The duties of the layman in evil days

“Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains …  some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

These are relatively miserable times from a Catholic point of view. Tolkien’s “long defeat” is beginning to look like a rout. But such impressions are almost by definition illusory. The Church is sent into the world to gather into one the scattered children of God. To collect like a dragnet men of every tribe and tongue and people and nation. It is for God to throw back the bad fish and gather in the good. Everyone He intended to gather in shall be gathered in. We need not fear. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). “Fear not, little flock, for it hath pleased your Father to give you a kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

What we should fear is that we ourselves might be thrown back for not playing our part in His purposes as adopted sons but merely as hired men. It is the mark of the trueborn son that He freely assumes the form of a slave to the glory of His Father and of the false son that he squanders his substance on riotous living. As St Paul says, “I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway”(1 Cor 9:27), and a “necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16); all of which is to say that, if we do our part and pray and hope, we have nothing to fear.

The temporal triumph of the Church is a pleasant side effect and nothing that we seek for its own sake. And, like many a pleasant side effect, it brings temptations of its own. But surely this pleasant side effect is the natural concomitant of our doing our duty and its absence is a sign that woe is indeed upon us and we may very well be cast away?

Undoubtedly. As St John Henry Newman says, “Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.” The fact that we are not seeing this is a very good sign that churchmen are not going on in their own proper duties, not teaching, not sanctifying and not governing. But what is that to us? If our shepherds are worthy, we must pray God to keep them so; if not, to make them so. It is all one. There is no failure of prelatial duty that can prevent us from doing our duty; at least not in any way that can be held against us.

What is that duty? To be perfect (cf. Matthew 5:48). How is it to be accomplished? Cardinal Newman has a simple formula: 

“If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say: Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; Give your first thoughts to God; Make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; Say the Angelus devoutly; Eat and drink to God’s glory; Say the Rosary well; Be recollected; Keep out bad thoughts; Make your evening meditation well; Examine yourself daily; Go to bed in good time. And you are already perfect.”

Josemaría Escriva has a pleasing reflection on the opportunity afforded by the alarm clock to begin one’s day with an act of heroic virtue. “The heroic minute. It is the time fixed for getting up. Without hesitation: a supernatural reflection and… up! The heroic minute: here you have a mortification that strengthens your will and does no harm to your body.”

This is all very well but surely, we are supposed to be conquering the world for Christ? Did not Vatican II itself say, “the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives, is so much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be performed properly by others”? Surely, getting out of bed on time and saying the Rosary cannot suffice in and of itself? Certainly, the idea that we might infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the communities in which we live seems very remote today. And yet, it would have seemed remote in Leo XIII’s day, when Masons reigned in every government and the pope was the prisoner of the Vatican. And his remedy was also the Rosary. And for the better part of eighty years, it prevailed, until his wisdom was forgotten. The Church did experience temporal triumph and those temptations came and we fell for them. 

The joyful mysteries, Leo XIII reminded us, teach us to value the simplicity of a holy family life, the sorrowful that the days of our years are labour and sorrow, the glorious that we seek the city that is above. Padre Pio called the Rosary “my weapon” and Pius XII called it “David’s sling”. “For our wrestling”, St Paul teaches, “is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”

“We do not hesitate to affirm again publicly that We put great confidence in the Holy Rosary for the healing of evils which afflict our times. Not with force, not with arms, not with human power, but with Divine help obtained through the means of this prayer, strong like David with his sling, the Church undaunted shall be able to confront the infernal enemy, repeating to him the words of the young shepherd: ‘Thou comest to me with a sword, and a spear, and with a shield; but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of armies … and all this assembly shall know that the Lord saveth not with sword and spear, for this is his battle, and he will deliver you into our hands’ (I Samuel 17, 45-47).”

Pius XII, Ingruentium malorum (1951) §15

But surely even this alarm clock heeding, Rosary praying, Blessed Sacrament visiting, angelus observing, conscience examining, temperate, recollected, meditative laity must just occasionally “give a reason for the hope that is in them” (1 Peter 3:15). Indeed, as a wise priest once observed, “St Francis is falsely alleged to have said, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words.'” But as anyone who imagines he will be converting people by his works is going to hell for presumption, you had better start preaching.” Does Cardinal Newman have any advice for that moment? He does:

“I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity; I am not denying you are such already: but I mean to be severe, and, as some would say, exorbitant in my demands, I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism, and where lie the main inconsistencies and absurdities of the Protestant theory. I have no apprehension you will be the worse Catholics for familiarity with these subjects, provided you cherish a vivid sense of God above, and keep in mind that you have souls to be judged and to be saved.”

There are theories a lot more absurd than Protestantism stalking the land these days, which make our task at once easier and harder. But if we put on the full armour of God, shoulder the shield of faith and take in hand the sword of the spirit that is the word of God then, as St Dominic told St Francis, so long as we “stand together … no foe shall prevail against us”.