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Lay Apostolate: Risky Business? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 13 October 2009 06:36
An Australian pharmacist has really gone out on a limb: he is refusing to sell contraceptives and condoms in his pharmacy.

"Trevor Dal Broi, who runs East Griffith Pharmacy in New South Wales, is now handing out a leaflet to women with prescriptions for the contraceptive pill, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. The leaflets say he accepts the teachings of the Catholic Church on artificial contraception and that he has a moral objection to dispensing them."

Fortunately, there is no law in New South Wales that forces a pharmacist to sell any particular medicine.

But the level of incomprehension in Australia's very secularized society is high toward such a rare public stand. And the chances that someone will shortly propose a new law that requires all pharmacists to sell contraceptives in response to the publicity about this one man's decision is very high. I wonder what kind of support is available to him from the Catholic community as he takes this most unusual stand?

One of Fr. Mike's themes in his homily last weekend in Indianapolis was the issue of how the Christian community could really support lay apostles who undertake difficult or risky initiatives in the public square in order to follow Christ. It could be the whistle-blower in a big corporation (think Enron), the intern who refuses to be trained in or perform abortions, a conscientious objector in the military, the nurse who takes a leave of absence from her job to lead the local opposition to a euthanasia initiative, or the young community activist who is heading up a creative response to homelessness or the needs of immigrants.

One very gifted priest of my acquaintance found the idea that ordinary lay Catholics should take risks for the sake of their faith to be unthinkable. It wasn't part of a lay Christian's role. Religious could take risks because they had a community behind them supporting them. But lay Catholics were alone, completely self-supporting, and vulnerable and therefore, not called to economic or professional risk-taking for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Alas, my priest friend, was reflecting the deep assumptions of Catholic life. The combination of our American individualism, the lack of a culture of discipleship in our parishes which would help make this sort of situation seem appropriate and "normal", and our Catholic tendency to pass one another like ships in the night at Mass, makes it very rare to find genuine support for such risky obediences on the part of lay people in the Catholic community.

We usually lack the vision and structures in our parishes to even begin this conversation. To know how to listen to and lovingly discern an individual's sense of God's call and to have ways in place to appropriately make a genuine call known to the community and to provide support for that call.

As Fr. Mike found out during his years as a pastor, many lay men and women are incredibly reluctant to have what they are doing outside their parish involvements made visible to the community at all. He wanted to let the community know about the wonderful things he was hearing, to be challenged by the creative apostolates that some of his parishioners were engaged in, but every single person declined the opportunity to share their story with the rest of the parish.

It doesn't seem humble somehow and violates the widely existing working assumption that it isn't the province of lay people to talk about their faith (that's for priests and religious). Lay people just "do it". Good Catholics do what they do outside the community quietly and inconspicuously. If you do talk about it at all, it would be in confession or spiritual direction or to a priest who would keep it confidential and could give you any support or direction that was necessary. Or to your family or little circle of friends.

Of course, if no one else knows, they can't help us discern or support us or join us in the work. But who were you to think that what you were called to by God has any possible meaning or significance for the larger community? How arrogant can you get? So much of what God is doing in our midst goes unrecognized and unacknowledged and it never dawns upon the vast majority that they have anything to discern.

But what if it is not about us?

A few years ago, I heard this story from a wonderful, creative apostle in the upper Mid-west (Yes, all those Garrison Keillor jokes are true.) She told me that she knew what her charisms were but she had stopped using them because she had gotten so much positive feedback about them that she was afraid of becoming proud. But what if it wasn't about her?

What if discerning our charisms and our call is not primarily about you or me at all?

What if the main point is about what God intends to reach someone else through our consent and cooperation with his grace?

If all of us who are baptized have received the Holy Spirit and charisms and a mission (as the Church teaches), then being "proud" of our charisms or our mission makes about as much sense as being proud of having a library card. It is a good, useful thing but if everyone else has one, what's the big deal about acknowledging it publicly?

It makes about as much sense as being proud of having a driver's license. Which is a big deal at 16. But if you are still treating it as a big deal at 30, the rest of us will be thinking " Get a life."

One of the consequences of the fact that our parishes are not characterized by a culture of discipleship, is that it so often feels odd, off-putting, and self-agrandizing for lay Catholics to openly talk to one another and to the community about a sense of call -especially to non-ecclesial apostolates. Because we still regard such a sense of call to be "normal" only for priests and religious. And very, very rare for lay men and women.

But if we can't talk about it with one another, how can we support one another? How can we discern if we are also called to be part of the same work?

How many of us never recognize and answer God's call because we don't see others around us - who are like us - doing so? How many of us even dream that God might call us at all? If we don't see other ordinary Catholics around us wrestling with discernment, why would we ever dream that we would be that "rare" lay person called to something specific by God? Why would we take risks for the sake of the Gospel that we don't see anyone else around us even contemplating?

It is the Church's teaching that all the baptized are anointed for a mission. That the whole purpose of the formation of the laity is to enable each one to discern and live God's call. That is it is an integral part of the priestly office to call forth the charisms and vocations of the laity.

At best, we are calling forth only 1 - 2% of all the vocations God is sending us. As risky as it is for us to hear and answer God's call, it is immeasurably riskier for us to essentially refuse to accept 98% of the vocations that God is sending us by not doing whatever it takes to help every baptized person encounter Jesus Christ and embrace the vocation(s) that will emerge from that encounter.

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