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Throughout the twentieth century, leaders of the Catholic Church implored lay men and women with increasing urgency to be more active as Catholics in society, and—since Vatican II—to become more involved in the internal affairs of the Church. The earlier call found a warm response among Catholic Americans in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. But as Catholics gained in affluence and influence, the lay apostolate has suffered, while new opportunities for service in the institutional Church have gone begging. No wonder that John Paul II, with his history of close collaboration with lay men and women, often refers to the laity as a “sleeping giant.” For decades, the giant has seemed lost in the deep slumber of an adolescent. Now that the sleeper is beginning to stir—roused by media coverage of clerical sexual misconduct—it is beginning to look as though the Leviathan has the faith I.Q. of a pre-adolescent. Can this be the long-awaited “hour of the laity”?

The current resurgence of interest in lay organization suggests that the time is ripe to explore what has happened to American Catholics’ understanding of the lay vocation over the years during which they made unprecedented economic and social advances. Are the sixty-three million or so Catholics who comprise over a fifth of the U.S. population evangelizing the culture, as every Christian is called to do, or is the culture evangelizing them?

Since poets and novelists often help us to see things afresh, I propose to approach that question through a lens borrowed from an acute literary observer of the modern world. The protagonist of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller is arguably not a person, but a group—a nomadic tribe of rainforest-dwellers. To outsiders, they are known as the Machiguengas, but they call themselves the people-who-walk. The reader never meets the Machiguengas face to face; we only hear of them from a narrator who is trying to find out whether the tribe still exists. We learn that from time immemorial, the stories and traditions of the people-who-walk were remembered, enriched, and handed down by habladors—storytellers. These stories helped the tribe to maintain its identity—to keep on walking no matter what, through many changes and crises. But as the rainforest gave way to agriculture and industry, the Machiguengas scattered. For a time, their habladors traveled from one cluster of families to another and kept them bound together. The storytellers “were the living sap that circulated and made the Machiguengas into a society, a people of interconnected and interdependent beings.” But anthropologists think that the storytellers eventually died out, that the Machiguengas were absorbed into cities and villages, and that their stories survive only as entertainment. The narrator suspects otherwise, and the drama of the novel comes from his effort to find out whether it is really true that a mysterious red-haired stranger has become the hablador of the Machiguengas so that they will not lose their stories and their sense of who they are.

That problem—the problem of how a dispersed people remembers who it is and what constitutes it as a people—lies at the heart of the challenges confronting the Ecclesia (which may be translated as “the people-called-together”) in America. Catholics are constituted as a people by the story of the world’s salvation, and part of that story requires them to be active in the world, spreading the Good News wherever they are. The people-called-together are called to witness, and to keep on witnessing no matter what, in and out of season. How well have American Catholics done at keeping that story alive through the crises, changes, temptations, and opportunities they encountered in the mission territory that is the United States?

From the beginning, Catholic settlers in North America were strangers in a Protestant land. At the time of the Founding, several states had established Protestant churches. Congregationalism, for example, was the official religion of Massachusetts until 1833, and in many New England towns the Congregational meeting house was the seat of town government as well as the place of Sunday worship. Nevertheless, when Alexis de Tocqueville surveyed the American social landscape in 1831, he predicted that Catholics would flourish there. The growing Catholic presence would prove beneficial for the young nation’s experiment in self-government because, he argued, their religion made them “the most democratic class in the United States,” since it imposes the same standards on everyone, rich and poor, and it leaves its followers free to act in the political sphere.

The French visitor, far-sighted as he often was, never suspected that a storm was gathering as he wrote those words. He failed to detect the anti-Catholicism that would fuse with nativism and erupt into violence as Catholic immigrants arrived from Europe in ever-increasing numbers. In 1834, an angry mob in Boston (the city he had regarded as America’s most civilized) burned an Ursuline convent to the ground while police and firemen stood by and watched. Three years later, arsonists destroyed most of Boston’s Irish quarter. Similar atrocities were repeated across the country. But the expanding economy demanded cheap labor, and the immigrants kept arriving from Ireland, Italy, Germany, French Canada, and Eastern Europe. By the turn of the century, the Roman Catholic Church was the country’s largest and fastest growing religious community, with twelve million adherents.

Struggling for survival in a hostile environment, the immigrant Catholics built their own separate set of primary and high schools, hospitals, and colleges. Picking up on the American penchant for associating, they formed countless fraternal, social, charitable, and professional organizations. Protestants had the Masons and the Eastern Star, Catholics had the Knights of Columbus and the Daughters of Isabella. Through dogged effort and sacrifice, they constructed, in historian Charles Morris’ words, “a virtual state-within-a-state so Catholics could live almost their entire lives within a thick cocoon of Catholic institutions.” From their neighborhood bases in northern cities, the newcomers used democratic political processes to win political power at the state and local level. But when the Catholic governor of New York ran for President in 1928, virulent anti-Catholicism broke out again. Al Smith’s resounding defeat reinforced the Catholic sense of separateness through the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

Interestingly, the period when Catholic Americans were most separate was the time when they were most active—as Catholics—in the world. In 1931, on the fortieth anniversary of the historic social encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pius XI called for Catholic action to counter the transformation of society along Communist or Fascist lines. “Nowadays,” he wrote in Quadragesimo Anno, “as more than once in the history of the Church, we are confronted with a world which in large measure has almost fallen back into paganism.” He told the lay faithful that they must “lay aside internal quarrels” so that each person could play his role “as far as talents, powers, and station allow” in a peaceful but militant struggle for “the Christian renewal of human society.” Laypersons were to be “the first and immediate apostles” in that struggle, he said. The response of Catholics in this country was all that the Pope could have wished. They were instrumental in curbing Communist influence in the labor movement, and they made the Democratic party in the urban North into the party of the neighborhood, the family, and the workingman.

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana, who taught at Harvard in the early twentieth century, was intrigued by the contrast between what he perceived as a buoyant, optimistic American culture and the ancient Catholic faith, with its “vast disillusion about this world and minute illusions about the next.” He wrote in 1934 that Catholics in the U.S. had no serious conflicts with their Protestant neighbors because “their respective religions pass among them for family matters, private and sacred, with no political implications.” If Santayana had spent less time in Cambridge and more in Boston, he would have realized that the Catholicism of urban immigrant communities was not at all “private”; it was merely enclosed in the neighborhoods. Those were the decades when lay Catholics were intensely involved, as Catholics, in the parish, the workplace, and the precinct. It was also a time when the people-called-together was blessed with an abundance of storytellers. In parochial schools, at Mass and devotions, and around their kitchen tables, Catholics were constantly reminded of who they were, where they came from, and what their mission was in the world.

But as St. Paul told the Corinthians, “The world as we know it is always passing away.” As Catholics climbed up the economic and social ladder, they left the old neighborhoods for the suburbs. Parents began sending their children to public schools and to non-Catholic colleges. Vocations to religious life declined. Geographic and social mobility scattered Catholic communities of memory and mutual aid as relentlessly as agriculture and industry pushed back the rainforest of the Machiguengas. By the 1960s, the nation-within-a-nation had dissolved and the diaspora had begun.

The people-called-together thus embarked on what Morris well describes as “the dangerous project of severing the connection between the Catholic religion and the separatist . . . culture that had always been the source of its dynamism, its appeal, and its power.” The transition was symbolized by the election to the presidency of a highly assimilated Catholic, John F. Kennedy, who matched the nativists in the vigor of his denunciation of public aid to parochial schools. The 1960 election taught ambitious descendants of immigrants that all doors could be open to them so long as they were not too Catholic.

Two years later came the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the Church’s historic effort to meet the challenges of bringing the gospel to the structures of the modern, increasingly secularized, world. The Council fathers, realizing that the cooperation of the laity would be crucial, sent strongly worded messages to lay men and women, reminding them that they are the front line of the Church’s mission in society, and that, wherever they find themselves, they must strive to “consecrate the world itself to God.” But events underway in the United States and other affluent countries would make it harder than ever for such messages to get through. The breakdown in sexual mores, the rise in family disruption, and the massive entry of mothers of young children into the labor force amounted to a massive social experiment, an unprecedented demographic revolution for which neither the Church nor the affected societies were prepared.

In those turbulent years, pressures intensified for Catholics to treat their religion as an entirely private matter, and to adopt a pick-and-choose approach to doctrine. Many of their habladors—theologians, religious educators, and clergy—succumbed to the same temptations. In that context, it was not only difficult for the strong demands of Vatican II to be heard; the messages that did get through were often scrambled. In an important sense, all the most divisive controversies of the post-conciliar years were about how far Catholics can go in adapting to the prevailing culture while remaining Catholic.

Though American society was rapidly becoming more secular, certain cultural elements of Protestantism remained as strong or stronger than ever: radical individualism, intolerance for dissent (redirected toward dissent from the secular dogmas that replaced Christianity in the belief systems of many), and an abiding hostility to Catholicism. For the upwardly mobile Catholic, assimilation into that culture thus meant acquiescing in anti-Catholicism to a degree that would have astonished our immigrant ancestors. But that’s what all too many of us did. In the 1970s, Andrew Greeley observed that “of all the minority groups in this country, Catholics are the least concerned about their own rights and the least conscious of the persistent and systematic discrimination against them in the upper reaches of the corporate and intellectual worlds.”

In this observation, as in his early warnings about child abuse and the growth of a homosexual subculture among the clergy, Father Greeley was on the mark. I regret to say that I was a case in point until my consciousness was raised by my Jewish husband. In the 1970s, when I was teaching at Boston College Law School, someone took down all the crucifixes from the walls one summer. Though the majority of the faculty at the time was Catholic and the Dean was a Jesuit priest, not one of us entered a protest. When I told my husband, he was shocked. He said, “What’s the matter with you Catholics? There would be an uproar if anyone did something like that with Jewish symbols. Why do Catholics put up with that kind of thing?” That was a turning point for me. I began to wonder: Why do we Catholics put up with that sort of thing? Why did we get so careless about the faith for which our ancestors made so many sacrifices?

In many cases, the answer lies simply in the desire to get ahead and be accepted. But for most Catholics of the American diaspora, I believe the problem is deeper: they no longer know how to talk about what they believe or why they believe it. The people-called-together have lost their sense of who they are and what they were called to do.

And they seem to have lost a lot of mail as well. How many lay people, one wonders, have read any of the letters that popes have addressed to them over the years? For that matter, how many Catholics can give a sensible account of basic Church teachings on matters as close to them as the Eucharist and human sexuality, let alone the lay apostolate? If few can do so, it is not for lack of communications from Rome. Building on Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, the fathers of Vatican II reminded the lay faithful that it is their particular responsibility “to evangelize the various sectors of family, social, professional, cultural, and political life.”

These have been constant themes of Pope John Paul II. In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, to take just one example, he renewed the call to the social apostolate, emphasizing “the preeminent role” of the laity in protecting the dignity of the person, and asking “both men and women . . . to be convinced of . . . each one’s individual responsibility, and to implement—by the way they live as individuals and as families, by the use of their resources, by their civic activity, by contributing to economic and political decisions, and by personal commitment to national and international undertakings—the measures inspired by solidarity and love of preference for the poor.” He spelled out the implications of the lay vocation for contemporary Americans with great clarity in Baltimore in 1995: “Sometimes witnessing to Christ will mean drawing out of a culture the full meaning of its noblest intentions . . . . At other times, witnessing to Christ means challenging that culture, especially when the truth about the human person is under assault.”

Now that the “sleeping giant” is beginning to show signs of regaining Catholic consciousness, the Church is going to have to reckon with the fact that the most highly educated laity in its history has forgotten a great deal about where it came from. Meanwhile, as with any emerging mass movement, activists with definite ideas about where they would like it to go are eager to capture the giant’s strength for their own purposes. In recent months, American Catholics have heard vague but strident calls for “structural reform,” for lay “empowerment,” and for more lay participation in the Church’s internal “decision making.” Dr. Scott Appleby, for example, told the American bishops in Dallas that “I do not exaggerate by saying that the future of the Church in this country depends on your sharing authority with the laity.”

There has also been much talk about the need for a more independent American Catholic Church. “Let Rome be Rome,” said Dr. Appleby. Then there is Governor Frank Keating, chosen by the bishops to head their National Review Board, who proclaimed, astonishingly, at his first press conference that, with respect to the role of the laity, “Martin Luther was right.” The Voice of the Faithful, an organization formed in 2002 by Boston suburbanites, states as its mission: “To provide a prayerful voice, attentive to the spirit, through which the faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church.” (One has to wonder just what spirits had been consulted when a leader of that group boasted excitedly to the Boston Globe that “the mainstream Catholics, all sixty-four million of them,” were speaking through Voice of the Faithful’s convention this past July.)

There is nary a sign, thus far, that these spokesmen have a sense of the main job the Gospels tell Christians they were placed on earth to do. Even the late Basil Cardinal Hume, hardly a reactionary in church matters, took pains to caution an earlier reform-minded group, the Common Ground Initiative, against “the danger of concentrating too much on the life within the Church.” “I suspect,” he said, “that it is a trick of the Devil to divert good people from the task of evangelization by embroiling them in endless controversial issues to the neglect of the Church’s essential role, which is mission.”

By leaving evangelization and the social apostolate out of the picture, many lay spokespersons are promoting some pretty basic misunderstandings: that the best way for the laity to be active is in terms of ecclesial governance; that the Church and her structures are to be equated with public agencies or private corporations; that she and her ministers are to be regarded with mistrust; and that she stands in need of supervision by secular reformers. If those attitudes take hold, they will make it very difficult for the Church to move forward through the present crisis without compromising either her teachings or her constitutionally protected freedom to carry out her mission.

Much of that careless talk simply reflects the fact that, with the decline of Catholic institutions, the actual experience of the lay apostolate has disappeared from the lives of most Catholics—along with the practical understanding of complementarity among the roles of the different members of the mystical body of Christ. It is only common sense that most of us laypeople are best equipped to fulfill our vocations primarily in the places where we live and work. It is because we are present in all the secular occupations that the Vatican II fathers emphasized our “special task” to take a more active part, according to our talents and knowledge, in the explanation and defense of Christian principles and in the application of them to the problems of our times. John Paul II elaborated on that theme in Christifideles Laici, pointing out that this will be possible in secularized societies only “if the lay faithful will know how to overcome in themselves the separation of the gospel from life, to again take up in their daily activities in family, work, and society an integrated approach to life that is fully brought about by the inspiration and strength of the gospel.” Those are the main messages of all those letters that most of us have not read or answered. And those are the messages that are notably absent from the statements of spokespersons for the lay groups that have formed over the past few months.

As memories of the lived experience of lay apostolate faded, the lay ministry expanded in the post-Vatican II years. It is not surprising, therefore, that many Catholics came to believe that the principal way to be active as Catholics is to participate in the internal life of the Church. Those who began clamoring for more such participation in 2002 seem unaware that they are battering on an open door. The Church has long been beseeching lay men and women to come forward and assume positions at all levels. No one should complain, however, if bishops and priests are reluctant to give posts of responsibility to dissenters who want to use such positions to change basic church teachings. No good shepherd will invite wolves to look after his flock.

Needless to say, the Church will need to undertake far-reaching reforms in order to move beyond the present crisis, and many of the recent calls for reform are coming from well-intentioned men and women. Most Catholics are deeply and rightly concerned about the recent revelations of clerical sexual abuse; they want to do something about the havoc wrought by unfaithful priests; and they are grasping at the slogans that are in the air. But slogans about “structural reform” and “power-sharing” did not come from nowhere. Aging members of the generation of failed theories—political, economic, and sexual—have seized on the current crisis as their last opportunity to transform American Catholicism into something more compatible with the spirit of the age of their youth. It is, as Michael Novak puts it, their last chance to rush the wall.

Southern writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy saw where those warped visions could lead American Christianity long before most of the rest of us did. The antihero of O’Connor’s Wise Blood sets himself up as a preacher of the Church of Christ Without Christ. Percy’s 1971 novel, Love in the Ruins, is set in some not-too-distant future when the American Catholic Church has split into three pieces: the patriotic Catholic Church with headquarters in Cicero, Illinois, where “The Star Spangled Banner” is played at the elevation of the Host; the Dutch Reformed Catholic Church founded by several priests and nuns who left to get married; and “the Roman Catholic remnant, a tiny scattered flock with no place to go.” While matters happily have not reached that point, it is noteworthy that the two most salient themes of self-appointed lay spokespersons during the 2002 crisis have been in those directions: the desire for a more American Church free of hierarchical authority, and the desire for a do-it-yourself magisterium free of hard teachings regarding sex and marriage.

Meanwhile, like Paul of old, John Paul II keeps sending those pesky letters reminding what he generously calls the faithful that Christians must not conform to the spirit of the age, but must seek to do what is good, pleasing, and perfect in the sight of God. For the umpteenth time, he explains that “it is not a matter of inventing a ‘new program.’ The program already exists: it is the plan found in the gospel and in the living Tradition; it is the same as ever.” One might think those messages would at least be picked up and amplified by those Catholics whose profession it is to figure out how to mediate the truths that are “ever ancient and ever new” under changing social conditions. But the fact is that far too many American Catholic theologians, trained in nondenominational divinity schools, have received little grounding in their own tradition. Far too many religious education materials are infused with the anger and disappointments of former priests and sisters who went to work in religious publishing because their training suited them for little else. And far too many bishops and priests have ceased to preach the Word of God in its unexpurgated fullness, including the teachings that are most difficult to follow in a hedonistic and materialistic society.

Derelictions on the part of so many habladors have left far too many parents poorly equipped to contend with powerful competitors for the souls of their children—the aggressively secular government schools and an entertainment industry that revels in debasing everything Catholic. I do not mean to suggest that failures of theologians, religious educators, bishops, and priests excuse the lapses of the laity. What I do mean to suggest is that we are in the midst of a full-blown formation crisis.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus has said that the crisis of the Catholic Church in 2002 is threefold: fidelity, fidelity, and fidelity. He is right to stress that lack of fidelity has brought the Church in America to a sorry pass. But it also needs to be said that we are paying the price for another three-dimensional disaster: formation, formation, and formation (formation of our theologians, of our religious educators, and thus of parents).

The wordsmiths of the culture of death have been quick to exploit that weakness in the Church that has consistently been their most feared and powerful enemy. Thirty or so years ago, they came up with one of the most insidious slogans ever invented: “Personally, I’m opposed to (fill-in-the-blank), but I can’t impose my opinions on others.” That slogan was the moral anesthesia they offered to people who are troubled about moral decline, but who do not know quite how to express their views, especially in public settings. Only in recent years have some Catholics, Protestants, and Jews stepped forward to point out that when citizens in a democratic republic advance religiously grounded moral viewpoints in the public square, they are not imposing anything on anyone. They are proposing. That is what is supposed to happen in our form of government—citizens propose, they give reasons, they deliberate, they vote. It is a sinister doctrine that would silence only those moral viewpoints that are religiously based. But the anesthesia was very effective in silencing the witness of countless good men and women. And of course the slogan was a bonanza for cowardly and unprincipled politicians.

At this point, a person aware that faith illiteracy has always been common might ask, “What’s so urgent about formation now?” The answer is that poor formation presents a special danger in a society like ours where Catholics have lost most of their old support networks, and where education in other areas is relatively advanced. If religious education falls short of the general level of secular education, Christians run into trouble defending their beliefs—even to themselves. They are apt to feel helpless when they come up against the secularism and relativism that are so pervasive in the general culture.

It is ironic, given their rich intellectual heritage, that so many Catholics feel unable to respond even to the simplistic forms of secular fundamentalism that are prevalent among America’s semi-skilled knowledge class. Traditionally, it has been one of the glories of their faith that Catholics can give reasons for the moral positions they hold—reasons that are accessible to all men and women of good will, of other faiths or of no faith. Long ago, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “Instruct those who are listening so that they will be brought to an understanding of the truth envisaged. Here one must rely on arguments which probe the root of truth and make people know how what is said is true; otherwise, if the master decides a question simply by using sheer authorities, the hearer will . . . acquire no knowledge or understanding and will go away empty.” St. Thomas inspired Bartolomeo de las Casas, who denounced slavery and proclaimed the full humanity of aboriginal peoples in the sixteenth century, without direct reliance on Revelation. And Princeton’s Robert George does the same today, in his philosophical defense of human life from conception to natural death. Recently, Dr. John Haas, the President of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, met with a well-known scientist who is engaged in human cloning. In the course of that meeting, the researcher told Dr. Haas that he had been raised an evangelical Protestant, but that at a certain point, “I knew I had to make a choice between religion and science, and I chose science.” Dr. Haas’ response, of course, was, “But you don’t have to choose,” and, like the good evangelist that he is, he began to expound the teaching of Fides et Ratio. A meeting that was supposed to last thirty minutes went on for hours.

John Paul II urges Catholics to emulate such examples when he says in Novo Millennio Ineunte: “For Christian witness to be effective, especially in . . . delicate and controversial areas, it is important that special effort be made to explain properly the reasons for the Church’s position, stressing that this is not a case of imposing on nonbelievers a vision based on faith, but of interpreting and defending the values rooted in the very nature of the human person.” To explain the reasons, however, means that one must know the reasons. “Be not afraid” does not mean “Be not prepared.”

The time is overdue for Catholics (not only in America) to recognize that we have neglected our stewardship duties toward the intellectual heritage that we hold in trust for future generations. The question of why we have failed to keep that tradition abreast of the best human and natural science of our times—as St. Thomas did in his day—would be a subject for another occasion. Suffice it to note here that, in the twentieth century, that was the project of Bernard Lonergan and others, but the job has had few takers. Andrew Greeley’s diagnosis is harsh: “American Catholicism,” he says, “did not try intellectualism and find it wanting; it rather found intellectualism hard and decided not to try it.”

Perhaps Greeley is too severe, but it is hard to disagree with theologian Frederick Lawrence when he says that “the Church’s current activity in the educational sphere is not making sufficiently manifest how the basic thrust of Catholic Christianity is in harmony with full-fledged intellectualism, let alone that intellectual life is integral to the Church’s mission.” Lawrence goes on to say, “The Church today needs to proclaim loud and clear that understanding the natural order of the cosmos in the human and subhuman sciences, and in philosophy and theology, is part of appreciating God’s cosmic Word expressed in creation. It is part and parcel of the fullness of the Catholic mind and heart.”

American Catholics need to rededicate themselves to the intellectual apostolate, not only for the sake of the Church’s mission, but for the sake of a country that has become dangerously careless about the moral foundations on which our freedoms depend. Tocqueville was right that Catholicism can be good for American democracy, but that can only happen if Catholicism is true to itself.

Is it possible that the scandal-induced surge of lay activity in 2002 foreshadows a season of authentic reform and renewal? If one is hopeful, one can discern here and there some encouraging signs. A number of newly formed lay associations, for example, are said to be forming study groups to read church documents, encyclicals, and the Catechism. The most promising sign of better times ahead, however, is the growing generation of unapologetically Catholic young people, including many young priests, who have been inspired by the heroic life and teachings of John Paul II.

Meanwhile, the world as we know it is still passing away. The demographic landscape of the United States is once again being transformed by immigration, this time mainly from the South. The vast majority of these newcomers have been formed in the Catholic cultures of Central and South America and the Caribbean. True, many of them have lost their story, but even so, they tend to have a Catholic way of imagining the real, of looking at the human person and society. At present rates, the United States will soon be the country with the third largest Catholic population in the world, after Brazil and Mexico. In the spring of 2002, while members of Boston’s Voice of the Faithful were debating about church finances and governance, Boston’s Latino Catholics were holding prayer vigils to affirm the solidarity of all the members of the mystical body of Christ—men and women, rich and poor, clergy and laity, and, yes, victims and abusers.

Wherever the sons and daughters of the American Catholic diaspora are to be found, one thing is certain. The people-called-together are searching for the stories that will help them make sense of their lives. The woman on the bus who pores over the astrological chart in the morning paper is looking for meaning. The professor worshiping this or that ideological idol is looking for a creed to live by and for. The opinion polls telling us that most Americans believe the country is in a moral decline, yet do not feel they can “impose” their morality on others, testify to the confusion that afflicts good people in times when “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

What if the scattered Catholic faithful were to remember and embrace the heritage that is rightly theirs? What if they were to rediscover the newness of their faith and its power to judge the prevailing culture? What an awakening that would be for the sleeping giant! As John Paul II likes to tell young people: “If you are what you should be—that is if you live Christianity without compromise—you will set the world ablaze!”

Is it fanciful to think that the people-called-together could rediscover the dynamic newness of their faith in their dispersed condition? Members of the Church’s great lay organizations around the world do not think so. Even as mobility has sapped the vitality of many parishes, there has been a great upsurge—mostly outside the U.S. thus far—of lay associations, formation programs, and ecclesial movements. These groups, so varied in their charisms, so rich in storytellers, are providing a way for Catholics to stay in touch with each other and with their tradition under diaspora conditions. John Paul II has recognized the remarkable accomplishments of these groups in the area of formation, and has urged his brother bishops and priests to take full advantage of the potential they afford for personal and ecclesial renewal.

Until recently, like most American Catholics, I was relatively unaware of the extent and variety of these movements. It was only through serving on the Pontifical Council for the Laity that I came to know groups like Communion and Liberation, the Community of St. Egidio, Focolare, the Neo-Catechumenate Way, Opus Dei, and Regnum Christi, and became acquainted with many of their leaders and members. What a contrast between these groups that work in harmony with the Church and organizations that define their aims in terms of power! It is no surprise that the more faithful and vibrant the great lay organizations are, the more they are vilified by dissenters and anti-Catholics. But attacks do not seem to trouble them, for they know who they are and where they are going.

Finally, one of the great blessings of having a papacy and a magisterium is that they help to assure that the story of the people-called-together will be preserved, even in the most trying times. In Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, an outsider comes to the dispersed Machiguengas, a man who loves the people-who-walk and their stories so much that he becomes their hablador. He is often on the road, traveling from family to family, bringing news from one place to the next, “reminding each member of the tribe that the others are alive, that despite the great distances that [separate] them, they still [form] a community, [share] a tradition and beliefs, ancestors, misfortunes, and joys.” Among the many reasons to rejoice in the long pontificate of John Paul II is that, like the greatest of habladors, he has kept the story of his people radiantly alive, carrying it to every corner of the earth in one of humanity’s darkest times.

Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University and a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

Image by Sébastien Bertrand licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.