The apostolate is not something reserved to clergy and religious. It never was. Long before Vatican II — which, according to a strange mythology, first asserted the importance of the laity in propagating the Catholic message — Saint Vincent Pallotti made lay folk members of his “Union of the Catholic Apostolate.” And in doing so, he made no claim to originality. Rather, he sought to recapture in his own nineteenth century what had been a mark of the great ages of the Faith.
The right and obligation of the laity to work for the spread of the Catholic faith is given in the Church’s Code of Canon Law:
Can. 225 §1 Since lay people, like all Christ’s faithful, are deputed to the apostolate by baptism and confirmation, they are bound by the general obligation and they have the right, whether as individuals or in associations, to strive so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all people throughout the world. This obligation is all the more insistent in circumstances in which only through them are people able to hear the Gospel and to know Christ.
§2 They have also, according to the condition of each, the special obligation to permeate and perfect the temporal order of things with the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, particularly in conducting secular business and exercising secular functions, they are to give witness to Christ.
Note this sentence: “This obligation is all the more insistent in circumstances in which only through them are people able to hear the Gospel and to know Christ.” The Code does not specify the circumstances that render the laity the only ones capable of making the divine message of salvation known and accepted. It is possible that there could be a materially sufficient number of priests in a given place, but that their own internal “circumstances” make them less than inclined to help people to know Jesus Christ or the Gospel. Perhaps they are too interested in promoting women’s ordination or the “rights” of transgendered acolytes. Modernism has done its damage.
Putting that question aside, it would be good to consider the lay apostolate in itself. If the Catholic faithful have a “general obligation” to promote the faith, how do they do so? What follows is a modest proposal to answer that question. After one of my favorite saints, in whose spirit it was written, I call it, “The Little Way of an Apostle”:
Show the people you want to convert — family, friends, co-workers, etc. — that you care for them. This is done in “little ways” (like St. Thérèse) by showing interest in their interests: their families, jobs, hobbies, joys, sorrows, etc. If what interests them interests you, there is a “communion” established between you. That gives you leverage and credibility, which are invaluable for your task of guiding them into the communion of the saints. If you show people no interest in any tangible way, how do you expect them to think you are interested in their eternal salvation?
Remember to be pleasant and cheerful. Dour, sad people do not attract others. Don’t offend people needlessly. Always be a lady or a gentleman. Remember that your enthusiasm will speak to people of the importance of the Faith. If the Faith is truly important to you, this will show in a variety of ways. Make yourself a “helpful” person by volunteering in different religious and civic organizations (your parish, Boy Scouts, pro-life organizations, etc.). In these contexts, you can help to influence people. Recall that the good example of prayerful Catholic pro-lifers has converted non-Catholics in the movement.
Give good example. Saint Peter himself endorsed this as a means to gaining converts: “Having your conversation good among the Gentiles: that whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by the good works, which they shall behold in you, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).
If you are the mother or father of a family, remember that your family comes first. Living properly the obligations of your state in life is a very effective and practical way to work for a Catholic America — it’s called raising it! Conversely, abandoning the home-base for otherwise noble purposes is sinful and, ultimately, ineffective.
The Soul of the Apostolate
Live a wholesome Catholic spiritual life, fed on the Church’s sacraments and liturgy, the Rosary, spiritual reading, and personal prayer. Ultimately it is holiness you are trying to spread, so work with Our Lord to get it yourself, first. Nemo dat quod non habet. (“No man can give what he does not have.”) Make, renew, and live your Marian Consecration according to the formula of Saint Louis de Montfort (proper preparation is required). Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe also has a good formula for this. You can also consecrate your family to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Pray for the person you are trying to convert. Have Masses said. God is interested in what you are trying to do; He might like to hear about it. Pray for the grace to be a good apostle for the Faith. Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe’s prayer of consecration to Mary has this intention built into it. Pray to the guardian angels of those you’re trying to convert.
Have “conversation starters” all around. Decorate your house with holy images. Do the same with your desk at work. If there is a rule at your place of employment that you can’t have “religious pictures” in your workspace, then make sure your family pictures have religious images (crucifix, Mary statue, etc.) in them. This is known as being wise as serpents.
Carry around and hand out Miraculous Medals. Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe called these his “bullets.” Remember the story of Alphonse Ratisbonne’s conversion via the Miraculous Medal. You can even leave them with the tip at a restaurant. And make sure it is a decent tip!
With the knowledge you have of your would-be convert — remember, you’re interested in him, right? — offer him articles on his interests from Catholic sources. (E.g.: “Tom, I know you like U.S. History. Here’s a good article on the diplomat who secured peace with Sitting Bull.” and hand him something on Father De Smet.) Keep Catholic tracts and/or booklets with you. Hand them out when the occasion arises. (For those who have to be wise as serpents at your workplace, “accidentally” letting these fall out of your briefcase or remain open on your desk can help.)
Be a “public Catholic.” That is, say grace before meals (crossing yourself!), and do other visible acts of Faith in a non-pompous manner. Your car can be Catholic, too, in a tasteful way, with a Rosary hanging in the right place, a mini-statue on the dash, and even a side-or rear window holy picture. Always show reverence for the Holy Name of Jesus. Bow your head when it is said. Do that and say “Blessed be God” if someone uses the Sacred Name irreverently.
When someone tells you about his problems, promise him your prayers. You can even have a Mass said. This is a way to show (and act upon) your concern for that individual. In his mind, this will connect your Faith to your practical charity for that person. Chances are, the person you are speaking with has a Christian name. Tell him about his patron saint. (If there are multiple candidates — e.g., which Saint Andrew? — pick one for him!) You can direct him to a good book on the saint, and encourage him to pray to his patron.
Put Catholic messages on your mail, e.g., “Saint Anthony Guide.” Send emails recommending particular articles on good Catholic web sites. “Frank, we were talking about the saint you’re named after the other day. Here’s a good article about him on the web.” If you use Facebook, post good articles and Catholic “status messages” on your wall. If you read the local paper and see good letters to the editor on hot-button moral issues, send the letter-writer a personal note with kudos and a recommendation to read something Catholic on the same issue (e.g., pro-life, pro-family).
Always study the Faith. Your studies, however modest, will inform your conversations about the Faith, and make you a better apostle. If you organize a study circle — a very good personal apostolate — you can invite people to learn in a group setting.
“My brethren, if any of you err from the truth, and one convert him: He must know that he who causeth a sinner to be converted from the error of his way, shall save his soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).
Catholic faithful! You have your mandate, and that from the Church’s highest authority. Learn the faith and pass it on.