The Age of Lay Sanctity


This was written in the 1950’s…how much more it is relevant now. As laity, we have to speak up and step up! 

The Age of Lay Sanctity by Richard Cardinal Cushing

The vast majority of Catholics work out their careers and their salvation as laity at work in the world. To one charged, as am I, with preaching sanctity and the spread of the Church that thought would be discouraging did I not recognize that this is the age of lay sanctity.

We cannot say, as some do, that men are getting better and better with each succeeding age; history doesn’t support that. Nor can we say that men are getting progressively worse.

What can be discerned is a pendulum movement. Temporal society moves toward Christ or away from Him. When it is moving toward Christ, men’s minds and institutions tend to focus more and more on Him; —the best artists take to painting themes involving Him; and even the minor events of family life are marked by sacramental remembrances of Him. Such was the time of the Ages of Faith.

The Renaissance brought about a sharp change and the pendulum started swinging in the other direction, away from Christ. Men didn’t say so;—they merely said they were going after the humanly wholesome, the healthy, the well-ordered, the just, the naturally good. But that is impossible for fallen and redeemed man. We must either look above the natural order to the supernatural order (and when we do so the natural order is rectified and preserved), or we speedily fall below nature.

When the pendulum swings away from the supernatural order, it leads not toward the secular, but toward the profane. That’s where we appear to be now, at the bad natural because we thought we could have the good natural without Christ.

It is because we have reached the end of the pendulum swing away from Christ that our problems today are basically theological.

It was not a priest, by the way, but a general who so described our problem; it was not Maritain, the Christian philosopher, but MacArthur, famous leader of our military forces.

It is folly to think that we can go from wars to peace without reference to our theology, without reference to Christ, or from no housing to adequate housing, or from economic disorder to economic order. We cannot hold to good, except through our redemption in Christ.

The most realistic program today is, therefore, the program “to restore all things in Christ.”

The idle dreamers and wishful thinkers are those who place their full confidence in natural remedies, more laws, mere leaders, science or sociology alone.

Since the world is sick for Christ, wise men will look to the Church of Christ for the remedy.

What does the Church propose? She seems to be telling us that God is using this occasion for His Church to explore the means of sanctification appointed for the lay state. The laity are caught between religion and life; God, by perfecting them in sanctity, uses them for the sanctification of the temporal order.

The evidence of recent history points to the sanctification of the laity as the major ferment going on today in the worldwide Church. There is evidence at every hand: the surprising number of lay people who clearly desire a more than ordinarily holy life, the increase of interest in religion among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the number of devoted lay people who do not find their place in the religious life, and yet desire an intense Christianity.

The evidence of the Specialized Catholic Action movements is particularly impressive. They have held out the highest ideals of sanctity to their members and have begun to produce even contemplatives within the lay state.

There is also the evidence of the ordinary Catholic layman, especially many young intellectuals. They may not yearn for martyrdom or mystical prayer. They may even long for a routine, humble life in the suburbs, with only conventional religious practices. But they are deeply committed to parish life and parish schools, and they are the strength of the new revivals of liturgy and discussion.

Unless they are blind, they are beginning to see the handwriting on the wall: It is no longer possible to be mediocre. Are you for Me or against Me?” They are open to the call to lay sanctity.

Religious life has always been regarded as higher in itself than the lay life, and rightly so. Religious orders have set up integral conditions which directly conduce to sanctity: community life, the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, observation of silence, the Office and so forth.

The laity are called to perfection, too, but they are necessarily busy about temporal affairs and subject to numerous distractions. Lay saints do not besprinkle the missal as do religious saints, and many of the most promising laity of the history of canonized sanctity ended by repudiating their lay state—mothers going off to found convents over the prostrate bodies of their children, or widowed queens retiring to the cloister.

So there has grown up the feeling often expressed by the remark, “If you want to be holy, why don’t you go into the convent or monastery?”

And, indeed, a lot of lay people who sincerely wish to be holy often behave like religious out of a cloister. They try to keep religious practices in the lay state, sometimes saying the Divine Office or forming into semi-religious communities under a modified rule.

Especially in Europe there are groups of people who are sort of half-religious and half-lay. They probably represent a temporary phenomenon in the Church, one which will disappear as they themselves develop into real religious communities or as the principles of sanctity in lay life are more clearly worked out.

But even if these institutes find a permanent place, they will not satisfy the demand for a path of perfection in the lay life, because they are not susceptible of general application in the lives of Christian career people.

It is precisely the spiritual and apostolic potential of marriage itself which is the keynote to lay sanctity. This is because the devout lay life offers a magnificent opportunity for referring all one’s actions to Christ.

Holiness is not achieved by being pulled two directions at once; if your life is divided between two things which cannot be related to the same end, if you are a business man during the week and a practicing Catholic on Sundays, if you are building a railroad days and doing spiritual reading evenings, if you are on the assembly line most of the time and taking the parish census on Saturdays.

To advance in holiness you have to get the “single eye” the Gospel talks about. The religious does it by leaving aside worldly activities and substituting sacred activities. The devout laity do it by transcending temporal activities by means of the lay apostolate.

The intellectual, professional man or craftsman intent on lay sanctity does all the things his world-bound co-worker does in the way of excellence, but adds the dimension of eternity to his life and work by the supernatural motivation that dominates all that he is and does.

The devout laity, particularly the intellectuals, set up supernatural charity as the guiding principle of their life. They work for the love of God in the love of their neighbor. They choose their associates for the love of God, singling out those who need them rather than always seeking those whom they can use.

They are disposed cheerfully to give up their sleep or their lunch or their leisure or their money for the same reason. They do not think always of the sanctification of their own souls. They think of others; even their desire to grow in God’s grace is because “they cannot give what they do not have.”

And so indirectly they become holy, whereas the pious but unapostolic lay person is apt to turn in upon himself and fail to get holy despite hours spent in church and a grim determination to be a saint.

The religious renounces all except a bare minimum of the things of this world for the sake of God. By doing so he helps detach himself from the love of these things.

If the layman is to become holy he must also become detached, but he must ordinarily do it in the opposite way, by using the things of this world for God. It so happens that in our time this is an especially good channel to sanctity.

Take the matter of marriage. The religious foregoes the pleasure of marriage for God’s sake. The layman who undertakes the full responsibilities of marriage today for God’s sake is hardly in danger of forgetting God.

Quite the contrary: the couple who deliberately set out to keep God’s law in marriage are apt to discover that God is almost the only one on their side!

Our society doesn’t go in for family wages, or provide family houses any more, or even give verbal encouragement to parenthood. Married people today have to practice heroic trust in God, heroic indifference to public opinion, heroic fortitude in respect to living arrangements.

Many are their trials even when they are happily married. The unhappily married who refrain from divorce, and that with a cheerful countenance, are the modern martyrs.

Consider also the matter of talents, including great intellectual talent. The religious often gives up the use of his talents for the sake of prayer or penance, or else he makes the use of his talents subject to the will of his superior. It is an antidote to pride.

Here, too, the lay apostle is faced with the opposite action to achieve the same effect. He has to use his talents, plus. Lay apostles have to show a willingness to be used as God’s instruments, and that usually means they will be used to do great things, greater things than they are able, thanks to God’s grace.

In short, life in the world today is a heavy cross by its very nature. Most people are busy running madly away, jumping from one escapist pleasure to another. Anyone who turns around and picks up the cross, as every Christian must, has a built-in set-up for sanctity.

Religious often take a vow of stability, which helps keep them from being attached to a particular place. Today’s laity are visited with chronic instability, which is an opposite cross producing the same general effect. The family that moves around after seasonal work or searching for decent housing has but to remember the Son of Man Who had nowhere to lay His head, in order to have a certain peace without permanency.

Religious have their convent or monastery chapel as the center of their liturgical lives. His parish church or any church where he hears Mass and receives Communion is the sacramental center of the devout layman’s day.

It is significant that Daily Communion is easily available today, because the lay apostle has to have this Daily Bread if he is to live by faith in an atmosphere which speaks of God only by His absence.

Next to the Mass, spiritual direction is of primary importance to the truly modern devout layman. Religious have the rule of their order and the counsel of their superiors to guide their lives, but the laity have neither a rule nor a Christian order in society, and it has ever been true that a man is not trustworthy as his own guide.

It is hard to find a good spiritual director, especially one who understands the lay apostolate, but the laity have at least the advantage of being free to search far and wide in order to find one.

Once found, a good spiritual director will give the devout layman a spiritual anchor and orientation. Christopher Dawson recently commented on the decline in the art and availability of spiritual direction for intellectuals just at the moment when most needed.

Hence the great importance of the Retreat in the life of the layman. Now that retreat houses are fairly widespread, and whole religious orders have dedicated themselves to the task of making retreats available, there is a growing demand for retreats of greater spiritual intensity.

Those who are to be truly Christian la-men need solid and advanced doctrine. They want Saint Thomas, Saint John of the Cross, St. Benedict and St. Ignatius rather than watered-down, minimum Christianity and pious exhortations. But they are beginning to get it here and there, even if they have to arrange for their own retreats and retreat masters.

One frequently hears laity speak of the Church as though it did not include them, as though nuns and priests were somehow more surely Catholics than they. Indeed it has been a fairly widespread opinion among the laity that they were somehow outside the doors looking in.

One unhappy consequence has been that they haven’t felt any particular responsibility within the Church. Theirs to save their own souls (with minimum effort) and contribute money.

Theirs not to know doctrine, beyond a catechetical level. Theirs not to apply Christian principles in daily life. Theirs not to talk religion or defend the Faith. This age is over.

The work of the laity is not to usurp or intrude upon the proper work of the religious, but to reorient the temporal affairs of society toward Christ, to concentrate on marriage, business, housing, politics and the rest.

They will need the direction of the clergy in varying degrees according to the nature of the projects, and some work will be shared necessarily by religious and laity, but once it is quite clear that the laity have their own proper work to do in the Church the relations between religious and laity will become closer and more harmonious.

We shall all begin to see that the eye has need of the hand . . . that there are many members, but also many functions within the same body.

That body is Christ Himself. He is the source of the sanctity of religious. He is not less the source of the lay sanctity which must more and more characterize the present period of the layman in the life of the Church.

A year ago, speaking at the graduation at the F.B.I. Training School, I repudiated the idea that this is “the century of the common man” in the life of America. I made a plea for uncommon men, men of uncommon patriotism and integrity, to be the strength of America.

Today I make a like plea in behalf of the Church. Common sanctity, average piety, routine religious interests are no longer enough in our laity.

We need uncommon sanctity in our intellectuals, extraordinary piety in our professional people, heroic devotion to Christ and His Church if Christian civilization is to survive.

In this age of lay sanctity, I pray that Christian laymen will prove appropriate to the needs of America and the hopes of the Church.

As Mary, beautiful and perfect, is the sublime model for every Catholic wife, so Joseph, “the just man,”‘ gentle, kind, and chaste, is a model for every Catholic husband. When God blesses your home with human life, the fruit of love, your family becomes like the Holy Family. In the family life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are exemplified the proper relations that should exist between husband and wife, parents and children. By practicing the domestic virtues of charity, obedience, and mutual help, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph sanctified family life. -Lawrence G. Lovasik. The Catholic Family Handbook

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A wonderful book showing how the angels have visited people innumerable times in the past, how they do so today, and would do even more if we asked them. Also, how they prevent accidents, comfort us, help us, and protect us from the devils. Contains many beautiful stories about St. Michael, St. Raphael and St. Gabriel; plus, angel stories from St. Gemma Galgani, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Bosco, etc.



A very optimistic book showing how an “ordinary” Catholic can become a great saint without ever doing anything “extraordinary”–just by using the many opportunities for holiness that to most people lie hidden in each day. Written with an assurance of success that is totally convincing and infectious. Many easy but infallible means of reaching great sanctity.

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