The final installment of “Louise de Marillac, Formator of the Laity” by Sister Maria Angeles Infante Barrera, DC focuses on questions and challenges for the Vincentian Family today. (See end for table of contents to entier article.)
We have reflected on Louise de Marillac as the formator of the laity so that we might learn from her how to respond to the challenges that the Church presents to us in the twenty-first century. The Second Vatican Council invites us to be aware of what occurred at the beginning of the Christian era . The majority of the followers of Jesus who converted to Christianity were lay people. The deacons and deaconesses who are referred to in the Acts were formed by the apostles and their successors. Monasticism and religious life did not appear as such until the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth century.
From the perspectives of fidelity to the origins of CHristianity
The first Christian catechists and the first servants of charity were lay men and women. The first martyrs of the church were also lay people. Paul’s letters and the Acts of the Apostles speak very clearly about the commitment of Prisca and Aquila, a married couple. Paul reminds us that all the Gentile communities are indebted to them (Romans 16:4). We know that they were exiled from Rome during the persecution that occurred during the reign of Claudius … they then took up residence in Corinth and worked as tent makers (the same work as Paul). They welcomed Paul as a guest in their house. We also know that they accompanied Paul in his mission to Ephesus and they were the founders of the Church in that city. This risked their own lives in order to save Paul and offered their house as a place for the members of the new church to gather … they catechized the great apostle, Apollo and both Saint Paul and Saint Luke considered this couple to be extraordinary missionaries.
The role of the laity did not come to an end with the conclusion of the New Testament. Lay men and women have had an important influence on many of the great spiritual movements that have taken place in the history of the Church. In the third and fourth centuries the majority of the desert fathers and mothers were lay persons. In the mystical tradition of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries many lay women, such as Julian of Norwich , played an important role. We also remember that in Saint Vincent’s time Madame Acarie, a mother of six children, was one of the most sought after persons as a spiritual guide.
The Second Vatican Council reminds us that from the very beginning of Christianity, all people are called to participate in the mission of the Church: The Church was founded for the purpose of spreading the kingdom of Christ throughout the earth for the glory of God the Father, to enable all men to share in His saving redemption, and that through them the whole world might enter into a relationship with Christ. All activity of the Mystical Body directed to the attainment of this goal is called the apostolate, which the Church carries on in various ways through all her members. For the Christian vocation by its very nature is also a vocation to the apostolate. No part of the structure of a living body is merely passive but has a share in the functions as well as life of the body: so, too, in the body of Christ, which is the Church, “the whole body . . . in keeping with the proper activity of each part, derives its increase from its own internal development” [Ephesians 4:16] (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #2).
From the perspective of fidelity to the magisterium of the Second Vatican Council
With good reason the decree of the Second Vatican Council on the laity, Apostolicam Actuositate, has been called the Magna Carter of the lay apostolate. This decree gathers together the teachings of the Popes and the bishops during the forty years prior to the Council … a time when the lay apostolate was organized and developed in the Church in multiple manners. The Council made it clear that there was a need to make all those who are baptized (hierarchy and the people of God) realize and become convinced of the fact that the lay apostolate is a right that flows from their baptism and from their profession of the Christian faith.
The six chapters of this decree present the important themes that we should be mindful of as we engage in the process of lay formation:
I.] The lay apostolate and lay spirituality — emphasis is given to the need for a solid spirituality which is nourished by personal prayer and participation in the Church’s liturgy … a spirituality that is expressed by the habitual practice of faith, hope and charity. Christian laymen and laywomen should view Mary as the Model for their spiritual life and apostolate.
II.] The objectives of the lay apostolate are — to contribute to the restoration of the temporal order in accord with Christ’s message and the demands of justice and charity. This restoration should be reflected in the culture, the economy, politics, the arts and all the other temporal realities, thus resisting the temptation to resort to some kind of idolatry of the temporal (#7).
III.] The various areas of the lay apostolate — the family, youth, the social environment and all that is involved in the present complex situation … here these realities are viewed on a national as well as an international level.
IV.] Diverse forms of the lay apostolate — here the document refers to the example of individual persons as well as the example of the community. It is clear that the Council is concerned with the apostolate that is done by people working together as a group/team. It is important to present here the call that is referred to in #19 of this document: Maintaining the proper relationship to Church authorities, the laity have the right to found and control such associations and to join those already existing. Yet the dispersion of efforts must be avoided.
V.] Order to be observed in the lay apostolate — first, the various forms of the apostolate should be coordinated; there should also be mutual esteem thus eliminating every form of destructive rivalry … this section of the document also refers to the relationship with the hierarchy and with the clergy and religious (and their role in encouraging the spiritual development of the laity), the participation of the laity in parish and diocesan councils (councils that deal with the family, youth, charitable and social matters), collaboration between Christians and non-Catholics. The Council also asked for the creation of an international council on the laity that would promote the lay apostolate .
VI.] Formation for the lay apostolate — here a request is made for special formation so that the laity might actively engage in the apostolate. I have given more emphasis to this point since this is the specific theme of this conference. This special formation certainly means that we provide the laity with an integral human formation that is accommodated to their specific situation. The laity ought to be aware of the situation of the contemporary world and therefore ought to be prepared to minister in the midst of the present society and culture. The lay person should learn especially how to perform the mission of Christ and the Church by basing his life on belief in the divine mystery of creation and redemption and by being sensitive to the movement of the Holy Spirit who gives life to the people of God and who urges all to love God the Father as well as the world and men in Him. This formation should be deemed the basis and condition for every successful apostolate (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #29). The sixth chapter of this document insists on the need to provide the laity with a biblical, moral and social formation that is in accord with the magisterium of the Church, especially in those doctrinal matters that might be called into question.
With regard to formation for the apostolate of charity, a ministry, which as Vincentians, directly involves us, the following is asked: Since the works of charity and mercy express the most striking testimony of the Christian life, apostolic formation should lead also to the performance of these works so that the faithful may learn from childhood on to have compassion for their brethren and to be generous in helping those in need (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #31).
When speaking about those who should form the laity for the apostolate, the decree refers to the Christian family, the parish community and schools. It states: Schools, colleges, and other Catholic educational institutions also have the duty to develop a Catholic sense and apostolic activity in young persons. If young people lack this formation either because they do not attend these schools or because of any other reason, all the more should parents, pastors of souls, and apostolic organizations attend to it. Teachers and educators on the other hand, who carry on a distinguished form of the apostolate of the laity by their vocation and office, should be equipped with that learning and pedagogical skill that are needed for imparting such education effectively (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #30). Here we are presented with an urgent need, a need that also confronts us with a very real challenge.
This challenge, however, does not exclude the need for the on-going formation of the members of the various branches of the Vincentian Family: lay groups and associations dedicated to the apostolate or other supernatural goals, should carefully and assiduously promote formation for the apostolate in keeping with their purpose and condition. Frequently these groups are the ordinary vehicle for harmonious formation for the apostolate inasmuch as they provide doctrinal, spiritual, and practical formation. Their members meet in small groups with their associates or friends, examine the methods and results of their apostolic activity, and compare their daily way of life with the Gospel (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #30).
As sons and daughters of the Church we have to respond to these urgent calls that have been repeated by both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. We need to form ourselves in order to form others and we also must be convinced of this ministry so that, like Louise, we dedicate our time and our physical and spiritual energy to this urgent task.
From the perspective of fidelity to the teaching of the Superior General
With complete objectivity and truthfulness I believe that the Superior General who has given us the best understanding of this theme is Father Robert Maloney (1992-2004). He has often called us to collaborate in the formation of lay Vincentians. He has sensitized us and encouraged us to work together as a Vincentian Family, struggling to combat poverty with the richness of our charism. On several occasions he has stated that the work of lay formation is a question of being faithful to Saint Vincent and Saint Louise and not simply a matter of necessity that is demanded by the reality of the present time. He expressed these ideas in an article that was published in Vincentiana: In the wake of Vatican II, with a heightened consciousness of the mission of the laity and of the need for developing a variety of lay ministries, the Assembly saw this new statement of our purpose as an organic development of St. Vincent’s original founding insight. He himself had wanted to gather young and old, rich and poor, clergy and laity, men and women “to lead them to a fuller participation in the evangelization of the poor. ”
In the same article Father Maloney offers ten characteristics that should mark one who is a Vincentian formator:  deeply rooted in the person of Jesus; fully immersed in the Vincentian charism;  in contact with the world of the poor;  capable of being a guide on the spiritual journey;  a good listener;  a good communicator, skilled in using contemporary means for engaging others in the formation process;  knowledgeable about the social teaching of the Church;  capable of relating and working as a member of a team and of cooperating with others as a team member;  in touch with the various groups in our Vincentian Family;  truly missionary .
Father Maloney also presents the profile of Vincentian lay persons living and ministering in the twenty-first century. This profile is distinguished by the following characteristics:  they will be profound lay;  they will be profoundly Vincentian;  they will be well-educated;  they will be well formed;  they will be in live contact with the world of the poor;  they will be electronically connected;  they will have knowledge about the Social Teaching of the Church;  they will be a team player;  they will be multi-racial;  they will be truly missionary .
The challenge is very clear and now we are the ones who must respond … Louise de Marillac faithfully fulfilled her role as a good formator and she did this in accord with the circumstances of her time. She teaches us and she also has opened the door for us …
From the perspective of the present reality
Mindful of what we have already stated and understanding the fact that we live in a world that continually creates new forms of poverty, Saint Louise invites us to learn how to accept the Church’s call with regard to lay formation. This is easy and it is within our reach: to dedicate some of our time so that we, like Louise, can collaborate in the formation of lay Vincentians.
Louise, a faithful daughter of the Church, invites us today, here and now, to internalize the objectives proposed by the Second Vatican Council in the decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #30):
• To carefully and assiduously promote formation for the apostolate of the Vincentian laity and to do this in keeping with their purpose and condition;
•To plan and offer doctrinal formation that is in accord with the magisterium of the Church and to also provide the members with a biblical and liturgical formation that nourishes the members’ spiritual life and their specific charitable commitment toward those most in need;
•The members shall meet in small groups with their associates or friends, to examine and evaluate the methods and results of their apostolic activity, and compare their daily way of life with the Gospel. (Apostolican Actuositatem, an adaptation of #30).
As we listen to our Superior Generals we are also invited to take up the challenge involved in systemic change:
To put into practice the principles of systemic change through a process of internalization and participation in service projects that reveals our sense of being missionaries.
All of this means that we be communities that take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to us; that we be people who are willing and able to respond to the call; that we be spiritual people who live in deep communion with Christ and the Church and the poor; that we clothe ourselves in the Vincentian charism; that we be filled with apostolic zeal and enthusiasm and allow our actions to speak louder than our words and thus communicate joy and hope as we serve those persons who are poor.
I hope that the Holy Spirit will guide us and give us the necessary strength to respond to these challenges. This is not a problem of being advanced in years but rather a problem of “lacking fire” that results in a hesitant response to the call of God’s love.
- 1 Introduction and background
- 2 Louise’s preparation for formation (1626-1629)
- 3 The formator sent on mission (1629)
- 4 Offering a solid gospel spirituality
- 5 Questions and challenges for the Vincentian Family today
- 6 Footnotes