chalice, no altar, no church, no religion,” we do not merely state a material fact, but also proclaim a great spiritual truth. When we add: “Without Christian homes, there will be no priests, no religious, no missionaries, no apostles,” we do not merely show the apostolic importance of Christian love in marriage, we also reveal to those who are preparing for marriage the apostolic significance of the need for affection and love which is awakening in their young hearts.

The apostolic vision of lay life has provoked a wealth of practical applications. It has given birth to a tremendous spirit of conquest; above all it has proved itself a source of inexhaustible energy in the life of the Church.

Let us never forget that lay life, the reality of lay life in all its aspects, is the fundamental basis, the raw material which first and foremost must be transferred into apostolic material.

The first and immediate apostolate of the layman to the layman is the fundamental basis of Catholic Action.

When we forget this truth we lose our sense of proportion, we pin our faith to arbitrary and artificial forms of training and action which will never have any grip on real, ordinary, daily life, which can never effect the Christian transformation of the real, ordinary, daily environment, or conquer the real mass which lives this ordinary life in this everyday environment.

This lay apostolate, proper to the laity, is different from that of the priestly apostolate; as different as the layman is from the priest.

Let us not look at this difference superficially, otherwise we shall underestimate it, and we shall never understand the enormous enrichment the lay apostolate brings to the Church on account of this very difference.

The priest cannot fulfil this apostolate. It is not fitting to his state or to his life.

The priest’s task is to ensure to the laity the graces necessary for the fulfilment of this lay apostolate. Therein lies his priestly ministry. He gives Christ to the laity, the Person of Christ, the grace of Christ, the doctrine of Christ; he enables the layman to incorporate Christ in his lay life, “mihi vivere Christus est,” so that he may radiate Him in his environment and his state of life. Thus the Mystic Christ becomes a wondrous reality. Christ is truly everywhere, in all His members, in every environment, among every sort and condition of people. The Church is truly present everywhere, its members are thus living the life of Christ, the life of the Mystical Body of Christ. Herein lies her power of the Mystical Body of Christ. Herein lies her power of conquest and penetration.

The lay apostolate is thus complementary to the priestly apostolate. It is complementary because it is different, because it is dependent, because it is auxiliary in the true meaning of the word. It is not auxiliary in the sense of helping the priest, in the sense of helping the priest in his priestly apostolate, as would an altar server or a sacristan, but as a necessary complement of the priestly apostolate, which can only reach its full and final results when the layman has fulfilled his own specific apostolate. Then will the Mass offered up on the altar be prolonged upon all the altars of the world; then will the Gloria and the Sanctus be sung not only by the congregation in Church, but by the whole Christian people—semper et ubique—in the reality of life itself, which will become a prayer, an act of reparation, a thanksgiving; then will all the surroundings of life become temples in which the whole of lay life gives thanks to God.

When we thus consider the lay apostolate in its first and fundamental object, the life proper to the layman, we understand more clearly how this apostolate must be adapted in order to become really gripping and effective. It must be adapted to the life and environment of the layman, to his profession, to the influence he has to exercise, the task he has to fulfil, in order that all these may become truly apostolic.

The need for adaptation may appear less obvious for a more external and secondary type of action. But let us make no mistake; that action will only give real and lasting results if it is engrafted on a vital apostolate, which demands real life. How many apostolates, with noisy and up-to-date methods, have appeared for a time to produce externally dazzling results and have led to bitter disillusionment, because they did not grasp and transform the reality of lay life.

Then we shall be able to see that the lay apostolate and Catholic Action are irreplaceable in the Church. Woe to him who would despise or mock them; he does not understand the mystery of the Church; he does not understand the mystery of the Redemption. The priest cannot and should not replace the layfolk in their apostolic mission; his task is to make them realise it and ensure to them the graces necessary for their state.

When we put together those five primary characteristics of Catholic Action:—

1. An apostolate proper to the laity;

2. An apostolate different from the priestly apostolate;

3. An apostolate complementary to the priestly apostolate;

4. An adapted apostolate;

5. An irreplaceable apostolate;

we can see to what extent this apostolate is necessary to the Church.

This need does not arise from lack of priests in the world, but from the limitations of the priestly apostolate, which itself is not the whole of the Catholic apostolate. It does not only arise from the danger of modern laicism, though the growth of secularism accentuates the need for it. Catholic Action has always been, and always will be, necessary to the Church, on account of her very constitution and divine mission. Its necessity is of divine origin, it is willed by the Divine Founder of the Church.

Thus we can say that the lay apostolate is essential to the Church, and belongs to the very essence of the Church. Layfolk only belong to the Church in so far as they partake in her apostolate. There can be no flock without shepherd, no shepherd without flock. The one is not to be separated from the other, for the whole Mystical Body must be apostolic. The very nature of the Church demands the lay apostolate. Every Concordat signed under Pius XI mentions the liberty of Catholic Action as an essential part of the liberty of the Church.

The very importance of the lay apostolate explains the urgency of its organisation at a time when the whole Church must make a stand against the menace of materialism. Catholic Action is the lay apostolate organised. Organised under the direction of religious authority, which assumes responsibility, so that Catholic Action may be as powerful as possible and may achieve its purpose. Its organisation must be disciplined, living, and adapted under the unifying authority of the hierarchy. And now that life and living conditions are influenced by currents and movements which have more than a mere local appeal, Catholic Action must increasingly be organised on the national plane if it is to get hold of public opinion and establish strong means of training and action.

This organisation of Catholic Action must needs be hierarchic from a twofold point of view. Externally, so to speak, it is entirely dependent on the Pope and the Bishops. Internally, it needs a lay hierarchy to ensure its unity and to organise the activities which give confidence and enthusiasm for all its campaigns and work. In this fashion the sharing of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy will grow and become strong in the Church. A disciplined laity—acies ordinata—conscious of its responsibilities, freely, proudly, totally submissive to the Hierarchy, happy to share each according to his work, place and capacities, in the hierarchy’s apostolate, which is that of the Church herself.

So, finally, Catholic Action is the lay apostolate mandated by the hierarchy, in that it derives its power officially and publicly from ecclesiastical authority. Not that every layman in Catholic Action possesses an official mandate; this mandate is given to the organisation, and all the members share in it to some degree. It is above all the task of the leaders and militants to fulfil this mandate, and to enable the ordinary members to understand the mission the Church has given them within their organisation. When a militant has understood this, great results may be expected. One can demand from layfolk living in the world a degree of sanctity and perfection of virtue which is normally found only among religious.

As trainers of the ordinary member, as propagandists and recruiters for their organisation, they are the leaders, the true representatives of Catholic Action. Real lay missionaries, Catholic Action opens out to them a great field of apostolate; without quitting their lay life, or changing their environment, they become the true spokesmen of the Catholic Church. The fruitfulness of their apostolate so far gives promise of still greater progress.

These considerations are bound to arouse enthusiasm for Catholic Action, as much among priests as among laymen. They stress the greatness and the fruitfulness of the priestly apostolate; the priest is truly the father, the inspiration, the mainstay of all apostolates. His priesthood gives to the Church all these apostles who transform it. By means of the whole Church, he transmits grace and the Gospel to the world.

They also show the layfolk their essential place, their magnificent role in the Church. St. Peter calls them a chosen generation, a holy nation, a kingly priesthood. Far from being passive, they have an active part to play in the Church, in the whole world. Hence the immense hopes the Pope has placed in the extension of Catholic Action: and all the chaplains of Catholic Action should be inspired to seek all the strength and light they need to fulfil their educative and supernatural task.

Joseph Cardijn

ORIGINAL SOURCE: Notes de Pastorale Jociste—April, 1935


Joseph Cardijn, The Church and the young worker, Speeches and writings of Canon Joseph Cardijn, Collection Young Worker Library No. 1, Young Christian Workers, London, 1948, 74p. at p. 13-18.

Joseph Cardijn, The lay apostolate (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)