WHAT IS AN APOSTLE?
An apostle is a "sent one", someone who is entrusted to fulfill a task while acting in the name of someone else.
ISN'T THE TERM "APOSTLE" USED ONLY OF THE TWELVE APOSTLES (ST. PETER, ST. JOHN, ETC)?
The word "apostle" was widely used in Scripture to refer to many followers of Jesus who spread his message. Most commonly, it refers to the twelve men chosen by Jesus to be his closest disciples. The twelve Apostles were entrusted with the teachings of Christ and the authority to found and govern the Church. They were the first bishops.
The Pope and bishops are successors to the Apostles and hold the apostolic office to preach the gospel to the whole world, to guard and pass on the Apostolic faith, and to nurture the Church.
The term "apostle" is also used of Christians who were the first to bring the faith to a particular place or people. For instance, Mary Magdalene is traditionally called "the apostle to the Apostles" because she announced the resurrection to the Twelve. St. Francis Xavier, a priest, is recognized as the apostle to Japan, and St. Nino, a lay woman, as the apostle who first brought Christianity to the Georgian people of the former Soviet Union.
"For this the Church was founded; that . . .that she might bring all men (and women) to share in Christ's saving redemption. All activity of the Mystical Body director to the attainment of this goal is called the apostolate, and the Church carried it on in various ways through all her members" (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 2)
The apostolic mandate of a lay man or woman, like that of bishops and priests, is received from Christ himself through the sacraments. Lay Catholics are apostles in their own right. (Decree on the Lay Apostolate, 3)
WHAT IS MEANT BY THE TERM "APOSTOLATE"?
Christians are called apostles because all Christians are called to play a personal role in the Church's mission. This role is called an apostolate.
An apostolate is (according to the Pocket Catholic Dictionary by John A. Hardon, S.J.) "The work of an apostle, not only of the first followers of Christ but of all the faithful who carry on the mission originally entrusted by the Savior to the twelve to make disciples of all nations." (p. 26)
The document on the laity from the Second Vatican Council is entitled Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. Another way to put that would be "Decree on the Work of Lay Apostles".
"Each member of the lay faithful should always be fully aware of being a 'member of the church' yet entrusted with a unique task which cannot be done by another and which is to be fulfilled for the good of all." (The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful, 28)
WHAT IS UNIQUE ABOUT THE MISSION OF A LAY APOSTLE?
The apostolate of lay Christians is different from the apostolate of the clergy or of religious. The Church teaches that lay Christians have a secular character. "A secular quality is proper and special" to lay men and women (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 31).
WHAT DOES THE CHURCH MEAN WHEN IT USES THE WORD "SECULAR"?
When the Church uses the word "secular" she does not mean "worldly" or "anti-spiritual" or "anti-God". In Catholic theology, the word "secular" is a positive term that refers to all that pertains to this life and this world. The secular is the earthly rather than the heavenly, that which is human rather than divine, the created and visible and temporal rather than the invisible and eternal.
HOW IS A "SECULAR QUALITY" CONSIDERED PROPER TO LAY PEOPLE?
To say that a "secular quality is proper" to lay people means that lay Christians are the members of the Church who have a special call and responsibility to evangelize, transform, and order for good all that pertains to the secular--that is, to this life and this world.
DOES BEING A LAY APOSTLE MEAN I HAVE TO TURN AWAY FROM THE WORLD?
Often, the secular world is seen in opposition to service of God, and people commonly think that they must somehow "leave the world" to exercise their calling. But in fact the contrary is true. Lay Christians are particularly called to find God and to serve God through involvement with the people and situations of this life. This issue was debated at great length during the Second Vatican Council. The following summarizes some of Church teaching on this matter:
- There is an eternal value and significance to this world. This life is where the first fruits of the Kingdom of Heaven appear (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 5).
- The whole Church has an "authentic secular dimension. . . .deeply rooted in the mystery of the Word Incarnate" which all her members share in different ways (The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful, 15).
- Temporal things are to be honored because they are good in themselves and aid human beings (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 6).
- Healing this world and bringing it to the fulfillment that God intends is part of the redeeming work of Jesus (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 5).
- We are to seek to "consecrate the world" rather than have "contempt" for the world (Pope Paul VI, To All Religious).
- There is a path to holiness that is truly secular - the path of spiritual transformation through loving, prayerful work in the midst of and for the sake of the world (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 41).
- Lay Christians have a special call to bear witness to priests and religious of the great value and significance of this world in God's plan (The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful, 55).