The Universal Call to Holiness: The Antidote to Clericalism

You don’t have to be a priest, nun or monk to be a Saint. We need Saints who are homemakers, construction workers, and even lawyers.

Today is the feast day of St. Josemaria, Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, and one of my favorite Saints. He helped sound a vitally important wakeup call within the Church, reminding us that holiness isn’t the province of a few, but the call of all people. Here’s a post that I wrote for Word on Fire today, explaining why I think St. Josemaria’s spirituality is so important to the Church in the modern world:

Today is the feast day of St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei. St. Josemaria is a Saint very near to my own heart, for several reasons. The earliest posts on my own blog arose from retreat notes that I took on an Opus Dei silent retreat. When I was first discerning that God might be calling me to the priesthood, my spiritual director was an Opus Dei priest, Fr. Arne Panula, who had himself become a priest at the personal urging of then-Msgr. Josemaria Escrivá. Now that I am a seminarian, I find myself indebted to Opus Dei yet again: this fall, I will begin my theological studies at the Opus Dei-run Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, better known as Santa Croce.

One of the most beautiful things about the spirituality of St. Josemaria is his emphasis on “the universal call to holiness,” the vocation of every one of us – priests, religious, and laity alike – to become Saints. This radical wake-up call to the Church, clearly reflected in Chapter V of Lumen Gentium, bodes one of the most critical doctrinal developments of the modern Church. It also serves as a powerful correction to the danger of clericalism.

The Problem of Clericalism

In April of 1867, Msgr. George Talbot was furious. A popular English priest, an Anglican convert by the name of Fr. John Henry Newman, had published a work entitled On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, taking a high view of the role of the laity in the Church. In response, Msgr. Talbot penned an outraged letter to Archbishop Manning, breathlessly decrying Newman’s position, while providing his own view on the matter:

What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain? These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all, and this affair of Newman is a matter purely ecclesiastical […] Dr. Newman is the most dangerous man in England, and you will see that he will make use of the laity against your Grace.

In this view, holiness and religious devotion are meant for those in the clergy and “religious life,” not ordinary laymen and laywomen (who are better left to hunting and entertaining). Nor was Msgr. Talbot alone in treating the laity as irrelevant, or even a nuisance, to the Church. Rather, we can find evidence of this clericalism throughout the centuries within the Church.

Broadly speaking, there are two responses to this strand of clericalism, two attempts to assert the legitimacy of the lay vocation: those who (wrongly) seek to clericalize the laity; and those, like St. Josemaria, who (rightly) recognize the uniqueness of lay spirituality.

The False Solution: Clericalizing the Laity

One attempt to combat the clericalism of the Church’s Talbots is to try to break down the walls between clergy and laity. In this view, the solution to the problem of clericalism was for the laity to act more like priests, and the ordained to act less so. Several movements, particularly within the last half century, have reflected such a view. The emphasis has been to get as many laypeople as possible onto the altar – if not by ordaining women, then at least by moving the choir from the choir lofts to the sanctuary, and generally involving as many people as possible to serve as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, lectors, ushers, cantors, sacristans, altar servers, and so on.

On face, this looks like an effective rebuttal to the problem of clericalism, in that it seems to reduce the priest to something of a bit actor within the liturgical action. But beneath the outward appearances, this is really only the other side to the coin, so to speak. The clericalization of the laity reflects the very same clericalism that we find in Msgr. Talbot: a sense that, if one truly seeks holiness, one must serve at the altar. Pope Francis recognized the relationship between these two seemingly-opposite forms of clericalism, stating in a 2011 interview:

We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own disease. And the laity — not all, but many — ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar server than the protagonist of a lay path. We cannot fall into that trap — it is a sinful complicity.

If “full and active participation” requires an ecclesial ministry assisting at the altar in some way, then the vast majority of laypeople are forever doomed to incomplete and inactive participation. There’s simply no way to create enough liturgical roles to give every man, woman, and child a part to play at the altar. So like Msgr. Talbot, the advocates of such a view end up consigning the overwhelming majority of Catholics to second-class spirituality, muddying the theology of the priesthood in the process. Needless to say, such an approach is not a step in the right direction. Fortunately, there is another option.

The True Solution: Discovering an Authentic Lay Spirituality

One of the most prominent opponents of clericalism (and its concomitant disregard for the unique spiritual needs of the laity) was St. Francis de Sales, the great seventeenth century Doctor of the Church. In his famous Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis devoted an entire book to the subject of lay spirituality. This was necessary, he explained, because devotional “practice must be modified according to the strength, the calling, and the duties of each individual”:

I ask you, my child, would it be fitting that a Bishop should seek to lead the solitary life of a Carthusian? And if the father of a family were as regardless in making provision for the future as a Capucin, if the artisan spent the day in church like a Religious, if the Religious involved himself in all manner of business on his neighbour’s behalf as a Bishop is called upon to do, would not such a devotion be ridiculous, ill-regulated, and intolerable? [….]

It is an error, nay more, a very heresy, to seek to banish the devout life from the soldier’s guardroom, the mechanic’s workshop, the prince’s court, or the domestic hearth. Of course a purely contemplative devotion, such as is specially proper to the religious and monastic life, cannot be practised in these outer vocations, but there are various other kinds of devotion well-suited to lead those whose calling is secular, along the paths of perfection.

After all, Francis noted, the Bible is replete with holy laypeople like Abraham and Sarah, workers like St. Joseph, and examples of “household devotion”  like Aquila and Priscilla. This is at once a repudiation of the clericalism of Talbot and the attempts to clericalize the laity. And it is this great tradition of cultivating an authentic lay spirituality that Blessed John Henry Newman continued into the nineteenth century, and St. Josemaria carried into the twentieth.

But while de Sales, Newman, and others had begun to explore the realm of lay spirituality, St. Josemaria Escrivá recognized that it remained underdeveloped. It was in response to this that he founded the Prelature of Opus Dei (and eventually, the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, an association of Catholic diocesan priests supporting the mission of Opus Dei).

The entire mission of Opus Dei centers around cultivating and developing an authentic lay spirituality and ecclesiology. Escrivá described the role of the spirituality and activity of Opus Dei as advancing “the theological and vital process which is bringing the laity to assume its responsibilities in the Church fully, and to participate in its own way in the mission of Christ and his Church.” He was heartened to see “aspects of this process of ecclesiological development which represent quite significant doctrinal enrichment,” but was quick to acknowledge that these developments “may be long in becoming incorporated into the life of the whole People of God.”

What might these developments look like? St. Josemaria gave several examples:

the development of an authentic lay spirituality; the understanding of the layman’s proper and specific role in the Church, a role which is neither ecclesiastical nor official; the clarification of the rights and duties which the layman has by virtue of being a layman; the relations between hierarchy and laity; the equality and dignity of the complementary, not contrary, tasks which men and women have in the Church; the need to achieve an orderly public opinion in the People of God, and so forth.

One way that St. Josemaria responded to the unique spiritual needs of the laity was by the creation of several works – most famously, the Way, the Furrow, and the Forge – in which he described the need to sanctify the home, the market, and the workplace. Even the structure of these works shows a sensitivity to the business of his audience: instead of lengthy theological treatises, Josemaria’s style incorporates short meditation and exhortations, many of which are excerpted from conversations or homilies, and few of which are more than a paragraph. So, for example, consider one of his many exhortations for us to take seriously the universal call to holiness:

It is we, men walking in the street, ordinary Christians immersed in the blood-stream of society, whom Our Lord wants to be saints and apostles, in the very midst of our professional work; that is, sanctifying our job in life, sanctifying ourselves in it and, through it, helping others to sanctify themselves as well. Be convinced that it is there that God awaits you, with all the love of a Father and Friend. Consider too that, by doing your daily work well and responsibly, not only will you be supporting yourselves financially you will also be contributing in a very direct way to the development of society, you will be relieving the burdens of others and maintaining countless welfare projects, both local and international, on behalf of less privileged individuals and countries.

This, then, is what the laity are called to: not to ignore the need for sanctity, or treat it as the special province of the ordained, or to pantomime the unique ministry of our priests, but to seek out – in both the large and especially the small parts of each day – the opportunity to sanctify daily life, and to walk ever closer to God.


  1. Hi, I remember really enjoying this article when it was published on Word on Fire and am trying to find it again (the link to the full article is not working). Any help in finding this would be greatly appreciated. God bless/Drew

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